Public school education is the most important social institution in a civil democratic society, more important than health care, social welfare, or environmental protection, because, of course, none of these would be accomplished without an educated public
So, it is really important to understand what public school education is doing, and why.
What is (or, should be) happening inside public schools?
Like all other systems of education it is teaching students to read and write, add and subtract, understand the sciences and history. It may be introducing students to the fine and performing arts, and critical and appreciative inquiry, and career and life issues. It is preparing students for jobs.
But it is doing something else, something much more important, that we rarely think about, and sometimes neglect, at our peril.
Public school education exists to be a deliberate model of a civil democratic society. Public school education is the only widely influential social institution with an explicit mandate to draw children (students) into an understanding of and appreciation for civil democratic society. Public school education thereby nurtures good citizens. Equally important, and only rarely considered, public school education nurtures and sustains “the public”. In the 19th century Edgerton Ryerson used the term “common school” to describe the seed bed of this great work — nurturing good citizens (individuals) and ‘the public’ (the ‘we’ in, “we are all in this together”).
This mandate is the one that home schooling, the parochial schools, private schools, charter schools do not have. Because of this mandate, the public school has concerns that go beyond the program of studies and the curriculum. Public schools face challenges that other schools do not and they need resources beyond what are required in other systems.
Since democracy is inclusive, because of this mandate, the public school is inclusive, without pre-condition of any kind, as a matter of conviction. It is not merely accessible: it is inclusive. Such radical inclusion is difficult to accomplish. (It may be impossible to accomplish, but we are morally obliged to pursue the ideal, no matter what.)
In a public school, the mandate to be inclusive (and respectful, justice-seeking, and compassionate) cannot be limited to the program of studies and the curriculum. A public school must be concerned that the playground is inclusive, that inter-actions in the hallway are inclusive, whether among students or between students and staff. A public school must be concerned that inter-actions between staff and parents or staff and community members are inclusive, by which I mean, again, respectful, justice-seeking, and compassionate.
Within the public school system, inclusion is not only a right: it is an obligation. It is both a right and an obligation for students. It is also both a right and an obligation for all the adults in the community. Consider the old adage, perhaps African, that it takes an entire village to raise a child. The implication is that the entire village is responsible for the raising – the education – of every child. In 21st century Canada, citizens who may have a preference for a private school nevertheless retain an obligation to the public school system and the students it educates.
Of all the schools in Canada, only public schools have a mandate to be a deliberate model of a civil democratic society. Only public schools are inclusive without pre-condition of any kind. Only public schools treat inclusion as both a right and an obligation. Only public schools are inclusive from the playground to the hallways, to the classroom, to the staff room to the Board room, to the voting booth.
This is important for each of us, now and in the future.