Canada Imports "School Choice" Ideology

Across our northern border, a battle is raging over race and education. The Toronto District School Board has approved a plan to create an Afrocentric high school for black students, set to open in 2009. Many black community activists overcame initial reservations about racial separation to support the idea; in Canada as in the United States, there is an intractably high drop-out rate among black students, although up north, the majority of blacks are descendents of Caribbean immigrants, not slaves. In Toronto, 40 percent of black Caribbean youth never graduate high school. Parents and advocates rightly argue that radical action is needed.

But the Toronto school board's split 11-9 decision in late January to move forward with the plan reflects what has become an increasingly divisive political fight. A February poll found that only 15 percent of Ontarians support the school, and 79 percent are opposed. The province's premier, Dalton McGuinty, has said he dislikes the idea and will not funnel extra funding to the project. Canada's most influential newspaper, The Globe and Mail, has repeatedly editorialized against the school, likening its philosophy to that of Jim Crow era segregation. Last month readers and activists criticized the paper for publishing a cartoon called "Afrocentric Algebra," which depicted a black male teacher leading a math lesson by saying to his students, "S'up dog?" Some of the math equations on the chalkboard behind the teacher were solved incorrectly.

Undoubtedly, Canadians are far from immune to the combustible racial discussions with which Americans are so familiar. But what's strange about the Afrocentric education controversy is the way in which Canadian media have, almost without realizing it, absorbed the twists and turns of the American "school choice" debate, some of them ideologically-motivated and intellectually dishonest.

In January, for example, Canadian newspapers and television networks reported on a pro-Afrocentric-schools lecture by former Milwaukee public schools superintendent Howard Fuller in front of the conservative Economic Club of Toronto. Milwaukee is the location of the largest private school voucher program ever enacted. Currently, over 17,000 students there, the great majority of them low-income African Americans, participate in the program. "The fact of the matter is that you already have separation," said Fuller, who is black. "Poor people in Toronto are not swimming in the mainstream." About the Milwaukee voucher program, he claimed, "Thousands of lives have been saved because this program exists."

What Fuller didn't mention is that independent assessments of Milwaukee's voucher program have consistently shown that students attending private schools on the government's dime perform no better academically than socioeconomically similar children in traditional public schools. Furthermore, as millions of Wisconsin dollars have flowed from the public system into the hands of 120 private schools -- 102 of which are religious-affiliated -- private schools have refused to educate many students with special needs. In Milwaukee, the percentage of disabled students in public schools is twice as high as the percentage in the voucher program, putting considerable strain on a public system that has been drained of crucial resources.

It isn't surprising that Fuller, like most conservatives affiliated with the Milwaukee voucher plan, would exaggerate the small successes of the program. (In one study, for example, parents of students in private schools reported slightly higher levels of satisfaction than parents of students in public schools, despite their kids' lack of relative academic gains.) What's unexpected is that Fuller would attempt to graft Milwaukee's highly-controversial voucher experiment onto the Toronto debate over Afrocentric education. Toronto's new school, after all, will be fully public, and won't be part of a larger drive toward privatization. Public school choice and private school voucher programs are two completely different animals.

What's more, while Fuller definitely has experience in managing black-only schools (some of which, he's happy to admit, have been abject failures), that's a far cry from claiming, as some Canadian news reports did, that he is an expert in "Afrocentric" education. Milwaukee schools are all-black not by choice from within the African American community, but because of a particularly poisonous American cocktail of segregated housing patterns and white resistance to integrating schools. How much easier is it for Wisconsin's Republican legislators to support an ineffective voucher program than to admit that the state's schools are segregated and that children of color are receiving a separate and unequal education? Fixing that problem would require solutions far more drastic and costly than shunting kids off to inner city parochial schools, such as district regionalization, busing, opening more magnet schools, and improving teacher education and pay.

So what can American education reform efforts teach Canadians as they consider Afrocentric schooling? Toronto certainly isn't alone in trying Afrocentric education as a way to combat the high dropout rate among black students. In Ossining, New York, the diverse local public school district has been experimenting with African drumming lessons and masculinity support groups for black boys. These activities take place during school-day elective periods or as after school extracurriculars, meaning students are gleaning the benefits of both culturally relevant schooling and the increased tolerance of diversity that researchers have found is inculcated in students of all races who attend integrated schools.

Unfortunately, Afrocentric public education, no matter what its effects on self-esteem, hasn't yet proven successful at raising low income black children's academic achievement. Another argument against such programs -- one that's been made by Ontario's Premier McGuinty -- is that students of all races and ethnicities would benefit from Afrocentric teaching. In Ossining, for example, wouldn't all third graders enjoy lessons in African drumming? In Toronto, teachers have already had success teaching multiracial classes about probability through a lesson on racial profiling. If those creative educators are siphoned off to a black-only school, the rest of the student population will be denied the opportunity to tackle an important sociological issue while learning math in a new and exciting way.

The good news is that with almost 300,000 students, 30 percent of whom are immigrants and over half of whom speak a first language other than English, the Toronto school district is large and diverse enough to encompass multiple experiments in how best to educate at-risk kids. One Afrocentric public school won't rip Canadian integrationist values to shreds, and, if successful, the new program could someday provide educators with innovative examples of how to make school more culturally relevant to students of color. In the meantime, here's hoping the Canadian media and public learn to cast a more critical eye on claims by American education experts that "school choice" is a fix-all.

It is unfortunate that school privatization has become an accepted ideology in the U.S. Take it from us, Canada: You don't want to go there.

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