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.

Parti Liberal du Quebec (PLQ)

The last major initiative launched by the Liberal Party to lower the drop-out rate came in 2009. Though its goals were lofty, proposing to lower the drop-out rate from its usual 25-30% to 20%, the amounts of funding committed to it were not. The plan was immediately criticized for failing to make the necessary investments in professional support staff. That being said, the Liberals do deserve some credit for including significant reductions to class size as part of their plan. Although such reductions will target the lower grades and disadvantaged neighbourhoods, their effects are system-wide and extend up to the junior grades of high school. The only mitigating factor with this plan is that the collective agreement with teachers that commits government to making these class size reductions also contains an appendix granting the school boards the right to supersede the prescribed class size maximums by paying teachers a tiny amount of “oversized class compensation”. It therefore remains to be seen to what extent this policy will actually reduce the average class size in Quebec.

Before all the reductions in class size even came into effect, it seemed that the Liberal plan had worked magic. In 2010 the Ministry of Education, Leisure and Sports (MELS) released statistics indicating that the dropout rate had fallen to 18%, down from 26% just one year before. It turned out that this dramatic drop was not due to magic, it was due to Liberal deception. The Liberals had in fact quietly changed the formula by which the dropout rate was calculated thereby rendering all comparisons with statistics from before 2009 meaningless.  This duplicitous tactic was also practiced by the McGuinty Liberals in Ontario. In both cases it seemed the stubborn ideological belief that a government can make significant reductions to dropout rates without significant reinvestment clashed with reality. Rather than accept this reality, they opted to rig the numbers.

This sort of behaviour seems to have become a pattern for Jean Charest’s Liberals. In February of 2012 Liberal Education Minister Line Beauchamp was roundly criticized for her refusal to release all of the most recent data on the dropout rates of Quebec’s various school boards. It is one thing for government to neglect the problem of Quebec’s high dropout rate, but to deny citizens the ability to even know the scope of the problem is disturbing indeed.

The current Liberal Platform makes no reference to any initiative aimed at lowering the dropout rate.

Parti Quebecois (CAQ)

Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois has promised that if elected her party would lead a “war against the dropout rate”. She claims this to be the PQ’s top educational priority, stating that “all of our decisions must be motivated by this objective”. The PQ platform contains several items aimed at lowering the dropout rate. The most substantial of these is a $37 million commitment to hire 600 new professional support staff. There is also a $20 million dollar commitment to “intensify prevention efforts with families and school environments in which young people are at risk of neglect or abuse”. Of far less substance is the PQ’s commitment to “Strongly encourage the mobilization of all sectors of society in the fight against school dropout and offer youth 16 to 18 years a solution for continued training and learning”.

Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ)

The Coalition Avenir Quebec platform also devotes considerable attention to the challenge of lowering the dropout rate. It commits to lower Quebec’s dropout rate to 20% by 2020. This is certainly an achievable goal given that Charest’s new method for calculating the dropout rate has it sitting at 18%! Like the PQ, the CAQ plans to increase spending on professional support staff. However, the CAQ plans to spend considerably more. It’s recently released financial plan outlines $750 million in new spending gradually phased in over 5 years ($150 million on average per year). The CAQ has also committed $950 million in its proposed five year budget for ensuring schools stay open until 5pm. The CAQ platform also claims that increasing the wages of teachers in disadvantaged areas will somehow contribute to lowering the dropout rate.

Quebec Solidaire (QS)

Quebec Solidaire’s platform also contains a section specifically devoted to “persistence in school”. It contains a number of substantial initiatives, most notably a commitment to hire new professional support staff and a sufficient number of teachers to fulfill a commitment to reduce class size. According to the QS economic plan, this will involve hiring some 4200 new employees in the education sector. The QS platform also pledges to “foster the development of extra-curricular activities” and support community based initiatives to encourage persistence and to counter violence and intimidation. To achieve all this, Quebec Solidaire’s financial plan commits $265 annually in new spending. The QS plan to reduce the dropout rate is clearly the most comprehensive and best funded of all the party plans.

Option Nationale (ON)

The Option Nationale platform calls for educational success to become a national priority. It stresses the importance of extra-curricular activities and commits to more funding for job exploration programs. It also proposes to increase the age of mandatory school attendance from 16 to 18. Ontario implemented such a proposal in 2007, but since the province changed its formula for determining the dropout rate it is impossible to know if this policy might have had any real impact. This law has certainly raised concerns due to its largely punitive approach that provides yet another possibility for at-risk youth to be caught up in the justice system.

Parti Vert du Quebec

The Green Party of Quebec platform also devotes considerable attention to the problem of Quebec’s high dropout rate. It calls for: “early intervention in the fight against dropping out and significant investment in early elementary school to reduce class sizes and to provide services to students with special needs”. The platform doesn’t specify how much this would cost. Like Option Nationale the Green Party also wants to raise the mandatory school age from 16 to 18.

Check back soon for the next entry in this series that will focus on where the parties stand on public subsidies for private schools.

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