Bill #15, introduced late last week by the U.C.P.-shaped Government of Alberta, raises troubling questions about the province’s future.
Many who read the Bill are looking at it as a challenge to the system – the “public school system”. The future of the system is less important than the future of its purpose. The crucial questions are not about how many people will be employed in the public school system 5 or 15 years from now, or what budgets will look like. Look through “the system” and consider its essential function.
The essential function of the public school system is to nurture an enduring and vital “public”, and the Choice in Education Act will further weaken the public.
Public school education is about the program of studies and the curriculum: it is also about much more. It is also about demonstrating accessibility and pursuing inclusion. It is about learning the strength inherent in diversity; respecting different histories, and perspectives, and aspirations. It is about nurturing citizens. It is about getting into the future, wisely.
The unique purpose, and the value, of public school education is that it exists to be a deliberate model of a civil democratic society. It has never achieved the ideal, and perhaps it never will but, at its best, it doesn’t lose sight of its purpose. I would never abandon the public school system on the basis that it falls short, unless I believed that it had abandoned this unique purpose.
Some of us, myself included, have often repeated the old adage that it takes the whole village to raise a child. The corollary, which is not often expressed, is that the whole village is responsible for the education of every child.
How do we ensure that some stories are widely shared among our young people as they grow into citizenship? How do we ensure that such stories are critically examined, by students and their parents, as part of nurturing critical inquiry and thinking? How do we ensure that recent refugee children rub shoulders with the children of First Nations families, or settler families? How do we ensure that children from poor families rub shoulders with children from comfortable or wealthy families.
Does any of this matter? What happens when we lose sight of this?
Sixty years ago, in another nation, the Supreme Court of that country made decisions that discomfited many people in some States. They didn’t want to deal with a ‘new normal’: they wanted to maintain the status quo. Particularly, parents didn’t want their children to sit next to ‘different’ students in school, didn’t want their children to learn some things about history, or science, or justice, or … Politicians in quite a number of the States acquiesced. If parents wanted to operate private schools that enjoyed the right to exclude, so be it. If parents wanted to use a different curriculum that denied science, or history, so be it. If parents wanted funding without State supervision, so be it. If parents wanted a plethora of small faith-based schools that might, in fact, be cult-farms, so be it.
Over time, many children grew up believing that the world is flat. Over time, many children grew up believing in racial superiority. Over time, many children grew up believing that the ‘others’ were not simply looking at things differently: they were wrong and badly motivated.
The infection, and I call it that, spread over the years to many other States. People stopped believing that “we are all in this together”. They stopped talking to each other, and began yelling at each other, and fighting each other.
Imagine what such a country might look like 50 or 60 years after politicians decide “the public” can be sacrificed on the altar of political expedience.
Imagine what any country might look like when politicians decide that the pay-off for “fragment and conquer” is quicker, more certain, and more beneficial to politicians than the unendingly difficult work of honouring the public.
All education is political. Separate schools, private schools, charter schools and home schooling each have a different political agenda than does the public school system in any time or place. Public schools have, sometimes or quite often, failed in their obligation to respect inclusion, or diversity. But, if we cannot be, and sustain, the public within the context of public school education we will not be able to sustain the public in our community as a whole. And one day, when we see nothing but fragmentation and confrontation, we will wonder where the public went. Shortly thereafter we will wonder where democracy went.