Archive for August, 2012

August 30, 2012

Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part Eight – Where do the Parties Stand on Inequality?

By Robert Green

Thus far this series has looked at where Quebec’s political parties stand on education funding, curriculum reform, school autonomy ,the abolition of school boards , reducing the dropout rate, private school subsidies and respect for teachers. This the eighth and final article in the series will examine where the parties stand on an issue that, although seemingly less directly connected to education than the issues examined thus far in this series, has far greater implications for students, teachers and indeed Quebec’s educational success as a whole. That issue is inequality.

Back in 2009 a book was published that fundamentally changed the way many think about issues of economic and social development. It was entitled The Spirit Level and it represented a fundamental challenge to the notion that the well-being of a country’s citizens is first and foremost a product of its wealth. In comparing the international data on life expectancy, the book’s authors, who are both epidemiologists, observed that while indeed wealth was correlated with life expectancy in the early stages of a country’s economic development, once a certain basic level of development was achieved the correlations with wealth seemed to disappear.  Instead what they observed amongst developed countries was that life expectancy was correlated not with a country’s wealth but with its level of economic inequality; people in countries with less economic inequality lived longer than those in more unequal countries, even if the overall wealth of the unequal countries was greater.

They then noticed that this pattern applied not just to life expectancy but to just about every statistical indicator of a society’s well being that they could find. In presenting this vast array of data, the book provides extremely compelling objective evidence of something that many have known intuitively for some time: societies with more economic equality tend to be happier, healthier, better educated and more prosperous. If there is a take-away message from this book for voters at election time, it is that there is not a more urgent and important issue for our political leaders than that of creating a more equal society.

The Spirit Level’s implications for education warrant special attention. Not only does it show that traditional indicators of a country’s educational success, such as achievement and graduation rates, are correlated with greater equality, it also shows a number of other indicators that are less directly related to education to be as well. Consider the effects that each of the following factors can have on the daily lives of education workers and the overall success of Quebec’s students:   mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, teenage births, obesity, homicide, imprisonment, trust, optimism, social mobility, bullying, childhood conflict. Each and every one of these factors is correlated with equality. Countries that are more equal show more positive results in each factor. The inescapable conclusion is that there is perhaps no more important priority for improving Quebec’s educational outcomes than reducing its level of economic inequality.

So how has Quebec society been doing in recent years in terms of its level of inequality? A 2010 study jointly produced by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and L’Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques (IRIS) sought to examine this very question. Although the study indicates that thanks to the historically high level of government intervention in Quebec, inequality is less of a problem in Quebec than it is in the rest of Canada, it also points to a disturbing trend of growing inequality in Quebec.  The study examines the period between 1976 and 2006, noting that inequality had grown steadily in Quebec during this period, reaching a 30 year high in 2006.

“Quebeckers worked more and the province’s economy grew by 71% during this period but not all Quebec families enjoyed the benefits,” says IRIS co-author Bertrand Schepper. “The lion’s share of income gains went to the richest 10%, while the majority of Quebec families – the bottom 70% — ended up with a smaller share of the income pie.” According to the data presented in this study, the sharpest growth in inequality occurred in the period since 1996.

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August 29, 2012

Thousands of Ontario teachers, support staff ready to take on Liberals over ‘anti-collective bargaining’ bill

By John Bonnar, Published August 28, 2012 by

Ontario teachers, support staff, parents and other unionists came to Queen’s Park on Tuesday with one message for the Premier and his Education Minister: Negotiate. Don’t legislate.

Thousands came to express their anger with the government’s proposed “anti-collective bargaining” bill, a piece of legislation teachers and educational support workers called “unprecedented in its attack on bargaining rights.”

The provincial government intends to introduce legislation this week that, if passed, would result in:

– Zero per cent salary increases in 2012-13 and 2013-14.

– All teachers will take a 1.5 per cent pay cut in the form of three unpaid professional development days so that younger teachers will continue to move through the grid according to their experience and additional qualifications.

– Agreement to restructure the grid with a view to long-term, sustainable savings.

– Elimination of the current retirement gratuity for payment of unused sick days that was responsible for a $1.7 billion liability for school boards.

– A restructured short-term sick leave plan that would include up to 10 sick days. This sick leave plan would benefit younger teachers by providing income protection for serious illness and improved maternity leave provisions.

In a statement released on Monday, the government said that Bill 115, The Putting Students First Act, will save the province $2 billion.

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August 29, 2012

Walkom: McGuinty teacher gambit attacks the middle class

By Thomas Walkom, Published August 29, 2012 by the Toronto Star

Dalton McGuinty’s attack on teachers’ trade union rights is ultimately an attack on the middle class. It is misguided and unnecessary.

It is also unfair.

McGuinty’s archly named Putting Students First bill is unnecessary because it seeks to end, through a two-year strike ban, a labour dispute that does not exist.

Teachers are not on strike. Nor according to the leaders of the two major unions involved, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, do they intend to go on strike.

They may have walked away from province-wide talks with the Liberal government. But as required under Ontario labour law, they have been bargaining with the local school boards that employ them.

Certainly the boards didn’t ask Queen’s Park to step in. Most apparently thought they could reach deals with their employees.

So why is the government attacking teachers?

My astute colleague Martin Regg Cohn has pointed to the politics of the situation. The Liberals are desperate to win two Sept. 6 by-elections in order to gain a majority of seats in the provincial legislature. They reckon that taking on the unions will play particularly well in one riding, Kitchener-Waterloo, that has traditionally elected Tories.

But beyond this, the McGuinty Liberals are suffering from the same myopia that seems to affect so many provincial governments.

They are focusing on the province’s deficit, now $15 billion, rather than the economic circumstances that created this shortfall.

Those circumstances have to do with a faltering economy that through job loss and weakened consumer demand is starving government of revenues.

A far-sighted government would focus on restarting the economy and raising those revenues. A near-sighted government, like this one, focuses on reducing spending alone — with no thought as to how such cuts might further hobble the overall economy.

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August 25, 2012

Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part Seven – What do the Parties Have Planned for Teachers?

By Robert Green

Thus far this series has looked at where Quebec’s political parties stand on education funding, curriculum reform, school autonomy ,the abolition of school boards , reducing the dropout rate and private school subsidies. This article will examine what the parties have in store for the province’s teachers.

Right now across North America there is a well financed war being waged against teachers and their unions. The proponents of this war argue that the source of poor student achievement is too many lazy or incompetent teachers with too much job security. The solution they propose is usually a combination of taking away the job security and collective bargaining rights of teachers along with some form of merit pay scheme. In the US this is being achieved through the closing of public schools and the opening of semi-private charter schools (staffed by non-unionized teachers) in their place. This is the vision of school reform promoted by those referred to as “corporate education reformers” through slickly produced propaganda films such as “Waiting for Superman” and the soon to be released “Won’t Back Down”.

The first problem with this narrative is that it is extremely insulting to the vast majority of teachers who are neither lazy nor incompetent and who in fact donate untold hours of unpaid work on their evenings and weekends to help their students succeed.

The more serious problem with this narrative from a policy perspective, is that it is directly contradicted by the available evidence. Other than class size, the amount of experience possessed by teachers is one of the few factors that have been shown by a wide body of evidence to be correlated positively with increased student success. Not surprisingly then, since unions protect the job security and working conditions of teachers, improved student success is also correlated with rates of unionization. The fact that a teacher’s working conditions happen also to be the student’s learning conditions goes a long way in explaining this. While it is true that correlation is not necessarily an indication of causation, those advocating to improve schools by attacking teachers unions need to explain why it is that students in regions without teachers unions do consistently worse in terms of achievement than students in regions where teachers are unionized.

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August 23, 2012

Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part Six – Where do the Parties Stand on Public Subsidies for Private Schools?

By Robert Green

Thus far this series has looked at where Quebec’s political parties stand on education funding, curriculum reform, school autonomy ,the abolition of school boards and reducing the dropout rate. This article will examine where the parties stand on the public subsidies given to Quebec’s private schools.

The issue involving the structure of Quebec’s education system that has been getting the most attention from the political parties this election has been the abolition or restructuring of school boards. However, there is a far more important structural issue that, while negatively affecting the learning and achievement of all students, reserves its worst consequences for the most vulnerable and needy. This is the policy of denying the 163,000 special needs students in Quebec access to a large portion of province’s education system.

To understand this issue it is important to consider the structure of Quebec’s public education system. Quebec has a four-tiered education system: the fully private schools that receive no government subsidies and are not bound to follow provincial curriculum; the semi-private schools that do receive government subsidies and are bound to follow the Quebec curriculum; the “special status” public schools that have entrance exams; and the public schools that are open to all regardless of income or ability.  Entrance exams in the first three tiers ensure that it is only this final tier that is accessible to the majority of students with special needs, regardless of their ability to pay for private schools. The result is an over-representation of students with special needs within a portion of a public system whose resources are already stretched thin.

This situation would not be such a problem were it not for the public subsidies that make private schools more affordable and effectively allow so many families to opt-out of the public system. Compared to other provinces, Quebec has by far the highest percentage of students enrolled in private schools and the numbers are on the rise. From 2004 to 2010 the number of secondary students enrolled in private schools rose from 17 to 19 percent. On the Island of Montreal it has been estimated to be as high as 30 percent. This compares to a Canadian average of 5.6 percent. The only way to reduce private school enrollment and build a more equitable education system is to end the subsidies that allow so many to opt out of the public system. It is time for Quebecers to demand that their education system be structured based on principles of integration not segregation; equity not elitism.

For a more complete discussion of the issue of private school subsidies, see my previous post, “To Improve the Education System, Stop Subsidizing Private Schools”.

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August 21, 2012

Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part Five – How are the Parties Proposing to Lower Quebec’s Dropout Rate?

By Robert Green

Thus far this series has looked at where Quebec’s political parties stand on education funding, curriculum reform, school autonomy and the abolition of school boards. This article will examine how each of the parties proposes to lower Quebec’s high school dropout rate.

The alarmingly high dropout rate has been Quebec’s perennial education issue for at least the last twenty years. It seems every year or so a new set of statistics emerges documenting, yet again, that no significant progress has been made to reduce the chronically high number of dropouts. This begins the public hand wringing by Quebec’s political class and is usually followed a few months later by some poorly funded government half-measure, announced to great fanfare. A year or so later another set of statistics emerges and so the cycle begins again. There are many political issues in Quebec that have a tendency to provoke cynicism. This is certainly one of them.

Clearly this is a problem that cannot be solved by half measures. Although not all the factors affecting dropout rates are within government control, governments are far from powerless in affecting significant reductions. Numerous measures that are within government control have been identified as contributing to reducing dropout rates. Such factors include: class size; the availability of extra-curricular activities; the existence of programs to counter homophobia, racism, bullying and intimidation; the severity of school discipline codes; the availability of psychologists, drug counsellors, social workers, and other professional support staff. The avenues for government to explore to solve this problem are many; the problem is not a lack of options, it is a lack of political will.

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August 19, 2012

6 Reasons Teachers Unions Are Good for Kids

Our schools need teachers unions as much today as they ever have.

By Kristin Rawls, published August 17, 2012 by AlterNet

Once upon a time, labor unions enjoyed a fair amount of political legitimacy among both the public and political elites. While it is true that unions were always a source of concern for capitalist elites and union-busting was always with us, the public generally considered unions mainstream. They had a political voice because regular working- and middle-class people often voted based on their endorsements.

Yet over the last three decades, the power of unions has decreased steadily — especially as a result of the hostility to business regulation that characterized Reagan-era politics of the 1980s, and the anti-communist Cold War propaganda of the time that made the general public more suspicious than ever of labor activism.

But if unions as a whole have taken a reputational hit over the last 30 years, teachers unions in particular have found themselves especially demonized. From being falsely accused of defending sexual predators in schools, to being held ultimately responsible for the “failure” of America’s school system (a fallacy), teachers unions have borne the brunt of anti-union sentiment to the point that less than a quarter of the public now believes that teachers unions have a positive effect on schools, with 41% of those recently polled finding the effect to be neither positive nor negative.

Yet by a number of important measures, there is no doubt that teachers unions continue to play a vital role in the health and well-being of our schools, the teachers who work in them and the children they serve. Though the country’s two major teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), have taken well-deserved criticisms from the left for caving on charter schools — and for uncritically supporting Democratic candidates who push for corporate education reform just as Republicans do — when it comes to helping build our children’s success, the fact is we need teachers unions today as much as we ever have.

Here are six reasons teachers unions continue to be good for America’s kids:

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August 18, 2012

Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part Four – Where do the Parties Stand on the Abolition of School Boards?

By Robert Green

Thus far this series has looked at where Quebec’s political parties stand on education funding, curriculum reform and school autonomy . This article will examine where the parties stand on the abolition or reorganization of Quebec’s school boards.

The idea of abolishing or in some way restructuring Quebec’s school boards is being proposed by nearly all of Quebec’s political parties. School board reform is a seductive idea for political parties because it offers them a means to direct more resources to Quebec’s badly underfunded public schools without making the sort of reinvestment that, though desperately needed, might be associated with increased taxes [cue the shrieks of horror from the press gallery]. However, as with most magic bullet solutions, voters have a number of good reasons to be skeptical.

The first reason for skepticism is that the claims that restructuring school boards will create a more efficient system that benefits schools are dubious at best. Political parties make vague references to “duplication of services” and “inefficiencies” without presenting the concrete details of specifically which services are being duplicated or how services would be reorganized to be more efficient.  Not a single study has been done to illustrate the concrete benefits of such a proposal. Nonetheless, five of Quebec’s six main political parties have proposed charging ahead in that direction.

In order to assess the claims of the political parties with regard to school boards, voters need to have a clear idea of exactly what it is that school boards do.  The fundamental mission of school boards is to equitably distribute the resources allocated by the Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS) to the schools in its territory. However, school boards are responsible for much more than that: they manage real estate and building maintenance; they fix the rate for school taxes; they engage in long term planning; they negotiate the local conditions in collective agreements; they organize bus and cafeteria services; they prepare professional development and pedagogical support services for teachers.  Any plan to abolish or reorganize school boards should at the very least explain how each of the above responsibilities would be fulfilled and how such a plan would be more efficient.

Another reason for skepticism has to do with Quebec’s recent history. This is not the first time Quebecers have been promised more efficient public services through the amalgamation or reorganization of public institutions. In 1998 Quebec reduced the total number of its school boards from 230 to 72, and between 2000 and 2006 it amalgamated many of its municipalities. Before buying into the most recent claims regarding the abolition or reorganization of school boards, Quebecers should ask themselves whether similar past efforts to make public institutions more efficient have produced the improvements in service delivery that the politicians had promised.

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August 16, 2012

Walmart, Right-Wing Media Company Hold Star-Studded Benefit Promoting Education Reform Film

By Josh Eidelson, Published August 15, 2012 by In These Times

The world’s largest private-sector employer and the country’s most prominent conservative entertainment company have teamed up to sponsor a fundraiser called “Teachers Rock.” Backed by Walmart and Anschutz Film Group, the August 14 event will feature live performances from musicians like Josh Groban and appearances from actresses like Viola Davis; it will be broadcast August 18 as a CBS special with messages from actresses like Meryl Streep. And it will promote the upcoming feature film Won’t Back Down, Anschutz’s entry in the “education reform” wars.

Won’t Back Down is reportedly a highly sympathetic fictional portrayal of “parent trigger” laws, a major flashpoint in debates over education and collective bargaining. Under such laws, the submission of signatures from a majority of parents in a school triggers a “turnaround option,” which can mean the replacement of a unionized school with a non-union charter. Such laws have been passed in several states, but due to court challenges, the “trigger” process has never been fully implemented.

“It’s another Waiting for Superman,” says Jose Vilson, a New York City math teacher and board member of the Center for Teacher Quality. “You have these popular actors, who as well-intentioned as they may be, they may not know all the facts, but they’re willing to back up a couple of corporate friends or people maybe they’ve become familiar with” in “trying to promote this sort of vision.”

Parent trigger is one of the model bills pushed by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Adamantly opposed by teachers unions, parent trigger bills (as I’ve reported for Salon) have often been spearheaded and supported by Democratic politicians. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed slamming teachers unions, Campbell Brown highlighted Won’t Back Down as evidence that “teachers unions have become a ripe target for reformers across the ideological spectrum” and Hollywood “has turned on unions.”

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August 15, 2012

Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part Three – Where do the Parties Stand on School Autonomy?

By Robert Green

Thus far this series has looked at where Quebec’s political parties stand on education funding and curriculum. This article will examine where the parties stand on the question of school autonomy.

A week rarely passes in Quebec where there is not one news story or another about members of a local community clashing with school board or government bureaucrats over an issue involving schools. Because many feel that the centralized bureaucracies that manage our schools are out of touch with the needs of local communities, they argue for greater school autonomy. On the other hand, some degree of centralized management is needed in order to maintain equitable access to resources and system-wide standards. Indeed the question of local autonomy versus centralized management is one of the key issues every government must face in managing its education system.

One of the major trends in North America involving the issue of school autonomy is the use of incentivized ‘performance indicators’ as a means for government to impose its will on schools. This is the philosophy behind George Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) law that ties school funding and/or teacher pay to various measurable indicators of school success. More often than not this involves standardized test scores.

After ten years of such policies, the US has not improved its achievement rates at all. It has, however, succeeded in transforming its public schools to serve a single purpose: prep for high stakes standardized tests. Not only have American schools been canceling art classes, phys ed and even recess in order to focus more on test prep, but there has also been a wave of high profile fraud scandals throughout the US, some involving hundreds of teachers and administrators systematically changing the test responses of students to avoid their schools being shut down or defunded. The only other thing such policies have achieved is millions in profits for the corporations that own the private charter schools and have been all too happy to receive the public dollars formerly dedicated to the public system.

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August 14, 2012

Mocking McGuinty…


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August 12, 2012

10 Ways School Reformers Get It Wrong

When it comes to education reform, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel anymore; instead, we’re building square ones.

By Colin Greer, published Aug 5 2012 by Alternet

It’s widely agreed that American education is in trouble.  What is missed in both the response to the crisis and the cacophony of reform efforts is a true understanding of the nature of the problem.

In the early days of public schooling, Horace Mann called the schools the balance wheel of society. It was thought that schools served as a corrective for all kinds of problems ranging from skill gaps that needed to be remedied for the economy to flourish to culture gaps that were created by immigrants that needed to be Americanized. The school never worked in quite that way, but it was part of a web of social institutions that helped build a framework that allowed America to grow both in prosperity and in diversity. We face a lot of social and economic problems; we expect the schools to solve them. When they don’t, we think it’s a school failure. Instead, the schools are in fact a signal of a breakdown. Nowadays, the balance wheel is not working so well; it would be more accurate to think of public schools as the canary in the mine.

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August 11, 2012

Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part Two – Where do the Parties Stand on Curriculum Reform?

By Robert Green

Part one of this series looked at where the parties stand on education financing. This article will focus on where the parties stand on the question of curriculum reform.

We often think of curriculum as something immutable; the three R’s. However, it is much more than that. It embodies the knowledge, values and skills a society wants to pass on to future generations. As such, public education curriculum should be an issue of interest to all of those concerned about the future of our society.

Over a decade ago the Parti Quebecois introduced a radical reform of Quebec’s curriculum centred around the concept of ‘competency-based evaluation’. Neither teachers nor parents had demanded such a reform. However, around the time this reform was proposed, the concept was being pushed aggressively by multinational corporations through international organizations such as the OECD. Apparently corporate leaders felt such reforms would provide them a more objective and standardized measure with which to rank employees in a globalized world. ‘Knowledge’, the traditional subject of evaluation, was seen as too abstract, subjective and rooted in the local.

Since this reform had the support of neither teachers nor families, the two central stakeholders in education, its implementation was met with controversy and resistance, much of which remains to this day. Divisions over this reform even lead to the split of Quebec’s largest teacher’s federation and the formation of a new federation, La Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE), which would take a more critical stand towards the reform.

What’s more, government attempts to tinker with the reform in response to public pressure have rendered it philosophically incoherent. For example, teachers in Quebec are now instructed to evaluate ‘competency’ using percentages. Is it even possible to be 65% competent in something?

Clearly Quebec needs another overhaul of its curriculum, but one that is done in consultation with teachers and the public. This requires a political party with vision.

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August 10, 2012

When Public Schools Answer to Markets

Citizens shouldn’t be seen as consumers choosing between education options, but active participants

By , published Jul 29, 2012 by

“There are several problems with this model from the perspective of both efficacy and, more importantly, democracy. First, despite the grand intentions behind marketized programs, they do not get better results on average than traditional public schools. A study conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, 46 percent showed no difference from public schools, and 37 percent were significantly worse. Additionally, introducing supposedly tough-minded material incentives to improve teacher performance, such as giving higher “merit” pay to more successful teachers and threatening to fire less successful ones, has yielded no measurable benefits for children and, instead, tends to divide and demoralize teachers.

Other studies have found that the competitive incentives designed to drive innovation in the classroom are not operating as intended. Instead of improving teaching and learning practices, market incentives have driven an increase in schools’ marketing and promotional activities – that is, advertisements that better sell their products. And as marketing is most effective when aimed at specified groups, schools usually beef up their academic achievement statistics by targeting families of higher-achieving students, thereby contributing to increased student selectivity, sorting, and segregation.

Efficiency considerations aside, the real problem with championing marketized models in education and other areas is the damage it does to democracy. We should not be upholding a model based on turning citizens into consumers. Democratic citizenship does not simply involve an individual’s choice from a platter of options. Rather, it requires active participation in collective decisionmaking.”

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August 8, 2012

Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part One – Where do the Parties Stand on Education Financing?

By Robert Green

In recent months Quebec has been consumed with a single education issue: tuition hikes. The Charest government’s moves to increase tuition and repress dissent have dominated headlines and mobilized hundreds of thousands into the streets. Charest’s handling – or mishandling – of the so called student crisis now stands to be a decisive issue in the upcoming election.

As important as it is, the boisterous public debate over tuition risks drowning out a number of other extremely important education issues. Years of under-funding and mismanagement have left Quebec’s entire public education system in a state of perpetual crisis. If voters are to play a role in electing a party that will address this situation, they need to understand the various dimensions of the crisis at hand.

This series of blogposts hopes to help readers do just that by examining where Quebec’s political parties stand on a number of important education issues other than tuition. The aim of this series is to aid those concerned about public education in Quebec to make a more informed decision come election time. As its scope will remain limited to education issues, this series is in no way intended as a comprehensive review or endorsement of any party’s entire political program.

Those interested in where the parties stand on the tuition/accessibility issue should see the excellent article on the subject by’s Ethan Cox.

Education Financing: THE issue

While it is true that increased funding does not necessarily lead to improved educational outcomes, it is also true that in a context of systemic under-funding significant improvements to the education system require increased investment. After years of deep cuts to education spending Quebec finds itself in exactly such a context. According to a 2008 manifesto published by a coalition of associations representing students and education workers, Quebec would need to spend an additional $700 million annually just to match the Canadian average in education spending on preschool, elementary and secondary education. In such a context it is extremely important for voters to assess both the willingness of political parties to reinvest in education and also the plan each party has for how they would reinvest any new funds.

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