October 1998, Vol.5, No.1

A Series of Brief Reports

RESEARCH IN ONTARIO
SECONDARY SCHOOLS


Crisis, What Crisis?
By Doug Hart

...was the name of a Supertramp album released longer ago than I care to remember. The album cover bore the picture of a man in casual garb sitting in a deck chair with an industrial wasteland stretching out behind him. In the neo-conservative view of things the insiders of the school system - the teachers, the trustees, the consultants, the whole system are the man in the deck chair, "all right Jack" and oblivious to the deterioration around them. To many of these so-called insiders, the whirlwind the Harris government has unleashed in education is the crisis. Actually, these views arenít that far apart. For neo-conservatives, the mark of a crisis is loss of public confidence in existing institutional arrangements and those who manage and staff these. And the irrefutable evidence of loss of confidence is willingness to vote in a government committed to overturning existing arrangements.

In Ontario, the newly-appointed Minister of Education in the Harris Conservative government achieved notoriety when a leaked tape revealed him explaining to senior civil servants how an artificially created "crisis" atmosphere was needed to win public acceptance for the Minister's agenda for education. ( The Minister, John Snobelen, was "captured" on videotape "...saying he would invent a crisis to whip up support for overhauling the system." see R. Brennan, 1995: A3). This machiavellian manoeuver is doubly revealing. On the one hand the strategem rather frankly acknowledged that no current "crisis" of public confidence in the schools then existed (which does not preclude public support for selected government policies). On the other hand, the belief that it was possible to create a crisis atmosphere suggests that the government did think there was a strong current of dissatisfaction which could be fanned into something greater.

In this context, it is worth quoting an observer of the passage of Proposition 13 in California, nearly 20 years ago:

While the data generally sustain the view that dissatisfaction with taxes reached a high point in 1978, they do not suggest that some dramatic shift in opinion has occurred recently.....

Survey data can never be sufficient to explain a political phenomena like the tax protest that "took off" when California voters passed Proposition 13. How leadership groups perceive the political situation and what positions they offer for public consumption are critical factors in situations of this kind. More than a few political leaders are now acting as though public resistance to taxation has stiffened, markedly, and this leadership response is in itself enormously consequential for the "tax revolt" - quite apart from what mass public opinions actually are. (Ladd, et. Al. (1979: 128).

What would a public crisis in confidence look like in the polls? And relatedly, what would the preconditions for a real or engineered crisis look like? By "crisis" we mean what John Snobelen meant, a loss of felt legitimacy, satisfaction and confidence in an institution and its leadership, sufficient to breed support for major policy change. There seem at least two likely scenarios for how an emergent crisis in public confidence in schools might be signaled in the polls. In one scenario a sudden collapse in public confidence is engineered in a situation where substantial popular dissatisfaction already exists, but opinion about schools has, up to the crisis, been relatively stable. The second scenario involves a consistent, cumulative decline in confidence which at some point crosses a threshold opening up new political possibilities.

For the past two decades OISE/UT has had a unique if intermittent vantage point on the ebb and flow of public attitudes toward Ontario schools. Every two years, the OISE/UT Survey of Educational Issues, administered up to 1992 by Gallup Canada, since then, by the Institute for Social Research at York University, tracks public opinion on school performance and policy (See Livingstone, Hart and Davie, 1997 for the most recent survey report). In October, 1998 the 12th OISE/UT Survey will go into the field. In addition to doing our own tracking of public opinion, we monitor closely what other polls are finding - those that arenít embargoed to all but paid-up subscribers. What weíve found is that taking the long-view provides an indispensable perspective on short-term poll results.

In the two Figures, we profile opinion trends in two broad areas: educational funding and general evaluative attitudes toward schools. For almost two decades the OISE/UT survey has asked respondents what they wanted to happen to government spending on elementary and secondary schools in the next budget year. (For exact question wordings see Hart and Livingstone, 1998.) From 1980 until 1988, the proportion of respondents in each survey who wanted higher spending on schools rose from 38 to 60 percent. Thereafter, the figure has fluctuated between 49 and 55 percent. In 1984, we began asking about government spending for all purposes. Only minorities have supported increased overall government spending in any year. However, there has been no consistent trend to eroding support. As with support for educational spending, the peak year is 1988; thereafter support fluctuates between 20 and 30 percent. It should be noted that other preferences have shown similar stability since 1988. The proportion of respondents who want to reduce spending on schools has ranged between 8 and 13 percent; the proportion who would reduce overall government spending, from 29 to 38 percent. In 1988 we asked respondents for the first time, whether they would be willing to pay more taxes in support of education in Ontario. In this the peak year of support for increased spending on schools, just under half said yes. Since then, while spending support has fallen somewhat, willingness to pay higher taxes has edged up slightly. It should be noted that there are few undecideds on this issue.

In Figure 2, we present trends in popular attitudes toward schools themselves. Overall satisfaction with schools has described a wave-like pattern, rising from 1979 to 1982, falling thereafter till 1988 (the peak year in support for spending), then increasing again to levels found at the end of the 1970s. In contrast, public perceptions of changes in the quality of high school education reveal a gradual but persistent erosion in the proportion who see improvement. Figure 2 also includes selected results for the Canadian Gallup pollís time series of confidence ratings for the public schools. It was, in fact, the sharp drop in confidence ratings between 1989 and 1993 - a national as well as provincial pattern - which sparked early concern about a "crisis" in confidence. In fact, ratings have recovered since 1993, although not to levels found in the mid-1980s. Confidence ratings were falling as satisfaction ratings were recovering, and spending preferences generally held up, after the initial decline from the high point in 1988.

The patterns shown in Figures 1 and 2 provide little evidence of an actual or impending crisis in public confidence in the schools. Opinion trends reveal wave like patterns or less regular fluctuations, but do not show long term, substantial declines (but see the comment on perceptions of quality, below). The sharp drop in confidence ratings between 1989 and 1993 is the sole instance of a sharp, precipitous decline in support for schools. In the end, however, it turned out to be short-lived.

So much for the good news. Less reassuring is what has not happened. It is encouraging that willingness to fund and be taxed in support of schools has at least held up during hard times. However, public perceptions of the quality of schooling do appear to be in slow decline; moreover, even after the recovery of opinion, only half are satisfied with the schoolsí performance. Finally confidence ratings remain below levels a decade earlier. There is vulnerability here.

In 1998, the 12th OISE/UT survey will again ask respondents about their spending preferences, willingness to be taxed, satisfaction with the schools and views on the quality of the education they provide. In addition, we will be gauging public response to specific government policies. It is a particularly important time for public views of the schools to be known and discussed. Results of the 12th Survey will be published in the February/March 1999 issue of Orbit (Vol. 30, No. 1).

References:

Brennan, R. (1995, Sept. 13). Minister plotted "to invent a crisis". Toronto Star A3.

Hart, D & Livingstone, D.W. (1998) The "Crisis" of confidence in schools and the neoconservative agenda: Diverging opinions of corporate executives and the general public. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, XLIV, 1, 1-19.

Ladd, E.C. et. al. (1979) The polls: Taxing and spending. Public Opinion Quarterly 43, 1.

Livingstone, D.W., Hart D. & Davie, L. (1997) Public attitudes toward education in Ontario 1996.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Further Reading:

Guppy, N. & Davies, S. (1997, August) Understanding the declining confidence of Canadians in public education. Paper presented at the 1997 meetings of the American Sociological Association, Toronto, Ontario.

Livingstone, D.W. & Hart, D. (1995). Popular beliefs about Canada's schools. In R.Ghosh & D. Ray (Eds.) Social Change and education in Canada (pp. 16-44). Toronto: Harcourt Brace.

Loveless, T. (1997). The structure of public confidence in education. American Journal of Education, 105, 127-159.


Doug Hart holds a Ph.D. is Sociology from York University. He is currently a senior researcher officer and institutional researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He has been connected with the OISE/UT Survey of Education Issues (headed by David Livingstone) since its inception in 1978.

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