Should Alberta—or any other province—provide funding for private schools? A discussion of this question can quickly become heated. Some people frame the issue as being about parental rights or personal freedom or the proper pre-eminence of the market economy. Some cast it slightly differently, as being about escaping the grasp of totalitarian government. All of these frames can be provocative.
The most relevant frame is to say that the question is, first and foremost, about our community and education, both understood broadly.
In my career path and as a private citizen, my primary concern is the well-being and sustainability of “community,” but a particular kind of community—a civil democratic society, such as Alberta is trying to be. It is out of concern for the well-being of the community that I recognize how public subsidies for private schools erode our sense of connection and eventually compromise the community itself.
My perspective is unusual—perhaps unique—in that I served as the province’s Minister of Education for almost seven years (1979–1986), and then served public school boards across the province for more than 20 years, as executive director of the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta. During my time as minister I was instrumental in providing increased funding for private schools. Since then I have come to realize that my past support for funding to private schools was mistaken. I was wrong.
In my experience, and in the context of politics and public policy in Alberta and in Canada, “community” is the short form of “civil democratic community.” The word “community” has power and it is frequently used. But why the power? What do we mean by “(civil democratic) community”?
Many of us are nostalgic about community, remembering it as something important and lively in days gone by, but do we have a false memory? Many are concerned about the condition of community today. But regardless of the past, is community really important to us in 2013? If community is important, what ideas does the word represent, and what is vital to the maintenance of community?
As much as the concept of “community” is a potent idea, it is also a dangerous one—detrimental to some powerful stories, interests and ideologies. For such, it is better that people think of themselves as isolated individuals who are dependent upon the narrative of the story or the benevolence of the interests or the inevitable triumph of the ideology. Knowing the evocative power of community, these stories, interests and ideologies often promote counterfeits of community, such as the teenager’s “everybody” (“Everybody’s doing it” or “buying it”), or the survey research firm’s “the majority,” or the media’s “the public,” or the Internet’s “online community.”
Some community naïfs feel comforted that there is an idea of community. But they’ve never thought it through. They glow whenever the term is used, but can’t explain it, like religionists who can recite the prayers of the faithful but don’t understand and cannot live the underlying ideas.
With all this turmoil, the word “community” has been substantially emptied of content. What is left is, at best, an ambiguous idea. Yet the idea continues to have great hold over us.
For many years I supported public funding of private schools on the basis that they do important work. I now see the flaw in this argument.
In my experience, a civil democratic community is a group of people who share a place and live in a web of relationships with each other and with the place, celebrate diversity and seek to make their relationships healthy, generative and enduring.
They do this because they have a sense of obligation to each other, to previous and future generations and to the place itself. A civil democratic community is inherently inclusive and diverse, ongoing and self-organizing. It is non-ideological and non-denominational. It fosters the rule of law, protection of human rights and of the environment, and civility. Social diversity is vital within a civil democratic community for exactly the same reason that biodiversity is vital in nature: diversity supports resilience and improves the prospect of survival.
In other words, a community is a public in a place. A community is not merely individuals living side by side and suffering each other reluctantly, or a mob.
To put it another way, a community is a place that sustains a particular public. “Place” is as important to community as is its public. The community of the Special Areas of east central Alberta, for example, is different from the community of Edmonton, and this is fundamentally because the two places are different. The climate, the soil, the moisture, the watershed, the geology and many other natural factors caused original settlement to be different in one place compared to another, and the differences in the nature of the places continue to influence the communities.
Initially, place makes the primary difference to the nature of the community. But the sources of the settlement, and over time the way people in different places relate to their place, begins to make as great a difference as the place itself. Markerville, with deep roots in Iceland, is a different community than St. Paul, with deep roots in the francophone community. Arguably, the stories and images of indigenous or rural communities are more deeply grounded in their place, which lends strength to these communities. Arguably, metropolitan centres are weaker communities if they are less aware and protective of the nature of their place, if their stories and images make weaker references to the unique nature of their place.
By this definition, a service club, a faith group or a group of online gamers may be a fellowship, but they are not a community. Fellowships that are formed around an exclusive purpose or membership, or without commitment to a place, can serve a powerful purpose, but they are not a community by this definition. In any place where slaves and masters live side by side, they do not share a single community. Where new arrivals are labelled and remain aliens, they may subsequently create their own community, but as long as they remain aliens, they are not part of the dominant community. Transients who arrive today with the intention of leaving in a year or so are only temporarily and often only superficially members of the community. People who don’t feel grounded in their place aren’t as strong a community as people who deeply feel the groundedness.
Given all these alternatives to community, with more emerging every day, perhaps community is no longer important. Perhaps we should allow the public to fragment and disappear. Perhaps it is not important to model democracy, justice, equality of persons, gender equality, or civility. Perhaps we needn’t be concerned about the condition of our place, or perhaps we should only be as concerned about the foothills of Alberta as we are concerned about the veldt of South Africa or the Amazon basin. Perhaps it is no longer important for us to know the history of Alberta or the stories of W. O. Mitchell or the dreams of Peter Lougheed or Donald Cameron. Perhaps our dreams are irrelevant in the face of ideological or global tides.
My entire proposition for public funding for private schools turns on rejecting these suppositions.
Our well-being as individuals and families is contingent upon the continuation of a strong civil democratic community. What, then, is our single best project in pursuit of a community that endures and is healthy and strong?
Obviously, one of the important issues facing every civil democratic community is that it must understand the core of its being—shared values and empathy—and it must convey that core to children and newcomers. Simply put, community and citizenship must be nurtured, in each one of us, and this is the purposeful and explicit work of public education.
We don’t call this system “public” education because it is publicly funded. After all, separate schools, charter schools, private schools and home schooling are all publicly funded to some extent. Public education is public because it is governed by the public as a matter of self-realization. Public education is the only system of education we have, indeed it is the only social institution we have that is explicitly mandated to realize the best the community can be. The “public” in public education refers to the reality that this is the only system that exists for the primary purpose of being a deliberate model of a civil democratic community. (Obviously, public education does not realize its ideal, but it does know how and why it falls short.)
Public education creates the public and thereby sustains our civil democratic community. It is the only means by which every person in the community accepts responsibility for the education of our children.
In essence, the aim of public education is to permeate the lives of students with a strong sense of what it means to be part of a civil democratic community. In the same way, the aim of separate school education is to permeate students with a strong sense of what it means to be part of the Roman Catholic Church. In either case, the work of the school and of teachers is not limited to the program of studies and the curriculum. Such work is conducted informally as well as formally, and it is conducted on the playground and in the hallways and staffrooms as well as in the classroom.
In years gone by our community was sustained—with words and with actions—by a number of omnipresent social institutions, including the sovereign; military service; mass-circulation newspapers; places of worship that reflected a substantially common interpretation of a common (Judeo-Christian) tradition; and public schools (then called “common schools”).
With only one exception, these formerly significant social institutions have disappeared completely, or fragmented and become purveyors of conflicting messages, or lapsed into mere entertainment.
What may happen if government no longer values the role of public education as the creator and sustainer of what we know to be our community, or if government mistakenly believes that public education is only about the program of studies and the curriculum? What may happen if we lose sight of the need to permeate our children and newcomers with an understanding of democracy, the rule of law, protection of human rights and of the environment, civility? What may happen if government mistakenly believes that the market can provide the education we need, or if the government mistakenly believes that faith or ideological communities can provide the education we need?
What may happen if the government mistakenly believes that private schools for elites (or for special needs students) are simply providing good “reading, writing and arithmetic” with no problematic permeation of questionable frames, values and attitudes?
What could happen—what is likely to happen—is that the government will take an increasingly laissez-faire attitude toward private education, with more funding, greater freedom and less supervision.
Private education is an alternative to public education. It is an alternative that should be tolerated provided certain conditions are met, but it should not be celebrated. And it should not be funded by the public.
Why is private school education so problematic for a civil democratic community? Why should it not be publicly funded at all?
Private schools reject the bases of civil democratic community and inculcate perspectives that marginalize the tenets of civil democratic community.
Private schools are exclusive and they promote exceptionalism. They propose that people in a community should begin with an exclusive bias and become selectively inclusive (rather than begin with an inclusive bias and become selectively exclusive). As negative as the exclusive bias is, a compounding factor is that the bias is almost always founded on a distinction that human rights law names as a prohibited ground for discrimination—faith, gender or economic status, to name the three most common.
Private schools are inclusive on their own terms, not as an acknowledgement of the student’s (or parent’s) right to be included. Selective inclusion is not part of a model of democracy. Exclusivity also represents a bias for homogeneity and stereotyping, again, almost always founded on a common trait that is irrelevant to democracy. Educating girls in one school and boys in another—or students of one faith apart from students of another—is not a recipe for appreciating and celebrating diversity. It is not a recipe for breaking down stereotypes.
Private schools are often based on a distinction that human rights law names as a prohibited ground for discrimination 9e.g., faith or gender).
(There may be a case to be made for all-boys or all-girls schools, or for an all-Jewish or all-Muslim school, or for a high-tuition private school accessible only by the wealthy, but the case must be examined very carefully, and the hidden costs associated with such schools must be acknowledged and considered as well as the stated benefits. Separation, fragmentation and exceptionalism can be very costly to the community as well as to the student.)
Private schools represent a withdrawal from the public to a gated community, ostensibly in the name of freedom but often, secretly, out of fear of the “others” who now play a role in the larger community.
Private education expresses the conviction that democratic decision-making by the community as a whole is not to be trusted. The private school suggests that the answer is to withdraw investment (of money, energy, imagination) from the community and leave the community to fend for itself. A private school supporter may continue to “play” in the larger community, but with the house’s money; the commitment is not there.
More likely, private school supporters will completely withdraw from participating in public education, and public education loses what they have to offer. This is the beginning of segregation and it disadvantages those who remain as much as those who withdraw. Whether the majority fences in the minority or the minority fences out the majority, separate but equal development is an unhelpful—if not destructive—proposition.
Being exclusive, private education is essentially corporatist and anti-democratic. Parents (and students) subscribe to the mission of the private school and submit to the decisions of the board and the administration. Private schools may evoke subsidiarity, as do separate schools, but subsidiarity is not a type of democracy; it is the opposite of democracy. (Subsidiarity is the organizational notion of the Roman Catholic Church that decisions should be made as close to the grassroots as possible, but the key decision(s)—about what kinds of decisions will be made close to the grassroots—should be made at the very top.)
To be clear, I have visited private schools that do their work well and whose proponents would insist, with genuine conviction, that the schools promote democracy, are inclusive and do model justice, gender equality, equality of persons, and civility. They follow the Alberta Program of Studies, teach about democracy and justice, and encourage students to participate as citizens. The problem is that they give students (and parents) conflicting messages, and the message that wins in the end is not “what I say” but “what I do.” This is the difference between formalism and permeation.
Private schools that offer generous bursaries are selectively inclusive, as a matter of noblesse oblige. They are not inclusive as a matter of conviction that to be included is a right. Private schools that selectively include also reserve the right to refuse service—to exclude.
Private schools that teach about the equality of persons also charge tuition fees that manifest inequality. They inculcate exceptionalism, on the basis of income, or faith, or gender, or…
None of these objections would be relevant if education were a commodity, like toothpaste or destination vacations. But the education of children is not a matter of choosing a commodity. Children are not merely chattels of their parents. The community has an immediate and vital interest in assuring the protection of children.
Education is not merely a private family matter. The entire community has a vital interest in how children think, speak and act and in how they eventually turn out as adult members of the community. We will all suffer if children are educated for 12 years in religiously extreme schools or if girls are allowed only a minimal education (as some communities of private school supporters would prefer).
If we subscribe to the old African adage that it takes an entire village to raise a child, do we mean that everyone in the village has a right—or is it a responsibility—to raise each child? If it takes an entire village to raise a child, do the parents of a child have a right to exclude other villagers from the education of their child, or is it the role of parents to mediate the learning?
In a civil democratic community, education is the basis for sustaining the community or undermining it. Private education contradicts civil democratic community, perhaps thoughtlessly, but it contradicts it nevertheless.
A community shouldn’t fund schools that contradict the basic tenets of civil democratic society— even if the contradiction is unconscious.
Believing that a civil democratic community is, and always will be, the source of our well-being, citizens of the community need to promote the one institution that exists for the purpose of sustaining their community. Only public education exists to be a deliberate and universally accessible model of a civil democratic community. Only public education is inclusive as a matter of right rather than by invitation. Only public education is inclusive of all students and inclusive of the entire community.
A community cannot, at the same time, fund and promote private schools that contradict the basic tenets of civil democratic community, even if the contradiction is casual, perhaps unconscious.
For many years I supported public funding of some private schools on the basis that they were doing important work that needed to be done. They were leading students through the Program of Studies and the curriculum. At the end of the process, the students could read, write, do arithmetic, think logically, recall the work of W. O. Mitchell etc.
The flaw in this argument, it now appears to me, is that the same benefit can be attained within the public school system. Meanwhile the public school system is weakened when adults effectively withdraw from participation and responsibility, and the private school model within which some students are educated undercuts the roots of democracy. (By analogy, there are many private security forces and personal bodyguards whose services are hired by citizens and corporations. These private services are an alternative to public policing, or a complement to it. The community does not subsidize the cost of such private service, because the community understands that it can’t afford the precedent.)
Government funding for private schools does not further the important public policy values of inclusion, diversity and the celebration of differences, since private schools make no commitment to these values. Such funding promotes a value that is contrary to public policy, namely, exclusivity as the starting point for building personal, social and community relationships. Government funding for private schools encourages some citizens to withdraw (for all practical purposes) from participation in the work of public school education, whether as volunteers, voters or candidates for election as trustees. It changes the mix of students in the public school system, to the general disadvantage of all students, including a resource (financial) disadvantage. And it contributes to the fragmentation of communities.
Government funding for private schools is clear evidence that support for public education is compromised. The compromise is not nearly so meaningful for public education as it is for the community itself.
In a free society, many things are allowed to be said, done and provided that the community would not endorse or fund. Private education is an example. Public funding for private schools should end.
David King was MLA for Edmonton-Highlands from 1971 to 1986 and Alberta’s Minister of Education from 1979 to 1986.