The slop on our trays

Wait a minute. What’s this? While everyone’s been standing on guard against two-tier health care it turns out we’ve got two-tier education. I want an expensive, restrictive, dysfunctional federal law and I want it now. Now now now.

We cannot delay, for we face a crisis. The Canadian Council on Learning’s 2007 Survey of Canadian Attitudes Toward Learning reports that almost one in three Canadian parents has hired a tutor for their children. And it’s not a matter of helping kids overcome disadvantages. The study says “Families with annual household incomes greater than $100,000 are almost three times more likely (2.9 times more likely) to hire tutors than families making less than $40,000.” Even worse, if anything could be worse than the rich having money, “most parents who hire tutors (73 per cent) estimate that their children’s overall academic performance is in the A or B range.”

How does that cheery Leonard Cohen song go again? “The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/ That’s how it goes/ Everybody knows.” But this is Canada. Here we have universal health care and nobody gets better treatment than anyone else unless they live in a big city, know somebody, are a politician or journalist, can afford to go to the U.S. or buy private catastrophic illness insurance, get to jump the queue thanks to a workers’ compensation board or some such irritating detail. Everybody else gets to wait in the same dingy corridors for the same exhausted ER nurses and doctors, wondering if there’s much C. difficile in this place and when that floor was last mopped.

That’s how it goes. Everybody knows. But what’s the deal with education? I ask, indignantly, because apparently everybody also knows, at least everybody who’s anybody, that we need Early Childhood Development because socioeconomic status is a far stronger predictor of lifetime health than medical care, and success in life depends on the state getting between you and your parents early on. (See for instance the chapter by Robert Evans, Clyde Hertzman and Steve Morgan in the IRPP book A Canadian Priorities Agenda that I wrote about two weeks ago.)

Happily, Ontario’s new old government campaigned on making ours the first province with full-day kindergarten for everyone. And having gotten re-elected, Dalton McGuinty has now even appointed a professor to spend a year trying to figure out how on earth you do that. The premier pontificated to the press that “I’m of the view this is no longer a luxury in a society that lays claim to being progressive and availing itself of all the best pedagogical advice that we can get our hands on.”

I’m personally of the view that it is no longer a luxury to figure out how to do things before promising you’ll do them and winding up scrambling desperately for usable advice. Especially after a newspaper told me the learned professor admits “designing a full-day kindergarten system will require consultations with a ‘huge number of doers and thinkers,’ but declined to discuss many details” except he doubts the half a billion bucks put aside thus far would be enough. On which point Mr. McGuinty confessed fatuously that he “would be surprised” if it were.

In short the premium, I mean the premier, made yet another promise he has no idea how to keep. At least this time he knows it will cost more than he said, which actually is an improvement on his habit of making promises he has no idea how to keep and doesn’t realize are hugely expensive. I guess watching himself in action he detected a pattern. He’s no fool, unlike those who re-elected him. But I digress.

The point is, it may well be that the government can no more give us all good education from cradle to grave than it can give us all good health care over the same period. But if not, it can at least give us all the same bad education and call it happiness. And isn’t that the Canadian way?

Sure, taxing people so heavily that most can’t afford private school, while stifling choice within the public system, is a good start. But it’s not enough. A veritable crisis of private tutoring is upon us. The dream of equality recedes. I demand a federal Canada Education Act that imposes the same rigid, wretched requirements on teachers and schools as the Canada Health Act does on doctors and hospitals.

Oh, and did you know wealthy people are flagrantly buying their kids nicer food, too, and taking them to fancy restaurants? Food matters more even than education, let alone medicine. It’s no longer a luxury in a society that lays claim to being progressive that everyone should eat in a state cafeteria where George Smitherman dumps slop on our trays.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, Health careJohn Robson