"Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education".
Picture thousands of kids under the age of 18 guarding themselves from public debate about their parents’ schooling choices. This is indeed an interesting image. When I left the public school system in 1999, I struggled deeply with the idea of turning good education into a privilege. I still believe it should be a right.
In my own school, I am reminded every day that kids do not have a choice over the school they go to. We want them to have a say about which school serves them best; in fact, their ability (or inability) to see themselves in a school, is essential to their potential to learn there. However, the engineers of final decisions are their parents, most of them, admitting that although they are loyal to the public system, they are more loyal to their child’s needs. But the arguments about private vs. public continue on all sides. And while this is going on, so does deflection about the most prevailing issue at hand. Namely, regardless of the economic, social, religious and/or cultural backgrounds of kids – and given their diverse intelligences, gifts, weaknesses, gaps, emotional dilemmas, anxieties, complex family structures, and a multitude of other factors, what is it that 'every' school should be doing to address these needs? And since I have observed that many of the kids attending my school experience their own unique troubles, I have come to consider external arguments about where they should be learning, as a complete waste of my time. Kids are kids, and their learning requirements are all equally important. So I choose to focus on my students first. From this perspective, I pay no tribute to debates anchored on 'which' educational option is most politically correct, as this practice only serves to create distraction from what truly matters.
In the end, what is it that school children deserve – in every school (public or private), in every neighborhood, in every region, in every sector? How can education become more holistic, compassionate, empathetic and more attentive to its own needs (not the system’s needs), in every school?
That said, the tendency to focus on private vs. public is a counterproductive practice, not to mention destructive in the end. Ultimately, these arguments do not serve to improve education. Given that all schools should provide equally valuable learning experiences for every child – then what should educators be talking about? What are the gifts offered to kids in successful models—and how could these be shared through a sense of tolerance and awareness of each other’s efforts? Is each school having discussions about approaches that address a diversity of learning styles and a multitude of intelligences?
Given that the public school system is multi tiered and prone to 'catchment areas', can every school be good, regardless of where kids live? Can we all take a look in our own backyards and ponder hard enough to discover how kids feel about our schools? Could we focus on 'education' first, with all its complexities, its requirements, and the requirements of a rapidly changing world, and begin to question our current schooling climate — political, demanding, unforgiving, and fueled by a race for grades meant to serve the needs of global competition? How do we promote a sense of belonging and safety in each of our schools? If these were our questions, we could then begin to focus on the emotional, social and academic sensibilities of kids from a place of informed educational purpose. Most ideally, the information could be left to those who live the realities of the classroom and their schools – and to those who are best able to talk to problems at hand because they are 'felt'.
The other question is more about whether or not each model dedicates its budget to honest spending. It should be a given, that ethical schooling does not squander money on personal interest. Budgets must be used wisely to provide a quality education above all. And unless the private system is doing irreparable financial damage to its counterpart, why are we arguing? As I see it, private school parents continue to pay due taxes to the public system, whether or not their children attend there. Respectively, in Ontario, private schools are not dependent on public funds.
Many private schools today come to the job of teaching with honest goals, and are born out of need to make change to a system that many parents and educators see as failing. This reaction is not altogether negative, if and when it produces schools that foster a love of learning. Stereotyping every educational alternative as the enemy, will only delay changes that could be taking place in a system requiring role modelling. Blaming teachers for where they want to teach does not lead to solutions either. This practice has no place within the context of education, especially if education claims to teach tolerance.
What we need is a shared language and a public mandate that 'every' school, private or public, do the best job possible to address the unique requirements of learners.
Intolerant and stereotypical, the private vs. public debate ironically serves to point out ongoing deficiencies in education. It also contradicts basic principles of democracy. As a society, it would be so much more useful to dedicate our efforts (and discussions) to the big idea, and to the learning needs of every young person, everywhere.
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This article was originally published in "Our Kids" blog.
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