Greater Essex Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario

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Law to force school until 18

RICHARD BRENNAN
QUEEN'S PARK BUREAU
Nov. 7, 2004

HUNTSVILLE—A strict law forcing students to stay in school until they are 18 is coming soon, Premier Dalton McGuinty says.

McGuinty, speaking at the annual Liberal policy conference yesterday, said it's the only way to deal with Ontario's troubling 30-per-cent dropout rate.

"Soon, we will introduce one of the most important pieces of our plan, a bill that will require our young people to keep learning until age 18 in a classroom or an apprenticeship or a job placement program," the Premier told the 400 delegates.

The proposed legislation is expected late this year or early next. Currently, Ontario students must stay in school until they are 16 years old.

Education Minister Gerard Kennedy said the new requirement, to begin as pilot projects in January in a number of unspecified school districts, would cost about $70 million a year and affect more than 25,000 students, plus an additional $30 million for expanded apprenticeship programs.

Ontario would be only the second province in Canada to require its students to continue their learning in one way or another until 18, a promise made during the 2003 provincial election. New Brunswick did it in 1999. Alberta raised its requirement to age 17 in 2003.

"Delivering high-quality public education is the most important thing we can do for our future. Tomorrow's workforce is today's student body," McGuinty said.

The Premier added the student body is now "failing," — barely half the Grade 6 English-language students passed 2002-03 province-wide tests in reading, writing and math.

"And sadly, 30 per cent of our kids drop out of high school — and half of them don't bother to keep learning beyond high school. It's high time we turned this around," he said. "We can't hang our hopes on the future if we're content to let the future just hang out at the mall."

Kennedy said later the goal is to cut the dropout rate in half.

While McGuinty said his government is determined to make this work, he did back away yesterday from previous suggestions that students who refuse to continue their education until they are 18 could be jailed.

"It is not our plan to incarcerate young people because they fail to continue to learn. Our plan is to engage young people by providing them with an exciting opportunity that strikes them as a real win for themselves.... I believe in the carrot, not the stick," he said.

Currently, parents can be fined up to $200 for not ensuring their children attend school and probation orders can be issued requiring students attend class. However, failure to comply with an order could mean a stint behind bars if a judge deems it necessary, Kennedy acknowledged.

"It is not a penalty that is provided for currently, it is a consequence that happens if somebody doesn't meet the penalties that are there whether they are fines or conditions placed by a judge," the education minister said, adding jail time would be an unusual occurrence.

To provide an option to traditional schooling, McGuinty said the government is adding 7,000 apprenticeship positions and is proposing a 25 per cent refundable tax credit for employers on wages paid to apprentices.

"There are many young people for whom the classroom is cruel and unusual punishment, so that's why we are expanding apprenticeships ... that's why we are looking at new job placement opportunities," McGuinty told reporters. "We've got to recognize that people have different kinds of talents and look for a way to harness those."

Kennedy said currently there are teachers in every school board being trained to be more sensitive to students who are about to drop out.

"We want to catch them before they have made the ultimate decision," he said.

Teenage high-school students had a mixed reaction to McGuinty's proposal yesterday.

Doug Mason, 16, can understand why school isn't the right place for everyone his age. "If you don't want to learn, what's the point of being there?" he asked, hanging out with friends at Toronto's Eaton Centre.

Mason's friend, Jordan Jarvis, 17 agreed, but wondered what's wrong with dropping out of school and taking a well-paying job.

Their friend, Colin Pine, 17, noted that high school is a time for teenagers to learn "to make choices for themselves." How will teenagers learn to be responsible, he questioned, if the only thing keeping them in school is a law?