What makes public education worth our commitment?

Two weeks ago I spoke to the 2017 Annual Congress of the Canadian School Boards' Association (CSBA).  (The text of my remarks can be found, here.)  Part of the message was about passionate advocacy on behalf of public education.

Advocates for public education must be able to describe unique characteristics that are vital to the well-being of the community in one way or another.  Mere distinctions, without meaningful differences, are of no use.

Hopefully, the characteristics we proclaim justify our passionate advocacy.  Personally, I find it hard to be passionate about "compulsory attendance", or "taxpayer funded", or "elected school boards".  There may be some basis for passion behind such descriptions, but it certainly isn’t obvious to the listener. I don’t feel it.

Here's what I offered 350+ trustees and senior executive staff from across Canada.




Four unique, vital, and attractive characteristics of public education, characteristics that set public education apart from separate schools, private and charter schools, or home schooling.  These four characteristics set a standard of performance that cannot be attained by any other system of providing education.

1.  Public education is the only form of education that is universally accessible, without any pre-condition of any kind.  Universal access is not an accident, or an incidental outcome.  Public education is universally accessible as a matter of conviction and by design.  It is sometimes a matter of sacrifice.

2.  At the same time, universal accessibility is really a means to an end.  The true objective is inclusion.  Public education manifests a preference for inclusion. (To be accessible means that everyone can “enter the dance hall”. To be inclusive means that one is invited on to the dance floor.)

3.  The commitment to accessibility, and the preference for inclusion are not based on the desire to achieve conformity: they are an acknowledgement and a celebration of the value of diversity.  Public schools are not secondarily accessible, after a primary commitment religious conformity, or gender bias, or comparable income. Public schools are primarily accessible because of the conviction on which democracy is founded – that every human is intrinsically unique, invaluable, and equally capable of unbounded goodness or evil.

4.  The commitment to universal accessibility and inclusion as a celebration of diversity make public education a wonderful model of a civil democratic society. The common school is also the foundation of our commonwealth and our life together. How else can we nurture a single “public” that holds together and pursues great common projects even when we experience great differences.  Ideally, the public school and all its inhabitants – students, teachers, support staff, volunteers, and the administrative staff and Board – make democracy manifest on the playground, in the hallways, the classroom, the gym, the staffroom, the board room and the voting booth.  Hopefully, democracy is made manifest in the program of studies and the curriculum and in the many ways people relate and interact, peer-to-peer, inter-generationally and inter-culturally.

In any public school, these characteristics have two immediate consequences.

In the context of public education, accessibility is both a right and a responsibility, and inclusion must be held up as the aspiration of the community – for everyone. Discharging the responsibility to provide accessibility and striving to be inclusive makes the community and each citizen wiser and better, and stronger.

In the context of public education, local self-government in the context of co-governance (with the provincial government) represents the genius of understanding how important it is to model democracy from the heart out. Public education serves the community as well as the student, and the role of elected trustees is to make the relationship work for the benefit of all.

Tell me what you think.


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  • David King