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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 2, October 2004

Public education under attack at home and abroad

by Michelle Hernandez

To keep education public means to give all citizens equal access to a quality liberal education that is fully funded by the government. In British Columbia, public education is under attack and is threatened by a lack of government funding. Although the B.C. Liberal politicians have earned the public’s contempt, attacks on public education go far beyond B.C., the Liberals, and the provincial political agenda.

A BCTF-hosted seminar on participatory education reform in the Americas, held in June, underlined the global aspect of the problem. Speakers included the president of Central America’s teacher union and David Chudnovsky, from the Charter for Public Education Network. Also attending was the newly formed BCTF task force on privatization, two teacher-union representatives from Ghana, local teachers, and members of the public. Participants shared local examples of how public education is threatened. Public education is being undermined in many communities and countries in similar ways.

A common thread of concern is the "commodification" of public education. Life-long liberal education has been distorted and traded for education emphasizing training for specific tasks, with clear testable outcomes.

In British Columbia, Central America, South America, and Ghana, the governments have introduced curriculum reform that reduces learning to bits of information and skills that can be taught and tested. Language now includes terms like accountability, effective schools, and school choice. We are all familiar with such discourse in B.C.’s public schools.

Participants described processes being used to dismantle the public education system: decentralization of educational decision-making, increased parental influence in schools, and cuts to funding of educational programs.

In Central America, the government encouraged parents to have increased involvement and influence in the schools. Once the parents felt empowered in their new role, the government began to cut funding for programs. Eventually it was the parents who ended up running the schools and who were responsible for fundraising to compensate for the government’s cuts to education.

In B.C., our government encourages parents to exert more influence and control in schools. More control means more responsibility. As a result, parents in many communities are subsidizing public education through donations or fundraising to compensate for cuts to B.C.’s public education.

Participants cited governments’ attempts to take away teachers’ rights to participate in the discourse on public education. In B.C., our government has tried to convince the public that the BCTF works to serve self-interests and not the public good. Despite such attempts, many public/parents support our struggle. They recognize that teachers are the front line of education, working in the best interests of children.

Speakers urged us to engage the public in a dialogue on the importance of public education. In B.C., The Charter for Public Education Network (charter. publiced.ca) has outlined the important components of public education and the expectations the government must fulfill in order to protect public education.

The speakers encouraged us to inform parents of the adverse effects of government policies that attack education and to seek parent support to defend public education. In B.C., teachers won back their right to tell parents about the effects of government cuts on education and parents are beginning to ally themselves with teachers in defence of public education.

The speakers warned us that the attack on public education is global in scale. In partnerships with other teacher unions across the world, we can work together to defend the universal principles of public education.

Michelle Hernandez teaches at Miller Park Community School, Coquitlam, and is a member of the BCTF Task Force on Privatization.

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