||Volume 14, Number 5, March 2002 |
Metro teachers rally Saturday, January 12, 2002:
Trustee ties education cuts to global agenda
by Adrienne Montani
Thank you to all of you for coming out to stand up for public education. It’s a privilege to stand in solidarity with so many advocates for children and youth.
So why are we out here? Why do we care so much about education? Because it really matters. Because the stakes are high—for our children and for our society.
These high stakes in public education are recognized by advocates, governments, academics, and yes, by marketing firms and the private sector interests they represent.
For example, we have some very good policy language in B.C. The mandate for the public school system to create "educated citizens" who can contribute to a democratic, just, and productive society is eloquently outlined as a fundamental responsibility of government. Many acknowledge the crucial role of the public education system in equalizing opportunities for all children and youth.
We also have much accumulated knowledge about good educational practice, about child and youth development, and about the greater benefits of early investments in prevention and support over the later remedial or crisis response.
We even have International Monetary Fund studies that confirm that economic returns from public investment in education are high. And we have the international affirmation of the importance of children’s and youths’ rights to an education, enshrined in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, a commitment document that every country in the world, except the United States and Somalia, has signed.
So what kind of society or government ignores all the evidence and learning and decides to shoot itself in the foot by penny-pinching on the education of its children?
Our current provincial government made a public policy decision to deliberately reduce government revenue through tax cuts—which primarily benefit the wealthiest among us. The argument that goes with it suggests we all will reap long-term benefits in economic growth, despite the short-term "belt-tightening." Having done this, the government now tells us there’s just not enough money for education and other public or social services, that education budgets will have to be frozen for three years at current levels.
We know that children learn more from what we do, not from what we say. So think of that decision in terms of what it teaches our children. As a parent, if I gave a big chunk of the family budget to some wealthy neighbours and then told my children I couldn’t afford decent food or clothing for them, they would rightly conclude that their health and well-being are less important to me than the wealthy neighbours, regardless of what arguments I might make about this being a good long-term investment.
The message to students in our schools is the same. This decision says to them, Your right to, and need for, a quality education is less important than tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations. Your needs will be sacrificed now (and we’re sorry you’re only young once...) in order to make B.C. an attractive investment environment for people who think they shouldn’t have to contribute much to the collective social fabric through taxation, for people who value personal or corporate profit over community well-being.
The decision to freeze the budget for public education for three years—which we know means that school boards will have to make more cuts to programs and services—and the threatened cuts to the $43 million dollars in social-equity funding currently held by the Ministry of Children and Family Development, which pays for community schools, hot lunches, inner-city programs, etc.—teaches us something about the value accorded to our children and youth and to the health and well-being of our communities by the decision makers. No amount of rhetoric about education being a top priority can mask the harmful impact of these decisions. If children’s and youths’ educational rights were truly valued, different decisions would be made.
It is our job as citizens, as community, as advocates for our children to oppose this devaluation and to educate others about the urgency of this task. Everyone should understand that the stakes are high.
The stakes are particularly high for the most vulnerable of our students: those with developmental challenges and disabilities, Aboriginal students, students living in poverty, students who came here as refugees, and others—many of whom are already struggling to find the supports they need in our schools. Targeted education dollars for Aboriginal and students with special needs have not been adequate, but they have made a difference. What advantage is there for these students in de-targeting these dollars? Will greater flexibility translate into more support for them or less? We should not gamble on the answer.
Underfunding is already forcing excruciating and inherently unfair choices on all levels of the education system—on trustees, on administrators, on parents, on teachers, and on support staff. Which student gets put on the wait list for assessment or services? Which student doesn’t get the attention he/she needs in a classroom? Which option is the least destructive for students with special needs: under-resourced integration in a regular classroom or placement in a special or separate program? Which school doesn’t get the earthquake safety upgrade it needs? Do we buy math texts or books for the school library?
In this context, the new talk of choice seems rather cruel. Yet we are told there aren’t enough choices in our schools and we must rush to create a greater "marketplace" of "choice" schools. But this new rhetoric of choice comes with an agenda that values competition, not community building, and we all know which families and students are most likely to win in a consumers’ race and which are most likely to lose.
So we are being asked to magnify the inequalities that already exist by creating greater choice for those who are already most advantaged and to direct scarce resources from neighbourhood, comprehensive schools where choices and support for the disadvantaged are already inadequate. This is not speculation. This is the legacy of "New Era" style choice programs in other countries that have been pursuing this agenda for a while. Even the World Bank acknowledges this results in increasing inequality.
Cumulatively, we have the red herring of the need for choice schools layered on fiscal decisions that deliberately undermine the quality of education the public system is able to offer. We have the relentless imposition of the language of the marketplace in the discourse of education: parents are "consumers" teachers and students are to be valued for their measurable "outcomes" or "outputs" or their "continuous improvement"—not for their less tangible teaching and learning successes. Schools and teachers are told they must become more accountable by incessantly testing their students and using the results as marketing material. The institution of public education itself is vilified by the likes of the Fraser Institute as a one-size-fits-all "monopoly" that must be ended.
And right on the heels of this manufactured crisis and turmoil, the consistent attempt to shake the public’s confidence in public education (with a lot of help from the corporate media), and the actual undermining of the system through underfunding, comes the message, Private is better. Let the private sector work its magic of efficiency, consumer choice, and competition leading to excellence!
Forget social justice and reducing inequality. Forget public responsibility for ensuring equal opportunity for all children. Too bad if some parents aren’t good enough consumers or competitors. Forget the values of community building, co-operation, and including the most vulnerable. Forget what we know and have learned about what is good for children and for a healthy society. Just repeat "Public is bad; private is good" over and over again, until enough people believe it.
Is a conspiracy at work? Yes! Read the web sites of the marketing people who are salivating to get their products (educational and anything else) into the education "market," in front of those captive and impressionable young people.
Not all people who are caught up in the "New Era" language are conspirators. Many parents, students, and educators have legitimate and urgent complaints about the current system. Some of them are unaware of the privatizing agenda behind the neo-liberal language. They are frustrated and want changes. It’s hard to know who is speaking the truth when promises are made and solutions are proposed.
And so I go back to values and remembering what we know and what we have committed to. Do we want to live in a society that treats the education of its children as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder, or the slickest marketing campaign? I’m clear on the answer: No! That would violate our responsibility to nurture our children and engage them in building a cohesive, caring society. We must stop looking to the worst examples, where privatization and commodification of education have been imposed, and look instead to the countries, for example in Europe, that have strongly supported public education systems from preschool through post secondary.
Smart societies invest generously in their children and youth. Just societies uphold the rights of their children and youth—most of whom cannot vote yet. Caring societies make sure all children and youth are included, especially those least able to compete.
I want to live in a just, caring society that acts on its knowledge of what is good for children and, ultimately, what is good for us all. Public education is one of those social goods that we must protect—because it is essential to protecting our freedoms and our future. The stakes are high, and we all have a role to play in educating ourselves, our peers, our government, and the public.
Those who say we cannot afford a good public education system in this wealthy province and country are revealing the bankruptcy, not of the public treasury, but of their values.
Adrienne Montani, a Vancouver school trustee, spoke at a rally on January 12, 2002 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.