Author: Bill Bruneau
A few weeks ago—2015 February 24—I sat beside a retired grandmother on a flight from Vancouver to Los Angeles. I’ll call her “Barbara” to protect her anonymity. Three of Barbara’s grandchildren live near Los Angeles. She planned to visit them for a few days.
We buckled in to our extremely cheap Air Canada Rouge seats, and in a minute or two were talking about public education in British Columbia and in California. It turned out Barbara had been a primary school teacher in Lower Mainland BC most of her adult life, only recently retired.
Barbara has a clear eye and an abiding love of public education, from Kindergarten to Ph.D. She had read Daphne Bramham’s intriguing Vancouver Sun article of 2015 February 23, the one where Ms Bramham fulminates about the unfairness of public funding for private schools in British Columbia. Barbara had a copy in her hands, which explains why we fell into conversation in the first place.
Here are Bramham’s two main points, just as Bramham wrote them:
The [British Columbia 2015-2016] budget forces school trustees — education’s “co-managers” as the government describes them — to slice another $137 million from spending over the next three years, after having to make cuts in the three previous years when funding was capped at less than inflation.
Meantime, private schools will receive an additional $54 million over the coming three years. This year, taxpayers will spend $310.5 million to fund private-school operations.
I reminded Barbara that the Minister of Public Education claims the new budget is “good for schools.” After all, the Minister says, it pays for the salary deal reached with BC teachers last summer, and promises modest funding to prevent significant layoffs in the next year or two.
By this time, Barbara was frothing. It turned out she had been a school librarian—that is, until library funding was cut in her district ten years ago. Then she was a half-time librarian and half-time Special Needs teacher. She loved the work, but could not really meet the needs of 425 children in sixteen classrooms in her areas of expertise.
She agreed with the Vancouver School Board and school boards all over Canada and the United States that funding has been drying up since the 1980s. Yes, governments pay (modest) salaries to teachers, and that takes public commitment and a willingness to pay taxes.
But when governments continue to refuse to account for special needs (even though they have promised in law that they would finance special needs kids' schooling), when they refuse to provide for English-as a-Second-Language education at times when immigration is at near-record levels, when they refuse to take into account annual inflation (in everything from paper supplies to heating costs), and when they imply that their salary policy is dictated by the values of Ebenezer Scrooge…well, these governments dare not say, as the British Columbia Minister of Education does, that “the budget is good for schools.”
Taking inflation into account, the pattern of underfunding goes back to the deep cuts of 1983-1985. The pattern is well rooted and it is worrisome. It helps to explain why there will be $137 million in cuts over the next three years in British Columbia. The pattern doesn’t justify cuts. It just describes the cuts. It leaves the impression that government is running on automatic pilot, and the automatic pilot is directing at cutting. The larger question is, is the government giving up on public education?
After all, even as the economy thrives (12% increase in GDP forecast for 2015-2018), in British Columbia the budget for public education will rise by only 1% in that same period (all figures in inflation-adjusted dollars).
Apart from cuts, one more feature of the Bramham article was bothersome to Barbara and to me. The government plans to spend between $310 million and $364 million each year on private schools between 2015 and 2018. These schools don’t have to accept children with special needs, they may refuse kids needing instruction in English, and they must appeal to families who can afford large private school fees. These outfits charge whatever the market will bear, as one might expect. They advertise that their classes will not exceed 12, 15, or 20 pupils, they teach the examinable parts of the public curriculum (the parts that lead to university entrance—the parts that justify their receiving public subsidies), and they ensure their pupils will do well in the exams and ranking systems so beloved of the Fraser Institute.
But that’s enough about flight 1882. We landed and were congratulated by passengers sitting around us who had been listening. They may not have been persuaded by our conclusions, but they agreed the flight passed quickly…
This experience has led me back to a long-planned project, to explore why public schooling, public higher education, and life-long learning are so crucial to the life of a democracy. The big underlying questions go something like this:
Main questions of this blog
There’s an irony in the British Columbia arrangements. In Canada’s best-known and best-regarded private schools, there’s not much doubt: some children receive a good education. Where class size is limited, where the teachers know something about education, where the library and the science labs and the music programme are excellent, where parents actively support the life and work of the school in and out of school hours, where the academic disciplines are presented in a way that encourages vigorous critical thinking, well then: these schools are providing a service with educational value.
That value is, alas, limited. It’s limited most most by private school admissions policies. It’s limited, too, by the narrowness of the introduction that children in such schools will get to life in the wider community. If children rarely have to deal with others who are richer or poorer, rarely have to talk to kids who are much more or much less able to do academic work, and who are better or worse citizens, then…those children have been denied an essential ingredient of public life.
It's limited by the narrowness of vision in schools that say they're interested in an assured, 100% university entrance rate. Children would benefit from technical or vocational instruction (in the arts, or the applied sciences, say) won't get it in such places.
Yet in North America, far more than in the UK, Europe, or elsewhere, private schools go along, almost unchecked and unaccountable. Provided kids do well on standardized tests and end up in professions, the state asks few questions.
That explains how ultra-fundamentalist Mormon schools in Bountiful, British Columbia, have survived with the aid of public grants for decades, despite the horrid moral and social conditions in which its children must live. In British Columbia, there is exactly ONE person officially charged with the inspection of several hundred private schools, a remarkable fact considering the amounts of public funds spent on them, and considering that we are talking of the welfare of children. It is said that temporary contracts are issued for "assistant inspectors" to help the Chief Inspector of private schools (they're called "independent" schools in British Columbia), but the main point stands.
A similar tale could be told of deeply fundamentalist religious schools (all religions included in this generalization) in every state of the American union.
So is there room in Canada and the USA and the UK and Europe for private schools? Yes, for constitutional reasons, and maybe even for educational reasons, there must be room. But clearly the present arrangements of accountability and control are inadequate, across the continent (and certainly in British Columbia, where this blog is written). There is no persuasive reason to give public funds to private schools, even if they are carefully and believably inspected on criteria like the ones given earlier.
But the main question in this series is about public education, not the private variety. I'll close with comments on that main point.
In a recent Globe and Mail article, Stephen Toope (immediate past president of the University of British Columbia) asked readers to imagine a state of affairs where people needn’t pay attention to red lights at signalled intersections—and wouldn’t understand the point of having red lights, where fire-fighters come only if paid by the owners of burning properties, where the sick are treated only if they have necessary funds (in their current accounts), and where organized and useful knowledge is dispensed to those who want it and have the cash to pay for it. Toope thinks it might cost $40,000 in "loose change" to pay for education in that world. We can’t be sure what policing, fire-fighting, medical care and so on, would cost. Toope concludes we simply cannot afford it.
Toope doesn’t have to say that a post-institutional world would be morally “bad.” He merely says it would be a dangerous and thoroughly unjust place, the kind of place none of us would care to inhabit.
Yet governments in Canada, in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and in parts of western Europe, are saying and doing things that suggest they don’t get Toope’s simple, central point. Politicians and business interests, important in so much of our common life, are suspicious of the very idea of the “public” in “public institutions.” They’re not saying it would be all right to close the schools and the fire academies. But the game-playing of education ministers in Canada and elsewhere, and the posturing of neo-liberal think tanks and commentators that continues to bedevil public discussion about public education/health/safety, makes a post-institutional world at least conceivable.
In later blogs, I'll explore many points I’ve raised here, adding a few as I go along, especially about public post-secondary education, and about life-long learning.
In the spirit of this first instalment, the next one starts with a lurid story, the story of my own experience as an elected school trustee in Vancouver, one of Canada’s largest cities.
The tale of my days as a school trustee is partly about political intrigue, but most of all, it’s about
· the mis-match between (a) the responsibilities of local school boards and (b) the powers of school boards (which are few and weak)
· the strange way we make the curriculum of studies in public schools, and how we might improve on it
· the many roles of teachers and school administrators in big, multi-cultural, socially complicated places like Vancouver.
It sounds as if I'm promising a novel, but no, it's a short story.
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.