Equity, Leadership, Policy

The Expansion of School Choice in Toronto

Context and politics

Since the 1950s, there has been a remarkable increase in the amount of choice Canadian school boards offer to parents and students. The change has not proceeded at a steady rate, and the arguments and political forces behind it have varied over time. However, the pressure has been relentless. Neighbourhood schools teaching a fixed curriculum, defined centrally, have given way to a variety of schools with different courses, programs, cultures, languages and pedagogies. This is particularly true in big cities like Toronto, where transportation is relatively easy and the diversity of communities living close together is greatest.

This article explores some of the history and politics that lie behind Toronto’s expanded options for students. The city has developed schools and programs in which the culture, pedagogy and approach to learning can differ markedly. What is striking is that, unlike in much of the U.S., choice has not been justified by the idea of using market competition to improve schools. Instead, we see an argument for choice based on concern for social justice and keeping communities engaged in the public system. The result can be seen as an expanded market, with the drawbacks and advantages that might bring. But markets are not driving the policy rationale; they are more likely to frame the critics’ concerns.

The diversity of Canadian society makes pluralism an important notion in theories of citizenship and schooling. Provincial difference is enshrined in education. Protestant and Catholic school systems were recognized from the time of Confederation (and when Newfoundland joined Canada, Salvation Army and Pentecostal systems were added). Band schools on First Nations reserves have had autonomy. French Immersion programs were started 50 years ago as a federal citizenship initiative. Francophone and Anglophone systems are now established in every province. Moreover, the local governance of schooling, represented by local school boards, encourages community responsiveness.

The argument for recognizing linguistic and cultural differences as a way of providing equal opportunity and equal citizenship has been made persuasively by Canadian political theorists like Charles Taylor[1] and Will Kymlicka.[2] They point out that a single, mandated version of schooling is not neutral; it reflects the mores and assumptions of the dominant Anglophone (or, in Quebec, francophone) elite, a culture that has marginalized and oppressed other ways of being Canadian. Equality demands the recognition of difference.

In the 1950s and 60s in Ontario, students went to the public or Catholic elementary school in their neighbourhood (Catholic schools were only funded up to Grade 10). In high school they were assigned to “tracks”: academic, vocational or basic. Students had little choice of school or course of study.

Alternative schools take root

In the 1970s, more options opened up. The provincial government fully funded the Catholic system, started a francophone system, and revised the guidelines for secondary schools to replace fixed tracks with course credits. Students could, at least theoretically, mix and match courses at different levels, and move from one level to another. The change was motivated by a concern for equity, choice and social mobility. It was clear the system had relegated children from less advantaged backgrounds to the lower tracks, and given them little opportunity to make up ground later in their careers.[3] Despite backlash from “secondary school men”[4] and conservative educators who feared “a market system of option choices,” the Ministry of Education changed the rules.

The concern for community responsiveness and equal opportunity was particularly strong in the Toronto Board of Education in the 1970s. In 1970, an election brought a group of social justice activists to the board office. They were branded in the press as “firebrands” and “blue denim radicals” who were “distrustful of the system.” They wanted to shake things up, to push for more opportunities for children from poor and marginalized families, and to increase community involvement in schools.[5]

Several prominent members of the new coalition had founded and worked in private alternative schools (e.g. Everdale, Point Blank, Superschool) designed to provide supportive communities for students who were marginalized in the regular system. Alternative “free” schools were a component of radical educational theories of the time. So the board supported the opening of public alternative schools. SEED, Laneway, ALPHA, CONTACT all attracted leftish teachers and nurtured innovative pedagogy that reached outside the classroom to engage social issues and enrol students who were dissatisfied with the status quo.

The board also pushed to diversify the offerings in all schools in a way that reflected the local community. The School Community Relations department built bridges to increasingly diverse groups of parents, trying to have their concerns addressed in the curriculum. A school could apply to be a “project school,” and receive extra resources for community engagement, multilingualism and teacher professional development. Principals in these schools could choose teachers who shared the school’s philosophy. Distinctive school programs emerged, with a focus on the achievement of children from racialized and less affluent families.

These schools encouraged new ways of doing schooling without providing a direct challenge to the existing system. By encouraging diversity, they gave scope to dissidents, and tried out ideas and practices that spread gradually through the system. As an outlet for the disaffected, they arguably kept the rest of the system safe. The argument for them was based in equity; the main argument against them came from the conservatives, and it was about the cost.

Changing times

As the recession of the 80s affected the politics and economy of Toronto, an informal moratorium on alternative schools came into effect. Although French Immersion and the International Baccalaureate continued to expand to meet demand, and programs specializing in physical education, the arts, and specific careers opened up quietly, social justice alternatives remained a small, dynamic and distinctive part of the system in the inner city. By 1997, the board claimed ten alternative secondary schools and 13 alternative elementary schools, as well as programs for African Canadian, Aboriginal, and gay, lesbian and bisexual youth. But the push for choice had slowed. There was less money, and the amalgamation of several Toronto-area school boards into the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) in 1998 upended the directions articulated in the former Toronto Board.

In the 1990s in the U.S., meanwhile, a market-based argument for choice became very popular. In an influential book called Politics, Markets and America’s Schools, Chubb and Moe provided extensive American data linking democratic and bureaucratic control of schools to lower test scores for students. They argued that competitive markets would increase the pressure on schools to improve and attract students, while underperforming schools would lose students, decline, and eventually disappear. The popularity of this kind of argument has supported the rapid expansion of charter schools throughout the U.S. in the last 25 years.

Although this kind of rhetoric seeps across the border and into the occasional research study by the C. D. Howe or Fraser Institute, in Canada other arguments for choice have had more traction at the political level. Recognizing that diverse programs are a response to diverse publics, boards adapt and add new programs to keep parents engaged in and supportive of the public system. The Edmonton Public School Board, under the leadership of Emery Dosdall, was the pioneer. As Andrew Nikforuk reported in 2002,

“You name it, Edmonton has it: a Hebrew school, an all-girls school, several aboriginal schools, a Spanish academy, schools for dropouts, and even a school devoted to both Canadian studies and budding ballerinas. To great gasps of disbelief, the district also acquired or ‘publicized’ two private evangelical Christian schools. ‘And why not?’ asked Dosdall. ‘We believe every child between the age of 5 and 20 is ours.’” 

Toronto did not go that far. But early in the 2000s, a heated discussion about a proposal by Black parents to start an Afrocentric school brought attention back to choice and equity. Black activists pointed to the high failure rates of Black students. They wanted a school with an Afrocentric curriculum, where their children would not experience discrimination and cultural alienation. They reflected the arguments of George Dei,[6] an effective advocate for the idea that minority students are sidelined in the mainstream curriculum, and need an inclusive curriculum where minority communities have voice.

For some, such schools revived the ugly spectre of segregation. The premier, Dalton McGuinty, came out against the idea, arguing that public education should bring people together. But the cat was already out of that bag; residential neighbourhoods in Toronto were increasingly segregated.[7] After considerable debate, the board approved a pilot program in 2008, which has now expanded to the secondary level. The news story in the Toronto Star read, “After a heated but civil debate, Canada’s largest school board voted 11-9 to open an alternative Afrocentric school to help fight a 40 percent dropout rate among Toronto’s black teens.” Concern for equity was front and centre.

The emphasis on choice as an approach to equity increased when Chris Spence, a student of Dei’s, became director of the TDSB. In 2010, he argued that more alternatives should again be a major focus of the board. His arguments were about empowering marginalized communities, as well as keeping students in the system. As Cynthia McDonald put it,

“Spence thinks he might be able to stem the flight from public schools by giving parents more choice in how their children are educated… ‘One size doesn’t fit all,’ says Spence. ‘We’re going to try to provide opportunities so that parents and their children can sit down and say here’s what we want in terms of a learning environment, and where can we get it?’”[8] 

Although Spence has gone, his initiatives remain. The board has increased the diversity it offers, including a vocal academy, a Karen Kain school, a health and wellness academy, and others.

Protecting equity in education

In contrast to the U.S., it is clear that inclusion has been a big part of the justification of choice in Toronto over many years. The language supporting choice has been about equity and community empowerment, about keeping the public system relevant and engaged. It is more likely to be the critics of choice who point out that choice has nevertheless created markets, and that these markets are inequitable. Those with more power and knowledge and social capital do better in competitive markets. This can lead to the segregation of social groups, leaving the poor behind and stressing everyone who has to choose. The strongest objections to choice come from those worried that more advantaged and active parents are the ones who choose specialized programs, while neighbourhood schools lose powerful parent advocates, and local students lose their higher-performing peers. Moreover, choice creates a market for teachers, arguably taking some of the most talented away from neighbourhood schools.[9] This is a worrying scenario, and there is good evidence that it happens in some contexts, whatever the motives of those promoting choice.

Ensuring that increased choice promotes equity rather than undermining it depends on the design of the system around it, not just on the amount of diversity that is available. Systems of choice that support equity have open admissions policies, with a lottery if demand exceeds supply. Children from advantaged homes are already more likely to apply for schools of choice; admissions policies that give preference to students who are performing well simply add to this advantage. Systems of choice that support equity have a focus on programs that support young people who are not succeeding in existing schools. Opening more programs for the academically and socially advantaged increases their privilege while taking resources from those who are struggling. Systems of choice that support all students have a commitment to generate ideas and curriculum that can be used across the system. Investing in curriculum and teacher development for a small school has added benefits if it is leveraged to help teachers wherever they are teaching.[10]

Choice is here to stay, and managing it is one of the key challenges facing elected school trustees and educators today. Fair-minded people will continue to disagree about the costs and benefits of choice, but a look at the politics suggests more options are bound to be offered, and for good reasons. To maintain equity in the system, boards should pay more attention to how teachers and students are fairly assigned to the schools, and how their curriculum is designed to enrich the system as a whole.


En Bref : Le nombre de choix qu’offrent les commissions et conseils scolaires des écoles publiques canadiennes a considérablement augmenté depuis les années 1950. Cet article retrace la multiplication des choix à Toronto, soutenant qu’elle provient d’un souci d’équité et d’engagement communautaire, plutôt que d’une volonté de rendre les écoles plus concurrentielles sur le marché. Peu importe les motifs de ces décisions, elles comportent le potentiel d’accroître les inégalités si elles ne sont pas bien encadrées par les politiques des commissions et conseils scolaires. Une attention plus soutenue devrait être accordée à l’équité de l’affectation du personnel enseignant et des élèves aux écoles ainsi qu’à une conception des programmes visant à enrichir l’ensemble du système.



Photo: Tara Walton (Toronto Star/Getty Images)


First published in Education Canada, June 2016


1 Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

2 Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A liberal theory of minority rights (Oxford University Press, 1995). 

3 B. Curtis, H. Smaller and W. Livingstone, Stacking the Deck: The streaming of working-class kids in Ontario schools (Our Schools/Ourselves monograph series no. 10, June 1992).

4 John Stapleton, The Politics of Educational Innovations: A case study of the credit system in Ontario (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 1995). 

5 Jane Gaskell and Ben Levin, Making a Difference in Urban Schools: Ideas, politics and pedagogy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

6 George Dei, “The Role of Afrocentricity in the Inclusive Curriculum in Canadian Schools,” Canadian Journal of Education 21, no. 2 (1996): 170–18. 

7 David Hulchanski, “The Three Cities Within Toronto,” Centre for Urban and Community Studies Research Bulletin 41 (2007). 

8 Cynthia Macdonald, “Different but Equal,” University of Toronto Magazine (Winter 2011).

9 Jane Gaskell, “Creating School Choice: The politics of curriculum, equity and teachers’ work,” Canadian Public Policy/Analyse de Politiques 28, no. 1 (2002): 39-50.

10 Gaskell, Jane, “School Choice and Educational Leadership: Rethinking the future of public schooling,” in the Second International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Administration, K. Leithwood and P. Hallinger, Eds. (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 915-956.

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jane gaskell

Jane Gaskell

Jane Gaskell is a Professor in the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT). She is a member of the Royal Society of Canada, recipient of the Whitworth Award for Career Research in Education from the CEA and was Dean of OISE from 2003-2010.

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