Revisiting the Charter for Public Education: A powerful process and a deep commitment.

by David Chudnovsky

An extraordinary document was published in British Columbia in 2003. The Charter for Public Education was a visionary statement of principle, belief, and commitment about what public education could and should be in our province. But where did it come from?  How was it written?  What did it say and who decided what it said?  It is an instructive story.

In 2002 British Columbia income taxes were cut by 25% resulting in deep cuts to education and other public services. Two notorious new laws (found unconstitutional 14 years later by the Supreme Court of Canada) threw out collective agreement clauses protecting class sizes and guaranteeing services to students with special needs and made it illegal to negotiate such provisions in contracts between teachers and their employers.

Almost immediately, class sizes got bigger, specialist teachers disappeared, students with special needs suffered, schools were closed.  Teachers, parents, students, and the wider community reacted swiftly and robustly. The government, though, had a 77-2 majority in the legislature and would not budge.

While the reasonable and necessary political fight-back continued – for more than a decade – some felt an additional strategy would be helpful. The idea of an independent commission which would travel the province, hear from, and speak with British Columbians about what they wanted their public education system to be and then report back in the form of a Charter was proposed.

The BCTF, after a discussion and debate that was not without controversy, decided to fund the initiative. Many teachers were not convinced that their resources should be used in this way. Why, they asked, should teachers pay for a commission would be independent of the Federation? Still, the project was eventually enthusiastically approved.

BCTF set several criteria for selection of the Charter panel of five. One was to be a teacher. The others could not have any connection to the BCTF, had to represent the diversity of the community, be credible as individuals, and be supporters of the public education system.  But the attitude of panel members to any particular issue or controversy was not asked, nor was it known.

While the BCTF funded the project, the Charter panel operated completely independently and the BCTF was to see the Charter – the result of the panel’s work – at the same time as it was released to the public.

The panel consisted of:

The Reverend Margaret Marquardt (Chair) – an Anglican Minister

Dr. John C. Moss – a retired School Superintendent

George Watts – an Indigenous Leader, Nuu-Chah-Nulth

Kathy Whittam – mother of a student with diverse needs

David Chudnovsky – a teacher and former President of the BCTF

The Charter panel held hearings in 42 communities across the province. Large cities like Vancouver, Victoria. Kelowna and Prince George; smaller urban centres like Campbell River, Cranbrook, Fort St. John, and Chilliwack; very small communities like Port McNeil, McBride, Masset, Princeton and Sparwood.

In all, the panel received more than 620 submissions from students, teachers, teacher organizations, principals and vice-principals, school district staff and superintendents, school trustees and their provincial organization, parents and parent organizations, seniors, business people, First Nations organizations, municipal organizations, college and university students and faculty, community health nurses, early childhood educators, and others.

Because of the very painful political context, the panel heard many criticisms of then current government policies. But that was not the mandate of the Charter process. Rather, the panel determined to draw out the principles behind the pain. They decided to pose a number of questions to the participants in every hearing:

What is an educated person?

Which of the characteristics of an educated person are developed through the public schools?

What is an educated community?

This proved to be a very useful strategy.

Still, often a participant expressed their anger, frustration, or bitterness about conditions in a school or school district. The panel reminded the presenter of the mandate of the Charter and asked them to restate their concerns by expressing a positive principle rather than stating a criticism. Significantly, time and again participants said that the hearings were energizing to the people who attended. They reported how helpful and inspiring it was to be in a room with others who cared about public education, talking about what really mattered, about principles, about values and ethics.

The result was the Charter for Public Education which today hangs on the wall in hundreds of schools across BC.  It can be found here:

https://instituteforpubliceducation.org/projects/charterforpubliceducation/

Every concept and principle outlined in the Charter came from the 620 submissions. The panel were careful, as they wrote at the time, to ensure that the Charter and the analysis in the report were, “…. true and accurate reflections of what was heard in the presentations across the province.”

The Charter now resides with the Institute for Public Education BC.  We at IPE believe that it is a good time to look again at the Charter for Public Education.

Already we have several areas where we think the Charter could be improved.

-The Charter should deal more explicitly with equity.

-There needs to be more content regarding Indigenous students and their education – possibly with references to UNDRIP.

-Support for students with special needs isn’t emphasized nearly enough in the Charter.

-Though the panel called for an implementation plan for the principles of the Charter that work was never done.

Of course, we cannot simply “fix” the Charter to suit our preferences.  The current version is based on what hundreds of British Columbians said they wanted.  We can’t alter or reject that important reality.  So, we’re left with a challenge: How can we use the Charter for Public Education today?  Is it still a useful document?  If it needs to be updated, how could and should that be done?

We invite you to help us confront those challenges.  Let us know what you think.

David Chudnovsky is a member of the IPE/BC Board of Directors and one of the co-authors of the Charter for Public Education Report. A retired teacher, former MLA and Past-President of the BCTF, David continues to be very actively engaged in support of quality, inclusive public education.