Bridging the Achievement Gap in Toronto’s Public Schools

Morag Humphrey

With rising income inequality, neighbourhoods across Canada are becoming increasingly polarized along income lines. In Toronto, this trend has effectively divided the city into low- and high-income neighbourhoods; and it would seem that student educational achievement in these neighbourhoods is now reflecting the very same divide.

Studies have shown that, in most cases, the wealth of a Toronto neighbourhood is directly correlated with average student test scores in the area. This means that those schools whose students earn higher average scores on standardized tests are more likely to be located in high-income neighbourhoods than in low-income neighbourhoods.

A 2013 report by People for Education, entitled Mind the Gap: Inequality in Ontario’s Schools, highlighted educational inequality in Ontario. According to the report, children and youth attending low-income schools (schools in less affluent neighbourhoods) have family incomes on average $100,000 less than that of those attending high-income schools. These students are more than two times as likely to be living in a single-parent household, and their parent(s) are less likely to have high school diplomas and/or university degrees. They are also much more likely to be recent immigrants, and five times more likely to be Aboriginal.

Time and time again, fundraising has been pointed to as key to determining access to resources at high-income versus low-income schools. In the case of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), grants are provided to low-income schools in an effort to compensate for their limited fundraising capacities — yet these grants are arguably insufficient to fill the gap. Even after taking into account need-based grants, schools in more affluent neighbourhoods are estimated to fundraise 300 times more money per student than those in low-income neighbourhoods.

To mitigate this apparent discrepancy, some have proposed that public schools pool their fundraising dollars. Pooling of fundraising dollars is a method already underway in some other parts of the world: for example, in Portland, Oregon where schools with greater fundraising capacity keep a share of their fundraised money and the rest is redistributed to schools with less capacity. While some argue that this would be an equitable solution to the fundraising gap currently faced by TDSB schools, others caution against its propensity to encourage less generous donations — i.e. that parents may be less willing to donate money if it may not be going to their own child’s education directly.

In Toronto, public school students are generally required to attend schools in their immediate geographical area (enrolment outside this area is contingent on space available). To the extent that this limits students’ access to higher quality schools, policies aimed at promoting school choice should perhaps be considered instead.

Higher education researchers have spent considerable time assessing the impact of school choice on closing the educational achievement gap. Proponents of the scheme argue that it would grant students access to better quality schools, as well as the ability to select schools based on individual needs. They have also argued that the increased competition resulting from school choice could provide much needed incentives to improve teaching quality. However, a 2012 OECD report cautions against blindly advocating for a policy of “choice.”. The report argues that, as a result of such a policy, student achievement could become contingent on the willingness or ability of parents to send their children to better schools. While parents would certainly need to be provided with the information necessary to make informed choices, their willingness to actually send their child to a higher quality school would have to be balanced against other considerations – such as geographical proximity and socio-economic status.

Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals spoke out against any such policy in 2012, arguing that it would only exacerbate inequality as lower-income families would likely not have the means (in transportation costs, for example) to send children to higher quality schools outside of their local area.

There are a few Canadian jurisdictions where a policy of “choice” has in fact been implemented. The government of British Columbia introduced an ‘open enrolment’ policy in 2012 that gives parents the choice of opting their child out of the neighbourhood school. In a 2015 review of this policy, the C.D Howe Institute found that it led to increased levels of academic skills development (although this impact varied depending on the geographical location of each school). Moreover, the report found that open enrolment “did little to either segregate or integrate Lower Mainland students according to their cultural or ethnic background.”

In considering educational achievement gains in public schools across the province since 2012, the C.D. Howe report concluded that these gains could in fact be directly attributed to the increased competition between schools brought about as a result of the ‘open enrolment’ policy. The benefits of competition gained from school choice would seem to outweigh any negative side-effects.

The divide between low- and high-income neighbourhoods in Toronto is obvious — and it is growing. To the extent that this divide is impacting educational achievement across TSDB public schools, and creating low-income versus high-income schools, children and youth in the city’s schools will only be made worse off. Policy-makers within both the municipal and provincial levels of government should consider how introducing a policy of “choice” similar to that of B.C.’s successful ‘open enrolment’ experiment could help to decrease inequalities by inducing competition in Toronto, and across Ontario more generally.

Morag Humphrey is a 2016 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University, where she completed a double major in Political Science and International Development Studies. Morag’s main areas of interest include municipal politics and social justice.