It’s not every day a public school board announces its intentions to take a butcher knife to Canada’s arts sector, kneecap the country’s growing athletic prowess, obliterate its own educational offerings and cede territory to the private sector.
Yet that’s exactly what the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) did earlier this week. In the pursuit of so-called equitable access, it plans to eliminate auditions and skill-based admissions criteria for its Specialized Schools and Programs for the arts, elite athletics and STEM, among other areas of study, and instead admit students via a random selection process where “interest” is the only litmus test.
Whereas, before, applicants had to show aptitude for their chosen field, they will now simply write a letter that in essence says “I love to dance!” or “Video games are fun!” to enter a lottery where entrance slots are randomly drawn. For athletics programs, applicants may only be required to submit a practice schedule and coach letter.
This shockingly misguided move embodies the worst impulses of wokeism, which are more concerned with feel-good optics than actual results. In reality, the change will strip specialized programs of value and widen the opportunity gap as private schools and programs become the only places for highly-gifted children to hone their talents.
Ironically, it’s often conservatives accused of weakening public systems so private ones become the only viable choice. But even the staunchest privatization advocates couldn’t dream of achieving in one fell swoop what the TDSB’s overly zealous progressives are about to do.
Imagine if, rather than requiring students to graduate elementary school to enter high school, the TDSB simply fast-tracked any student who thinks high school sounds cool. Then they eliminated grades that could be perceived as barriers to inclusivity.
The absurd result would not be more equitable access to high school, but a lower standard of education for everyone as more advanced subjects and discussions gave way to “accessible” ones students of all ages and abilities could grasp.
This is the ludicrous logic that will see a rare publicly-funded avenue for elite training with similarly-skilled and motivated peers downgraded to the equivalent of signing up for free class at a community centre.
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There will also be broader ripple effects as students who can’t afford private schooling or instruction, but show exceptional potential, are denied educational experiences that truly challenge their abilities.
For example, specialized arts programs often feed into university arts programs and the country’s cultural institutions. Just as a star athlete won’t improve playing with someone handling a hockey stick for the first time, dancers, musicians and actors need to train with comparably skilled peers. Robbed of the chance to do so, the student doesn’t just suffer, so does the quality of the Canadian arts landscape.
I would know — I’m a graduate of a specialized arts program, although one run by the York Region District School Board. My courses weren’t valuable simply because they existed, but because of the calibre of classmates I was surrounded by, which in turn attracted a high calibre of teachers and industry opportunities.
Moreover, there are certain anxieties, pressures and triumphs only peers with similar high-level experiences in the arts or athletics can understand. These programs form support circles with classmates who feel more like family members, and help students cope in highly competitive fields.
It should be noted no one’s stopping kids who enjoy soccer, dance, drawing or computer programming from pursuing those interests through classes and extracurriculars offered at most public schools. Of course, every student should have the chance to experience and learn the arts, sports and STEM skills. The TDSB should make every effort to ensure local schools not only offer these opportunities, but offer quality instruction. That, however, does not mean they should water down specialized programs just so no one is left out.
It won’t be wealthier and, yes, often white children who suffer most if these opportunities effectively disappear into a one-size-fits-all abyss. Their parents will find the time and money to make up for it. It’s the very students the TDSB claims to be giving a leg up — marginalized and economically disadvantaged kids — who will be hurt when what was world-class training dilutes to Arts 101.
You can’t ensure more equitable access to single-family homes by forcing the entire population to live in bachelor pads, and the TDSB can’t improve access to specialized programs by effectively destroying what makes them special to begin with. A better alternative would be to invest more deeply and broadly in improving public arts, athletics, and STEM classes for younger students, particularly in disenfranchised communities, so that when audition time rolls around, talent is less easily confused with access to private tutelage.
Spots in specialized schools and programs are coveted for a reason: they offer excellent education, support and experience without a hefty price tag. They provide a pathway to careers in the arts, sports, and STEM that doesn’t rely on family wealth or connections. Are these programs perfect? No, and it’s admirable to aim for more inclusivity and diversity. But it’d be a crime against the talents of tomorrow if they were destroyed by the TDSB’s rush to appear politically correct.