Attention, education shoppers

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Capitalism's last stand? Ontario's Education Ministry put up a website for parents this week comparing schools based on standardized test results, socio-economic status etc. It included a shopping cart. The ministry removed the cart in response to some fury but maintained the site.


The odd thing about this approach is it invokes the very articles of free-market economic faith that have now flamed out, without seeming to realize it. The idea is to pressure schools, led by CEO-types, to improve by competing for "consumers," who can compare test results. It also enhances inequality by channelling the education shoppers in terms of income brackets. Yet, a widening social gulf is probably the single most destructive component of the current crisis.

Never mind. "Competition makes for better schools," said a Globe and Mail editorial, without a shred of evidence, since there is none. The U.S. No Child Left Behind program was a model of the mindset, and only 15 per cent of educators there think it improved things. Both presidential candidates were ready to leave it behind. England had the same experience.

"If the quality of public education did not benefit from competition and informed consumer choice, it would be the only consumer good in the universe that didn't," chimed in the National Post. Excuse me, but I thought education was a public and social good, like the environment, democracy or the armed forces. It's not a cellphone. Different considerations apply. Maybe these people should take a civics course, if there are any that weren't chopped to add more time to prep the kids for compulsory math tests.

It is an odd time in history to extol the virtues of unrestrained shopping and markets. Ontario education guru Michael Fullan says England just didn't go far enough, the way free-market dead-enders say that about the economy: Let's push this sucker right over the cliff and see if it bounces back. It's a religious mentality; you can't argue very well with it.

Are there alternate ways to improve schools that clearly work? Uh, yes. Increase parent involvement. Build on local situations. Add libraries, music, art and extracurricular programs that get kids to like coming to school. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty backs the competition juju of his adviser, Michael Fullan. But kids say things like, "If you're not happy and having fun, it's really hard to learn." Listen up, Premier.

Reading Afghanistan: Start with the assumption that governments normally lie and, on foreign policy, almost always. In that case, when Barack Obama says the U.S. is going to leave Iraq and concentrate on Afghanistan, it probably means they are going to stay in Iraq and leave Afghanistan. And, indeed, U.S. officials say as many as 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq after the "withdrawal," to train, advise, deal with terror etc. As for Afghanistan, the President says: "We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda ... and to prevent their return." This does not require a military presence, and never did. It could have been done as a police action without ever invading. They are now prepared to deal with the Taliban. Well, they could have done that in 2001, avoiding the war and the deaths.

What about NATO leaders' anger over new "anti-woman" laws there? Spare me. If the real goal now is to pre-empt al-Qaeda, why would they care? They don't, or they'd have acted long ago, against the misogyny of those they're allied with. Concern for women's rights was a fig leaf for the attack, which had other reasons; now it's a fig leaf for a withdrawal, which has other reasons. It's the weird world of foreign policy. Stephen Harper said in 2006 that Canadians don't cut and run. Now he says we can't win, so we're going to cut and run. Did he mean it then? Or now? Neither, silly, it's foreign policy.

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