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Let's not forget public education's 3 essential principles

By John F. Conway

As the conservative business lobby's attacks on publicly-funded education intensify, coupled with demands from local Chambers of Commerce that schools become more "practical" and "job-oriented," it is well to remind ourselves of public education's three essential principles. First, public education is publicly funded from progressive taxation at the central provincial level and from a local property tax. All citizens must pay, in order to contribute to the education of society's children.

Second, public education is universally available as an automatic right of citizenship. No child can be deprived of access to public education, and the education system must make every reasonable effort to accommodate the needs of individual children.

Third, public education is subject to democratic control. Until recently in Canada there was, in each province, a double layer of democracy in education. The members of provincial legislatures, who set the provincial budget for education, and local school boards, which set the local mill rate, were elected by universal adult suffrage. (Local taxing powers have been under attack, however, and have now been stripped from local school boards in most provinces.)

Public education remains one of the greatest democratic reforms won against the autocratic bastions of economic and political power and privilege. The emphasis is on the word won, because the right to a universal, publicly-funded, and freely accessible system of education had to be won, step by step, battle by battle, in what was often a bitter struggle. Like democracy itself, this right was not granted freely through the benign wisdom of the powerful and the privileged of former days. It was wrested from them by the people.

The beneficial effects of public education have been well-documented. The right to an education ensures that all, from lowest to highest, have the opportunity to discover and develop talents and abilities that would otherwise not have flourished. It ensured that citizens became more informed, more critical, less easily manipulated and dominated.

Public education opened doors to social, economic and geographical mobility, allowing individuals without property and wealth to dream of possibilities and opportunities that formerly were forever closed to them.

The coming of public education stressed the importance of human capital--the only capital that most people have--allowing them to develop their full potential in aspiring to a better life.

Thus, to advance in life, one could invest in one's own human capital through hard work and the acquisition of knowledge in a system of free public education.

Having said that, there are two things about public education that the public and educators must always keep in the forefront of their consciousness.

First, the system of public education remains imperfect and disturbingly incomplete.

Post-secondary education, though significantly subsidized by public funds and theoretically open to all with the will and talent, presents serious economic and geographical barriers to many students; and these barriers still have largely to do with the income levels of their parents.

Within the publicly-funded K-to-12 system, there are still serious unaddressed issues of equity, access, and the unfair distribution of available resources. This inequity exists between systems, when some are more generously financed than others, and within each system, when some schools are endowed with more resources than others.

Inevitably, therefore, debates about--and struggles for--equity in the distribution of both educational resources and access to educational opportunities will be with us forever. This is what democracy is all about: who gets what and why do they get it? and how can we make the distribution more equitable?

Second, the system of publicly-funded, democratically controlled public education will always be under attack, and so requires constant and diligent defence by its supporters against its enemies.

The same bastions of power and privilege from which public education had to be won continue to try to curtail this popular achievement. Cuts in funding, attacks on quality, the imposition of a business model, the pressure to contract out its work, the demand that public education be put at the service of business and industry--all of these attacks are parts of a relentless campaign that may ebb and flow over time, but will always be pursued.

This has to do with the ideological conviction of most business leaders that it is best to replace public enterprise with private; that control over the content and outcomes of education should be heavily influenced--if not completely dominated--by the business lobby and its neoconservative allies; that there is something dangerously subversive about a model of public education that encourages critical thinking and a skeptical citizenry.

Public educators and their allies must therefore take the time and mobilize the resources needed to counter this ongoing propaganda effort to undermine the public's confidence in public education.

The battle for control of public education in a democracy is still fought on the terrain of public opinion, and that is where the battle will be won or lost.

(John F. Conway is a political sociologist at the University of Regina and a trustee on the Regina Public School Board.)

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Last modified: April 13, 2004

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