My response to Richard Ledbetter

You may have heard that Jen’s high school — John Paul II High School — is facing possible closure at the end of this year. The past few months have seen consultations and a campaign to save the school, and emotions have been running high. I’ve been trying to stay out of it — I need another scrap like I need a root canal — but I have been paying attention.

In this week’s Pontiac Journal, editor Richard Ledbetter has an inflammatory editorial that, like much of the debate, sheds more heat than light. Here are some excerpts:

JP II is the third worst school in the province of Quebec. No one wants to attend it, and no one wants to work there. If you are a student and wish to go further in life than a high school education, or a career above welfare then you go to a school that will give you the marks and skills to go on to an institute of higher learning, or to a career or a profession. You won’t go very far in this world with a transcript of your marks from JP II. If you are a teacher looking for a challenge, and have a deep masochistic streak, you might respond to a recruitment poster for employment at JP II, but as a general rule the only people that seek employment at a leper colony are saints or those who can’t find work anywhere else.
So, one of two things must be wrong here: Either the children of Campbell’s Bay are just too stupid to learn, or the school’s staff are just too incompetent to teach. Now I know that the Bay has problems with its water, but I don’t think that is the cause of the terrible scholastic results at JP II. Drowning all the kids and starting over with a new, unimpaired batch is not the solution. No one should blame the students because they have not been given proper instruction. So, obviously, the problem lies, fundamentally, at the feet of the teachers and the administration of JP II …
I am sure there are a few good teachers at JP II, but the school’s standing, compared to any other, clearly proves that, unions notwithstanding, every single individual currently employed at JP II should be fired. That’s from the janitor up.

In response, I have sent the Journal a letter to the editor, in which I gave Ledbetter hell for what he wrote, and segued into some thoughts I’d been having about the school closure question. Here’s the text of that letter:

Dear Editor,
As the spouse of a high school teacher at John Paul II High School, I’m offended by Mr. Ledbetter’s call to fire the entire staff of JPII in his May 10 editorial. His characterization of teachers’ abilities, were it aimed at a single individual, would almost certainly have been libellous. Teachers are not public figures and, considering the work they do under the circumstances they face for the pay they get, they deserve better than the drive-by smearing Mr. Ledbetter afforded them.
Nor was Mr. Ledbetter particularly kind to JPII’s students — for if teachers have to be saints or masochists to want to work there, unless they are otherwise unemployable, what does that say about the kids?
It’s easy to point fingers in the case of John Paul II High School and its potential closure, and yes, there have been a lot of fingers pointed recently. But figuring out who to scapegoat won’t do anything to solve the problem. Parents, students, teachers and administrators all have their role to play, but it’s a mistake to blame any class of individuals for the circumstances the school faces, and it’s wrong to think that they’re uncaring or incompetent.
Coming up with solutions is harder than pointing fingers, which is why so much of the public discussion has had so little to do with solving the real problems facing JPII. Those problems are, in a nutshell, too few students, too little funding, and an expensive new education plan.
Schools are funded based on the number of students they have: as JPII’s population shrinks, it gets fewer dollars. Already, it gets more funding than it should for its size, because you need a certain minimum of teachers to, well, teach high school.
But it’s about to get worse, with a new education plan coming down from the Ministry of Education that establishes three new teaching streams: that plan will require even more resources, without providing extra funds. And every high school, no matter how small, must teach all three streams. JPII, which already costs the Board more per capita than its other high schools, is about to get a lot more expensive; the Board simply can’t afford to hire even more teachers.
No school board enjoys closing a school; they don’t do it to punish students for their low scores, but because they have no other choice. A lack of funds, not the school’s reputation, is behind this decision.
Some opposed to JPII’s closure have argued that you can’t put a price on a child’s education. Does that mean that they’re willing to pay more in school taxes? It’s easy to make demands if you don’t have to pay for them. Extra funds must come from somewhere. Every extra dollar spent on JPII is a dollar taken away from some other high school — can you say that their kids are worth less than yours?
Some opposed to JPII’s closure have complained about their kids being forced to attend another school. Their solution, ironically, is to impose school boundaries that would force other kids to come to JPII.
Some opposed to JPII’s closure argue on behalf of small schools. I have news for them: JPII isn’t a small school, it’s microscopic. If you want a small school, look at Pontiac High: it’s smaller than the high school I attended in Winnipeg, which itself was the smallest school in my school division. Smaller isn’t always better; you need a minimum critical mass. JPII has too few students, for example, to meet the threshold for a librarian or even a guidance counsellor.
It’s not because of an indifferent school board, a nefarious principal, incompetent teachers, or unteachable kids that the school may close, but a funding crunch. That the crunch has come now is probably a blessing in disguise, because, in a way, JPII has been dying a slow death for years, as its population base shrinks and additional students flee to other, larger schools with more services.
If JPII has a bad reputation, it’s because of selection bias: those families who choose to send their children elsewhere are, by making a choice, involved in their kids’ education; so those families left behind have disproportionately more parents who aren’t as involved.
And incidentally, JPII scored higher than PHS in 2003’s report card on Quebec high schools, 416th to 435th (I ought to know: I wrote the article about it), so let’s not exaggerate this school’s low standing.
JPII’s situation is a symptom of the decline of Campbell’s Bay and the surrounding area. Fewer job opportunities mean fewer families raising their kids in the area. Some opposed to the school’s closure have argued that by saving JPII, they’ll be saving the town. They have it precisely backward: the town’s decline is killing JPII, not the other way around. To save the school, get the town back on its feet.
JPII’s pending demise is no more the fault of its teachers than Campbell Bay’s decline is the fault of its mayor.

Update: No sooner had I written and sent this letter than I started thinking about what else I could have said: the connection between funding and resources; emphasizing the quality of education and how it’s more important for kids to have a good education than to have an education in a specific place … but at nearly 850 words, this letter was long enough.

It’s also puzzling that a newspaper editor would so crassly offend members of the public like that: equating a public school with a leper colony is an insult to the families of more than 200 schoolchildren, and I imagine the uproar will be ferocious. He crossed a line or two, there.