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

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

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 – parent 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 ways 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.

 

 

 

 

IPE/BC Submission for BC’S 2021 Budget Consultation

IPE/BC has submitted its recommendations to BC’s Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services for the upcoming year’s budget. Our submission reflects IPE/BC’s basic values and focuses on the following:

  1. Recognizing that public education is in the public interest and a critical element of our democratic society.
  2. Focusing funding initiatives to support the most vulnerable students.
  3. Avoiding a return to austerity to be able to recover from the damage of previous austerity measures.
  4. Defunding private/independent schools.
  5. Planning to incorporate remedies for the climate crisis in all areas of public education.

You can read the submission here.

We welcome feedback in our efforts to support public education in BC.

Public School Programs of Choice: Private School in the Public System?

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Public School Programs of Choice: Private school in the public system?

by Tara Ehrcke

The 21st century has, so far, seen the great up-ending of one of the most fundamental tenets of public education—that all children, regardless of background or socio-economic status, should be able to reach the same educational end goal. This concept of equality of outcome was intricately tied to the notion that society provided, or should provide, for social mobility. One could improve one’s station in life because public institutions, such as public education, were grounded in what we would now more commonly refer to as equity. The system, rather than doling out resources equally to all children, would rather apportion them so as to ensure that those starting with a disadvantage had the opportunity to catch up.

The neoliberal turn of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has instead brought us back to the more basic and enduring features of capitalism. Institutions, rather than mitigating inequalities, are instead exacerbating them. Within schooling, this obviously takes shape clearly in the private versus public provision of schooling. But, even within the public school system, a great many features serve to further stratify children according to race, class and gender. We see aspects of private schools directly within public schools.

One such feature is school choice. “Choice” takes place in a variety of ways: the open catchment areas; allowing and increasing public funding of private schools; allowing school fees; and promoting niche schools and academies. With only limited opposition (from parents, teachers and school trustees) “choice” policies have changed the nature of BC’s public school system. The impact of these changes is that we are moving from a more comprehensive, equitable, neighbourhood and community oriented, publicly administered school system, towards a semi­private, stratified and segregated system in which precious limited resources are increasingly allocated to a privileged minority.

Parents can be easily swayed by these calls: How could school choice be a bad thing? How is wanting the best for my child making things worse for public education?

Teachers, administrators and school board trustees can similarly be entranced by school choice initiatives. They see opportunities to offer new and alternative programs that otherwise wouldn’t be supported. Or more likely, they see their existing programs cut and school choice policies the only method to try and maintain them. With fee structures, they see the chance to have properly funded programs. With dwindling support and resources from the basic Ministry budgets, these policies can appear to be the only way to keep such programs running.

But sometimes what seems or even is best for one child or one group of children is not best for all children. And what appears to be saving an individual program is in fact fundamentally changing the nature of the school system.

School choice exists in British Columbia in a variety of forms. All catchment boundaries are now open, or semi-open, allowing parents to register in a school outside their catchment area. French immersion, perhaps the longest running, largest, and most entrenched program of choice, is now commonly known as “the private system within public schools.” Immersion programs are notoriously unfriendly towards struggling learners. Children with challenges typically cannot receive special education services in French, and are often advised to switch back into the English stream.

Yet another form of school choice is the Academy, or niche program. There are sports academies, and arts academies, but also academic academies such as International Baccalaureate programs, honours programs, and challenge programs. These specialty programs often have competitive enrolment processes, and often require the payment of school fees (typically $2000 – $5000, but as much as $17,000/year). Thus, they are available only to a small subset of students.

Data from the Vancouver School Board verifies the low number of students with an IEP, who are English Language Learners, or who are Aboriginal within the Vancouver Board school choice programs.

Source: VSB, Freedom of Information request number 2014­25

Research on school choice programs generally finds that access to choices varies in relation to socioeconomic status, and that choice tends to have the effect of stratifying along socioeconomic lines. Parents who have more social capital will exercise their rights to choose. They are the ones able to pay additional fees, drive across town, or wait in overnight line­ups. Often, they are simply the parents who know about the choices and the ways to access them.

When these parents access special schools and programs, they are choosing a demographic that matches their own, and thereby reducing the diversity of the schools and programs they have left.

Even the rather conservative Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) acknowledges what the research shows:

“School choice advocates often argue that the introduction of market mechanisms in education allows equal access to high quality schooling for all. Expanding school choice opportunities, it is said, would allow all students – including disadvantaged ones and the ones attending low performing schools – to opt for higher quality schools, as the introduction of choice in education can foster efficiency, spur innovation and raise quality overall. However, evidence does not support these perceptions, as choice and associated market mechanisms can enhance segregation.
…
Although parents may be concerned about equity and integration and may support their neighbourhood school, they seek at the same time the “best” education for their children… Parents with a better­ off background tend to avoid schools with a significant number of disadvantaged students and research suggests that parents prefer schools with populations ethnically similar to their own family… All these elements contribute to socio­economic segregation between schools.”

A genuinely public school system includes equal opportunity for all members of the public. Schooling must be common, collective and universal; equity must be a guiding principle.

To restore equity in public schools, we should focus on these goals:

  1. Advocate for fully funded comprehensive neighbourhood schools with a full range of programming at every school, available to every child
  2. Eliminate school choice policies including open catchments, niche schools/programs, program fees, and streaming
  3. Eliminate all private funding: subsidies to private schools, fundraising, corporate and other private donations, and school and program fees

A longer version of this article published in Our Schools, Our Selves is available here.

Tara Ehrcke is a high school math teacher in Victoria and Past President of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association.

THINK TANK: Privatization and Public Education

On December 7th, IPE/BC (with the support of Your Education Matters) held a Think Tank to discuss the wide range of issues around privatization in public education in British Columbia. IPE/BC Fellows, teachers, researchers, and community leaders came together to consider what issues to address and how strategically to do so. Joel French, Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta, started the conversation with a keynote address, Anti-private and Pro-public Advocacy in K-12 education: Lessons from Alberta.

IPE/BC will be considering the many ideas generating in moving forward with its strategic goal of supporting the public in public education.

 

Charter for Public Education

Decolonizing the Charter for Public Education

As stated in the post below, the Charter for Public Education was developed in 2003 through an extensive community consultation. The IPE/BC Board of Directors believes that the Charter has great potential as a lens for examining the values and commitments in place in each BC public school and is dedicated to a project that will provide tools to support school communities in using it.

The extensive Charter for Public Education report and the Charter itself were written by a dedicated panel of five who travelled the province in 2003 to hear from students, teachers, parents, administrators, trustees and community members about their perspectives on public education. There was tremendous engagement in the process and, at the end, the panelists drafted a thorough report on what they had heard in communities around BC and designed a charter reflecting the values, commitments and expectations expressed.

In crafting the Charter, the panelists used a quotation that they believed captured the importance of public education. However, the quotation is by Egerton Ryerson, who we now know was a key influence in the design of the “Indian Residential School” system and in the creation of separate schools for Black students. The remaining four panelists (sadly, panelist George Watts passed away in 2005), agreed that the quotations should be removed, and IPE/BC moved ahead to do so.  The Charter poster that you see with this post reflects this important change.  The Board of Directors of IPE/BC is further committed to a process of meaningful examination of its work with a decolonizing lens.

 

The Development of the Charter for Public Education

In 2003, British Columbians expressed their hopes and dreams to a panel travelling the province working to develop a framework for future decisions about public education. The panel members heard passionate dialogue about education from thousands of people in 42 communities around the province and received 620 written submissions. The full report from these consultations provided the basis for development of the Charter.

Although the Charter was an initiative of the BCTF, the panel represented a range of community interests. An Anglican priest, Rev. Margaret Marquardt, chaired the Charter panel. The other members were: Dr. John Moss, a former superintendent of schools; Kathy Whittam, a step-parent of a student with special needs; George Watts, former president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council; and David Chudnovsky, past-president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

The result was The Charter for Public Education, published in 2003, as a starting point for dialogue and change in public education.

These questions were posed at each hearing:

  • What is an educated person; what are their characteristics?
  • Which of these characteristics are developed through the public schools?
  • What is an educated community?
  • What are the principles of public education?

The Charter was an inspiration for educators and communities beyond the borders of B.C., as well as a touch point for ongoing efforts to strengthen public education in B.C.  Its principles have stood up well over time.