Alvin Singh: The importance of telling the story of public education

By Alvin Singh

Last  week, the Vancouver board of education passed its operating and needs budgets. By law, the board must balance the budget.

The operating version containing $7.12 million in cuts will be the painful budget.  It forms the basis for the operation of Vancouver schools in 2009/2010.

For us at the COPE Education Committee, and for education advocates across the province  who watch this morbid yearly tradition of seeing our schools gutted, it is all too apparent that the public school system is in crisis.

We recognize the work that this board is doing and applaud the commitment it has made to insure these cuts will have as little impact as possible on core learning areas for students. But the reality is that $7.12 million is a staggering sum, and it will have a major impact on our students.

We believe that few people in Vancouver and across B.C. would take argument with our position that public education plays a key role in the development of students into active and engaged citizens, and how that in turn builds healthy, strong, and rich communities across this city, and indeed, across this province.

The belief that our public education system should have the strength and capacity to support every student’s unique learning need, while having those same students be engaged and contributing partners in their own learning, are principles this board has already upheld and advocated for. So what more can be done?

The immense stress that public education has had to endure over the past  eight years has been enormous, but unfortunately it has yet to reach the public consciousness at large. All too often, for individuals who have never had a child in school, or whose children have grown up and moved on, education ceases to be a core priority for them.

Without being faced with the day-to-day realities of the public education system as it is – as it has been forced to be – too many people across this province fail to understand the scope of the budget decisions being made.

Those  who actively or, by virtue of bad policy decisions, passively undermine the system have quite effectively captured the vast majority of the public discourse on education. The Fraser Institute, enabled happily by the Ministry of Education, still publishes  its yearly rankings of schools across the province. While those that care for the vitality of the public education system have challenged these rankings, it is still major news each year, and is still viewed by some as a credible study.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance publish statistics about year-over-year increases in funding for the system, heralding their modest funding increases in public education as proof that there is no crisis. These stories too are major news events in the world of public education and largely go unchallenged by mainstream media.

This board, and boards across this province must take it upon  themselves to tell the story of its students better than those  who are undermining their education system. The decisions made through the consultation process must be explained to the wider public in terms that are easily understood. Contrasts must be made between the needs and compliance budgets that were passed, and the differences between them have to be the starting point to any advocacy that takes place.

One of the central commitments of this new board was to restart in earnest advocacy work on behalf of students and the public education system. This work must be one of the primary focuses for any board, but it also has to be thought of in the broadest possible sense. Working with parents and education professionals, partnering with student-led advocacy groups and lobbying the provincial government are effective means of advocacy, and they should continue. But in order to move forward and begin work to build a more effective advocacy network, boards of education will have to start working with groups and individuals that they have rarely worked with in the past.

One immediate area to move towards is greater cooperation with municipal governments. While this board of education was elected at the same time as the mayor, city council, and park board, the reality of where the majority of education funding comes from means inherent disconnects between the policies and stories of the city, and the policy and stories of the students who learn in them.

Recognizing that schools form the foundation of civic society through the personal development of engaged and aware citizens is the first step in transforming the relationship between the board of education and civic government in Vancouver. For every cut or loss of resource in our public education system, there is a direct impact on the city as a whole. Whether it be fewer opportunities for our children to play creatively, make friends, and spend their time away from drugs, gangs, and crime, or a failure to support the unique learning needs of vulnerable students who could be robbed of their chance to become leaders in their community, there is a direct correlation between the health of our public education system and the health of our communities.

Another area of concern is for our economy and future creative force across the province. Academics across the country and around the world have articulated the need for strong investments in education as a particularly effective economic stimulus and way to build strong and healthy communities. At a time when the economic security of our province is at the front of everyone’s mind, articulating the need to have a robust public education system to build long-term strength is a compelling story and one that has not been widely told.

The board of education should take a proactive role and use the statistics it has at its disposal to paint this narrative for groups like the Vancouver Board of Trade, the Chamber of Commerce, and other similar organizations locally and across the province. This suggestion is not about reducing the social value of education into financial terms, but instead to articulate to groups seemingly removed from the realities of public education just how interconnected quality public education and the economy are.

There must be a broad acknowledgment of just how exactly the strength of our schools means the strength of our students, and how that in turn means strength for all segments of our society.

Finally, throughout any outreach to groups not strongly aware of the public education system, the unique place our schools occupy in society must be stressed. There is evidence to suggest that the move toward standardization and ranking is shifting how people think about schools. We may be in danger of having the delicate relationships and learning systems present in our schools today reimagined into a competitive, corporate set of forces where competition and market incentives play a key role.

This idea, that education is a commodity and that students are customers is a dangerous one and ignores the multifaceted nature of the learning that takes place in the public education system. How does one quantify hard work, artistic ability, or critical thinking? How does one put a value on tolerance, respect for differences and equity? How does one test for cooperation, empathy, or good citizenship? These are the values and characteristics that would be lost in a system that is built upon pure service delivery, standardization, and competition. And they are the same values that build healthy, safe, creative, and strong communities.

With  last week's  announcement, students in Vancouver find themselves $7.12 million further behind. But far from being just a hit to our schools and the students they support, it means entire communities--neighbours, businesses, and cultural institutions--will also find themselves further behind as well. So regardless as to whether someone feels they have a stake in schools or not, they will feel these cuts.

Education advocates, led by the board, need to start explaining why schools are such a foundation and why, if they are not protected, all of us will soon find ourselves so far behind we’ll never be able to catch up.

Alvin Singh is external chair of the Vancouver Coalition of Progressive Electors and a member of the COPE education committee