Student Gillian Parekh awarded inaugural Human Rights Prize for her paper

Despite good intentions, education systems can still succumb to the influence of flawed perceptions of meritocracy, says York PhD candidate Gillian Parekh (BEd '02, MA '09) in a recent winning paper. That means, in at least two parts of the world, governments' prioritization of economic returns can trump students' rights to equitable and quality educational opportunities.

Parekh is the winner of the inaugural Human Rights Prize for Master of Arts (MA) Major Research Paper in the Critical Disabilities Studies Program for her paper, "How Neoliberalism Impacts the Realization of Inclusive Education Both Internationally and Locally: A Study of Inclusive and Equitable Education Opportunities Within the Toronto District School Board". The award, created through donations from York Professors Marcia Rioux and Geoffrey Reaume of the School of Health Policy & Management in the Faculty of Health, was presented to Parekh on Tuesday. "It was an interesting paper to research," says Parekh.

Parekh earned her MA from York's Critical Disabilities Studies Program with an interest in international development and disability, as well as education.

Gillian Parekh and  Marcia RiouxRight: Gillian Parekh (left) being presented the 2010 Human Rights Prize

For her paper, Parekh initially looked at the connection between government prioritization of market ideologies and the subsequent waning commitment to inclusive practices, homing in on inclusive education policies under varying governments in South Africa. Although South Africa boasts of having highly progressive disability policies, over time the push for economic returns has taken precedence over the protection of the rights of students with disabilities, and segregated learning centres have been maintained and expanded.

"An analysis of the evolution of inclusive education policies from South Africa is documented to encapsulate a clear example of the hegemonic relationship between rights and market principles while the right to quality education for many hangs in the balance," says Parekh.

She then turned to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to see if the same was true here. She examined student demographics at 85 secondary schools and whether they correlated with the availability of specific programs and services. "Social factors such as poverty, disability, language and parental education are compared to increased or decreased access to programming and services that lead to future enhanced marketability for the student," she writes.

Although Parekh taught special education for several years at schools within the TDSB, the fourth-largest school district in North America, she was surprised by what she found. "Overall, the higher percentage of parents with a university education, the higher the likelihood their children would have access to elite programs within their public school. The higher the percentage of students from low income housing, as well as the higher the percentage of students using special education services, the fewer programs were offered at their school," says Parekh. She knows the TDSB has attempted to address issues of equity and continuously works to offer equitable services and programming to all students, however, the current state speaks to a much more powerful force at work.

In comparing demographics between schools offering French immersion programs, what Parekh calls one of the board's most elite programs, and those schools providing vocational training, she found the difference in incidence of low income, special education and parental education staggering. When she looked at where schools providing vocational training were located, she discovered that they were largely running in Toronto's lowest income neighbourhoods, she says. Whereas French immersion programs were more likely to be found within schools in more affluent areas with greater numbers of parents having been to university.

Access to some programming was definitely related to geography, says Parekh. "The education system continues to sustain inequitable learning opportunities between social groups. Policies addressing the issues of inequity have not yet achieved fully inclusive or equitable educational opportunities for all." And that is true in both Toronto and South Africa.

Parekh largely holds the government accountable for continuing to move towards a private model of market ideology within its public school systems in which more advantaged students are met with greater opportunity

"What bothers me the most is that this disparity is often normalized. Not enough people think significant change is required," says Parekh. It comes down to erroneous thinking that certain people in society are more deserving of academic opportunities than others, she says.