Public Education – Some Inconvenient Truths

It seems that much of society has lost touch with the humanitarian principle behind public education. Many politicians eschew the idea outright, favouring a privatization model. And there’s something unnerving about the lamblike compliance of public school teachers and administrators with the those who would privatize education. Without much question, educators are welcoming policies that effectively erode truly “public” education. The phenomenon would suggest to me that people don’t actually understand the philosophy behind public education: the idea that if all children are given free and equal access to schooling, we can break the cycle of poverty through enlightenment – that we can be a truly equitable and just society – that through public education, poor kids will have the same access to schooling as rich kids. Everyone will have his chance.

Few people would dispute the nobility of the sentiment that all children, regardless of their economic means, should have access to education, but it seems that few people understand the implications of such an ideal when it comes to implementation. If education is to be truly accessible, it needs to fulfill five conditions:

1. Schools must not allow students with money to have an advantage over students without money.

2. Schools must offer full service. In other words, every school should offer all of the courses that are important to the development of young minds that will make up a happy and prosperous citizenry.

3. Schools must be non-sectarian. They must allow for happy participation by all people regardless of race, religion, or political affiliation.

4. Schools must be inclusive. That is, they must include students who have non-traditional abilities: those who are intellectually challenged or physically challenged.

5. Schools should be free from proselytizing or interference by agents who would subvert students’ thinking in a way that limits their freedom of choice. Students are vulnerable to this kind of interference, as they lack the maturity to think critically about the messages they receive.

The first premise is violated constantly. An ugly fact of our society is that there are students who, for one reason or another, simply can not get money from their parents. They can’t get money for supplies, field trips, student fees, or performances at school. Schools are usually very good at trying to identify the students who can’t afford such costs, and exonerating them from having to pay, but even this practice of charging everyone and then providing for those who can’t afford, is less than ideal. When this is done, the poor are identified – perhaps not to everyone else, but they themselves are reminded that they are a burden to the rest. This is not a positive message for a child to receive. This issue is difficult for schools, as there just isn’t enough money to provide students with what it sees as valuable to a well-balanced education. The drama department does not have enough money to pay for materials to build sets. The tech-ed department does not have a budget that allows the purchase of wood or tools. The English department certainly can’t afford to bring students to a performance of  Shakespeare. So schools charge.

The second premise, that schools must offer full service, is related to the first. The BC Ministry of Education has recently changed the funding of schools in such a way that schools are not funded per student, but they are funded per seat taken in each individual class. The result is that if enrolment in a particular class is low, the school may not be able to afford to run the class. This has led to either the overstuffing of classes that depend on smaller sizes (shop, instrumental music, home economics), or their outright cancellation. The solution has been to assign classes to one particular school (where they can be overstuffed) and to ask students to go to that school if they want to attend that class.

If students need to travel to another region to get the courses they want or need, some students will be at a disadvantage. Students depend on their parents. If parents can’t or won’t provide for them, then through no fault of their own, some students are being left behind. So, for example, if a student who would like to take physics does not have the support of her parents, she will not be travelling across town to the science academy; she will have to attend school in her neighbourhood, where physics might not be offered. Providing a bus only partly mitigates this problem, as there are myriad complications of being out of one’s neighbourhood. For example, in a group project, the bussed student will have difficulty scheduling collaboration time. Furthermore, some students need to work to support their families. Scheduling classes outside the neighbourhood can be very disruptive.

Up to this point in BC, public schools have been very good at satisfying the third and fourth conditions of being non-sectarian and inclusive, but we face a danger. Many policy-makers are looking at chartered schools as an option. Chartered schools are government-funded, but the money is given to private non-profit organizations who administer the actual schooling. These organizations often have philosophical interests that are not consistent with universal education. For example, a religious group might run a charter school, or a business that has a stake in a certain political ideology. These schools are exclusive by definition, as they tend to focus on certain specialties like business, science or fine arts, and within their individual structures, they actually limit choice.  If you enrol in a specific charter school, you have made your choice, therefore you will subscribe to their narrow curriculum. Usually the top level administrator in these schools is not trained in education. Ironically, policy-makers tend to use words like “flexibility” and “choice” when they advocate for the charter model, but their real attachment to the model is that it is able to eliminate “inefficiencies” like the hidden costs of inclusion or choice.

A public school has as its goal the provision of an education that will create happy, balanced and productive individuals, and not to further adherence to a certain world view (e.g. a religion) or to focus on a certain target group (e.g. musicians). Conversely, charter schools do have specific outcomes in mind. Therefore, they run the risk of having their provision for exceptional learners to be only a side interest. Those who don’t fit the mould are at risk of having an education that is less learner-need-centred.

The fifth condition of public schools, the need to be free from manipulation by private interests, is one that for a while now has not been met. Schools are entering into exclusivity contracts with businesses. A typical example is the vending machine contract. Most schools have vending machines that allow students to buy snacks. Typically, these snacks are not particularly nutritious. In exchange for the advertising and profiteering that the private corporations receive, the school gets a kickback. Many schools actually have private restaurants providing food, rather than cafeterias. Surely in such scenarios, the children’s best interests are at the risk of being compromised to the profit motive. Consider the score clock that has been provided to the students by a soft drink company. In exchange for that clock, the school is required to be loyal to the company and its affiliates. The students are exposed daily to the company’s logo.

This is manipulation of the most vulnerable in a place where manipulation shouldn’t occur. But worse is the schools’ dependence on the private support. If ever a corporation were to start taking more than a proprietary interest in the schools, the schools would have to either surrender to the corporation or go without the money that the companies provide. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which a teacher points out how the school’s sponsor corporation is using unethical business practices (like having sweat shop workers create its computer components) and the corporation taking exception. Imagine a charter school run by an energy corporation. How would its board of directors feel about science teachers showing overwhelming evidence that our dependence on fossil fuels is contributing to global warming, and its resulting catastrophes? Schools are underfunded by the government based on the expectation that they can make up the difference in these private-public partnerships. But how long before the private partners start calling the shots. The further we surrender control of our funding to private interests, the more we risk dangerous manipulation of a non-sectarian liberal education.

The public needs to be more aware of what public education is, and its value in a free-thinking, democratic society. People need to know that although public education is very costly, it is only vehicle that can truly promote equality. Educators themselves need to be re-educated about the value and meaning of public education. Whenever we reduce funding to the system, or delegate control of it to private interests, we are putting it at huge risk.

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