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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Let's put public education on the front pages, the front burner and the daily news feed

It is really no longer reasonable or acceptable to relegate matters, issues, policies and budgets dedicated to education to the “family” pages of our dailies, not to the back pages where there are no ‘family’ pages.

In America, public education, like most of the “public square” is being decimated by the trump administration. Like the EPA, it is being replaced with conditions and regulations and options that obsequiously bow to the interests of the private sector. Corporate America is now ruling in the United States.

In Ontario, there is a rather heated debate over a so-called sex-education curriculum designed and implemented by the previous Liberal government to which right-wing conservatives are strongly opposed. Parents’ “rights” must trump the public’s imposing a view on sex-ed that might result in increased promiscuity and enhanced fear among young people. The dangers of the internet, notwithstanding, parents are the first and primary educators on matters of sexuality, as the opponents’ argument goes.

There was a time when the titles of novels deemed to be too risqué were the targets of conservative parents who, at that time, feared the mention or depiction of intercourse in a novel written for adults, and taught in senior high school classes, no matter how sensitively and articulately the scene(s) were depicted, would result in increased promiscuity, venereal diseases and an irretrievable slide in public morality.

Trouble is, education and schools are about much more than the boundary on adolescent morality. And in an age when public airwaves, the internet and the entertainment menu to which all of us are being exposed are all overflowing with images and innuendo around the human body and sexual relationships, whether through wardrobe, dialogue or physical acts. As in most generations, it would be reasonable to conclude that parents are less familiar with the breadth and depth of the available invasive sources of much of this material than are their kids. Public health resources are also gathering and interpreting public data that tell them, and through them the rest of the public, what they are witnessing in emergency rooms, public health clinics, doctors’ offices and other agencies dealing with public health issues.

Of course, there is a fluid scale for if and when each young person is “ready” and “open” and strong enough to integrate “public” information into their view of their world and their relationship to that world. And, while “one size does not fit all” is a reasonable argument for parental control of sex education, anyone who thinks believes that parents are doing or have done an adequate job in conferring the complexities of sexual relationships to their children has been living under a rock for most of the last century.

There is a place for the “public” to participate, along with parents in the design or curriculum, and, in saying that, the public representatives have to be cognizant of the depth and breadth of the grasp of those individuals on both the private issues facing families and the public issues faced by the relevant culture. Culture “wars” so called, have taken a high profile in discussions of all issues these days, represented by two main factions: conservative and somewhat liberal, although  even the latter category has been pulled to the right in the last decade or so.

Employment standards have been gutted through the erosion of labour organizations; taxes have been skewed in favour of private enterprise, and corporations, in the belief that the public sector squanders “hard-earned tax-payer money” and also that “the most effective engine for reducing unemployment is the private sector. While there is some validity in this shibboleths, they are not holy writ, although their proponents act as if they believe they are. However sacrificing public interests like the environment and education to the private sector (not only literally private charter schools but also to a mind-set that elevates the for-profit view far above the public interest) is both dangerous and extremely short-sighted.

To simplify, or to reduce public debate about schools to money and sex, the way too many public debates have come to do, is a scathing indictment of the political class that participates in such reductionisms. The potential and demonstrated success in facilitating a capacity to accommodate complex inter-racial, inter-ethnic, inter-linguistic, and inter-ability is a matter of public record. Further, the segregation of schools by race or ethnicity, also plays into the hands of those who seek dominant control of their child’s experience, shielding him/her from the complexities of the streets, restaurants, movie houses, dances and parties he will experience.

Public education, as has been argued more forcefully and articulately by people like John Ralston Saul is the cornerstone of democracy.  But what elite, or elite wannabee supports the messiness of democracy, when the perfection and purity and “security” of  religious, private, charter and for-profit schools can and do eliminate all of that messy complexity, especially for young people too naïve and innocent to be exposed to such “trauma”.

Religious fundamentalists, evangelicals, corporatists, ethnic purists and public officials dependent to and obsequious before their flush donors all comprise the forces that are already eroding public education. Parents of children with intellectual, emotional, physical and social impairments, on the other hand, are left to fight for the scraps that fall under the tables from debates over budgets for public education. Resources that would clearly prevent much of the later social unrest on our streets are withheld from public education budgets so that more incendiary issues like sex-ed can distract from the public debate that is needed to protect vulnerable students.

And the public, including the media, fall for this ruse every time. Stephen Lewis, back in the late sixties, delivered a speech to high school teachers, as leader of the New Democrats on Ontario, in which he noted, with derision, that coverage of public education was reduced to numbers: dollars and students. We have never really recovered from that indictment. We suffer from a surfeit of public debate about money and sex, as the condiments to a dish of depleting student numbers and the resulting closing of school buildings. Just last week, the Ford conservative government eliminated some $100 million budgeted by the former Liberal government for school restoration and repair, in order to better afford the budget promise of extracting the province of Ontario from all environmental protection projects of their predecessors, and deliver on that 10-cent reduction per litre on vehicle fuel (thereby increasing CO2 emissions into the atmosphere).

The sex-ed debate, naturally, gives the government cover for their other “school” and education decisions, none of which are in the “public interest” in the broad sense of that phrase. But, the “public interest” now takes a back seat to the private interests of their corporate friends, just as it does in the United States.

Any attempt to broaden and deepen the public debate about the intricacies and complexities, the potential and the rewards of a vibrant public education system now faces a wall of public “expectation” that such issues do not concern the private lives of most people, that such issues are of interest merely to those who volunteer to serve on school councils, or offer their names for school board elections. Sadly, the issues that schools confront every day in every classroom, like collaboration, team-building, conflict resolution, compromise, awakening to the indigenous issues of other ethnicities go under the radar of the public television screen, and the tablet. That is, unless and until some disturbance disturbs that quietude, a solo shooter kills and maims the innocents, or some teacher crosses some professional boundary.

There are numerous obstacles to overcome in order to turn the minds of the editors of daily newspapers, television and radio stations around from their stereotypical mind-set that stories about schools and kids do not rate their best reporters, nor their front pages. So transfixed by the sensational and especially the negative sensational news story, unless a kid is killed or maimed in a school yard or gym, the story does not rate prime coverage. It is used as a “filler” to fill empty space after the “real” news stories have been laid out.

Pitching to editors, and advertisers (because if advertisers were convinced to place their ads on a page with an assurance that educational news stories would complete those pages, editors might be more inclined to listen to school board, teacher and administration officials seeking to get more visible coverage. Of course, for the school systems, there is a risk that not all of the stories will be “positive” but the benefits outweigh the risks.

And in covering “education,” editors will have to stretch their gaze beyond the athletic scores, to include the debating clubs and competitions, the drama clubs and competitions, the science fairs and any new discovery by a student, as well as foreign and national trips that reach beyond the parochial comfort zone of both current readers, editors and advertisers.

The cynicism surrounding public school teacher labour contracts, another of the “black eyes” the education system has been enduring for decades (after all teachers only work five or six hours a day, never on weekends, and never during Christmas, Spring or Summer holidays, according to the myth that hangs over the profession). Countering such myopic and disdainful reductionism, by both boards and teachers’ federations, parties who often do not see eye to eye during negotiations, will make it more necessary for both sides to seek common ground, and enhance their mutual respect, a by-product worthy of considerable effort in itself.

Stories, for example, that boards of education failed to hire male teachers for the elementary panel for many years, would not have a place to hide from the view of parents, who vote for board members. Stories of teacher and student sacrifice and accommodation of diversity among both staff and student populations, bridges being built in obscurity, would serve as both conversation topics and role models for enhanced racial integration and acceptance across the local culture. Turn-around stories, in which students reversed what previously were less than outstanding reports would not only ennoble such students, but serve also as fodder for others whose current path seems to be a downward spiral. Of course, the permission of the student and his family would have to be garnered prior to the publication of such stories, and a final vetting process would have to ensure the future repercussions of such stories would not backfire on the subject. Confidentiality, naturally is very important, and none of these ideas would get out the gate without an oversight panel including students who could and would vet the process and the final publication.

There have to be legitimate ways to bring the education system out of the classroom and into the public square for so many clear, positive and progressive purposes.

Another large obstacle that needs to be hurdled is the penchant for privacy and secrecy and the negative impact of comparisons and competitions (both covert and overt) among and between teachers, principals, administrators and boards. And undoubtedly, there would be a period of trial and working out the “bugs” before full exposure of the school system could or would be achieved in a manner that comported with the ethical, legal, cultural and educational expectations and standards currently extant.

There are “special events” nuanced stories of honour, achievement, innovation, surprise and occasionally disappointment that walk through the corridors of elementary and secondary schools every day. And there are educational precepts and philosophic foundations that are in constant tension in each classroom and school and school system. “Nice,” “comfortable” “friendly” and “motivating” are adjectives ascribed to both the professional and learner populations. Yet, there is much more go be discerned, discussed and learned given the rather copious trainloads of public cash that underwrite the school systems.

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