Seekers-after-wisdom used to travel deserts and oceans looking for advice, often from philosophers with big reputations. In Ancient Greece, the Platonic Academy attracted students from Asia, Africa, western Europe—the “known” world. Later the seekers went to Alexandria and Rome. They hoped for answers to educational, political, legal, and financial questions, not just philosophical and religious ones.
The pattern changed in the 17th and 18th centuries when monarchs realized they were in over their heads--on economics, education, foreign relations. Catherine the Great of Russia asked Voltaire for help, and Christina of Sweden persuaded Descartes to move to Stockholm for the last year of his life.
With easy travel and fast communication, we have learned to invite wise people to come to us, not the other way around. We may call them consultants, and less often we give them an impressive label, “royal commissioner.”
In parliamentary democracies, royal commissions are invitations to sensible and experienced persons to examine difficult problems from all angles, then give reliable advice. It takes a year or two or three for commissioners to complete their tasks. Sometimes governments act on their commissioners' advice, as Canada's federal government did in the 1930s (the Rowell-Sirois Report) and the 1980s (the 1985 MacDonald Report on economic development).
Sometimes a royal commission report gathers dust. Some will say a royal commission is just a way to avoid the subject (whatever it may be). But this time, the sceptics are wrong.
Our experience of royal commissions on education has been (mostly) constructive. BC's first commissioned study of public education (the Putman-Weir Survey of the Public Schools, 1925) made the case for active and individualized instruction in all subjects. It insisted on the importance of charging no fees for schooling, and gave clear guidance on the best ways to finance and govern the system. Although parts of the Survey were/are depressingly wrong (on the use of labelling for special needs kids, for example), it is still the best and most consequential study of public education we have seen in British Columbia. Alas, it is out of date.
The Putman-Weir survey was written and researched by just two people. They did the thing in a year, long before the internet or decent highways. They listened carefully to hundreds of parents, trustees, and officials across the province. It's available online at https://books.google.ca/books?id=p4qgAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false .
Since 1925, the province has directed four more big commissions on education. There were two studies, one on finance and another on the role of school boards (1935 and 1945--online at http://www.llbc.leg.bc.ca/commissions/rc_dates.asp ), then two reviews of the whole system, the Chant Report of 1960 and the Sullivan Report of 1988.
We are living through an economic shift (to human and financial services and to computing technology), even as we deal with rapid population growth and a wave of renewed immigration. The Ministry of Education has, for a variety of reasons, been unable to cope with these changes.
Indeed, especially since the late 1960s, there has been government confusion on education. The Social Credit premiers of the day were not especially happy with what they saw in the pages of the 1960 and 1988 reports. The curriculum that resulted from the 1988 commission met a sad fate; some school principals and teachers will tell you how they ended up reading the curriculum and then...discarding much material in the “new programme” post-1988.
Yes, it's time for another Royal Commission on Education in B.C.
Among the most persuasive supporters of such a commission is Crawford Kilian. His latest article on the subject appeared March 9 in the Tyee (see https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2017/03/09/Vancouver-School-Board-Bullying-Report/). Sullivan, it seemed to Kilian, may have asked for too much. Sullivan called for a common curriculum across Grades 1 to 10, and abandonment of the rigid system of age-related grades, so kids and their education could be more closely tied together. By the time Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark came on the scene (2001-present), government had decided it would take a quite different approach. It was the era of “technology-plus.” By 2017, it was fairly obvious that the Liberal-Conservative coalition under Clark had no clear goals in education, except to starve the public schools of adequate funding, and to retain public subsidies for private schools (which cost more than $300 million by 2017).
Kilian correctly notes that school boards are supposed to run a tight ship, to make the system run with whatever funding Victoria chooses to provide--with a minimum of fuss and bother. By 2017, it wasn't all that unusual to hear critics and commentators saying that school boards were an annoyance, an unnecessary layer of government in a system that is dominated by Victoria. Either we give school boards real power and adequate funding, or we should consider eliminating them altogether.
Like Kilian, I think a royal commission on education could think the unthinkable. It could show what a system would look like if it were run exclusively by Victoria, without school boards. Or it could show what a system of strong, independent-minded, well financed school boards could do.
I'm on the side of long-term, generous public funding for public education. After all, public education is a common good that becomes more essential every day. A commissioner might recommend access to the income tax, or the creation of new sales taxes, or taxes on hotel rooms. All I'm saying is that we must get imaginative about the way we fund public education.
Few politicians will find it convenient to make an argument for more taxes, even for something as desirable and obviously necessary as schooling. But a royal commissioner could make that argument. And it well worth saying, loudly and clearly, that even while the commission is at work, reform can and should begin.
In a year when every single Vancouver School Board trustee was fired it is plain that government isn’t neutral or disinterested in matters of control or finance. Government is so closely entangled that it cannot get the distance it needs to make sustainable policy about funding or control. A Royal Commission would have that distance.
There is much more to be said about the role of the teaching profession in all of this. A Royal Commission could and should clarify the role of BC teachers and principals in the system.
I'm a former school trustee (Vancouver). I was immensely frustrated by the weak position of the Board on which I served. Parents rightly insisted on enriched instruction in whole new areas of the curriculum; meanwhile kids were coming to school hungry. We as a board did as much as we could, as fast as we could, but found it wasn’t enough. Our responsibilities were out of alignment with our means. A Royal Commission could and should find a new balance between ends and means, a recommend ways of achieving that balance…quickly.
Since 1970, the Ministry has had difficulty making good, lasting policy--on curriculum, on access, on funding, or on governance. If we are to move forward, we should move beyond mere partisanship to tackle the systemic failures that dog the Ministry and school boards, not to mention educators, parents, and the public at large.
In the end, public education belongs to us all. It is the work of students themselves, of their parents, of professional teachers, of well-placed principals and superintendents, of the entire community. It's a commitment for the long term. A Royal Commissioner can help all of us in the province to make that commitment.
It is election time in B.C. At public meetings, citizens (parents and non-parents alike) have an opportunity to ask if a Royal Commission is possible, and to offer a reason or two for appointing one. If that isn’t possible, citizens might want to write a note to the BC School Trustees Association, the president of the BC Teachers Federation, or the Minister: letters matter.
It’s time for public education.
Welcome to the PENS Blog on public education! Our bloggers include parents, teachers, education researchers, and other strong supporters of public education in BC and in Canada. Taking the lead is Bill Bruneau, Professor Emeritus UBC, ex-Vancouver School Board trustee, ex-President of his faculty association, and ex-president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.