The BCSTA 2015 Convention — What makes public education unique, vital, and appealing?

The British Columbia School Trustees’ Association has just wrapped up its 111th A.G.M.

I was privileged to attend and speak to about 375 trustees from across the province. I also sat in on sessions and visited one-on-one with a number of trustees (new friends).

As visitors to this site will know, my message was the familiar one about public education. It is the most important social institution in any civil democratic community, (What would we have without a universally educated citizenry? What could we aspire to without the prospect of a well-educated citizenry?)

Any discussion of public education should be grounded in a clear and realistic understanding of what makes it unique.  What do we have to say about public education that advocates of parochial, private or charter schools, or home schooling could not say about their preference?

Public education has three characteristics that make it unique, vital, and appealing to a civil democratic community.

(1) It is a deliberate model of the civil democratic community

  • governed by the entire community
  • for the purpose of sustaining and purposefully evolving the community

Public education is the unique means by which we introduce children to life in our community. What this means is that public education is important beyond the program of studies and the curriculum. We need to acknowledge that relationships with the student, the family and the community are vital to the success of public education, and we need to assure that the public education system has the resources necessary to nurture these relationships and make the most of them. In everything that is done, from one-on-one exchanges, to discipline and justice, to compassion, to self-directed learning, and in many other situations, the public education system needs to be a constant and reliable model of the best that a civil democratic community can be. We need to respect the reality that the public education system does important work outside the classroom, whether on the playground, in the schools’ hallways, or in the larger community.

(2) Public education is inclusive – without pre-conditions or qualification for all students and for all adults. It is inclusive from the classroom to the playground, to the staffroom, to the board room, to the voting booth.

This unique characteristic of public education — the preference for inclusion — is both a right and a responsibility. Students have not only the right to be educated: as upcoming fellow-citizens they have a responsibility for their own education.

To return to the claim that public education is a deliberate model of a civil democratic community, the public education system affirms that adage by making the claim that every adult has both the right and the responsibility to be involved in its governance. After all, it takes a whole village to raise a child and, in a civil democratic community, the whole village must accept responsibility for every child.

(3) Public education is inclusive, not as a means of achieving homogeneity, but as an acknowledgement and celebration of diversity, which is the only reliable basis of civil democracy.

(4) These three unique characteristics are integral to public education. A fourth characteristic of public education is vital. The long-term success of public education is contingent upon substantial and significant local self-government.

Since democracy is self-government, public school education cannot be a deliberate model of a civil democratic society if it does not manifest substantial and significant local self-government. Anything that compromises local self-government should be justified according to the most demanding standards of democratic organization and process.

The relationship between local government and the provincial government must be examined in this light.

Provincial governments across the country are undemocratic in their approach to local government. They would deny such a claim, with sincerity. The sincerity would be plausible, because most provincial governments view their relationships with local government (both school and municipal) through the lens of efficiency and economy rather than through the lens of effectiveness or, most important, democracy.

For example, it is often said that “decisions should be made as close as possible to the grassroots (the people who will be implicated in the consequences of the decision)”. Further, this is often said to be a shorthand expression of democracy. On the other hand, it may be a shorthand expression of subsidiarity – the system of government that holds that “decisions should be made as close as possible to the grassroots (the people who will be implicated in the consequences of the decision) – and it should be the paramount leader (at the top) who decides which decisions get made how close to the grassroots.” Subsidiarity is the antithesis of democracy, and provincial governments are committed to subsidiarity, not democracy, in their relationships with public school boards. The position of provincial governments represents an evolutionary dead-end for local self-government and democracy.

Like every association of school boards across the country, the BCSTA faces significant and daunting challenges. I was encouraged by the ‘eyes wide open’ acknowledgement of most trustees that this is their situation. I was also encouraged by their recognition that the secret of future success lies not in directly confronting every issue and personality inside the old story (the evolutionary dead-end) but in telling a new and more lively story of local democracy re-invigorated, and persuading others to enter into the new story.

For school boards (and local municipal governments), this is work that must be done together. When the dominant inter-locutor is the provincial government and the stage is province-wide, I would argue that boards cannot possibly be successful working in isolation or in small or large clusters.

Most of all, I was encouraged by the apparent willingness of most trustees to shift the focus of attention from the provincial government to the local community, and to work together to make this happen. In the new story, school boards will not be supplicants or victims; they will be creators and holders of the dream.


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