For many of us, the neighbourhood public school is the heart of our community. It motivates parents to pitch in, volunteer their time, and raise money for the betterment of not only their kids, but of other children in the community.
Nowadays, many parents have a great deal more contact with schools than was the case in bygone generations.
When the Vancouver board of education was considering closing five schools on the East Side, huge crowds attended public meetings. The message was loud and clear: "Don't you dare close our public schools."
Parents with kids in private schools, including the premier, may have difficulty comprehending this widespread and deep attachment to public education.
I acknowledge that some parents choose private schools because their child has special needs that they feel can't be met in the public system. There are also parents who prefer this option because they had unhappy experiences in public schools or because they believe Fraser Institute propaganda suggesting the quality of education is higher.
Then there are those nouveau-riche parents who put their kids in private schools because they think they're giving them advantages that they never had. For still others, it's all they've known, having attended private schools themselves as children.
Certainly there are those who don't want their kids mixing with those whom they perceive to be riff-raff in public schools. For them, it's almost as though their kids will be contaminated in public schools. That's deeply offensive to ardent supporters of public education.
I remember speaking to one parent, an immigrant for whom English is a second language, about why he placed his daughter in an elite private school at considerable personal cost. His reply? He didn't want his child going to a school with too many ESL kids.
I was flabbergasted. Those who cherish public schools feel that exposure to a diversity of students is a core strength of our education system and one of its foremost advantages over private schools. Attending public schools leaves kids well-equipped to deal with the diversity of people they'll encounter as adults.
This month the Ideas program on CBC Radio ran a two-part series on L'Arche, an international humanitarian organization that creates communities of the developmentally disabled. Listening to the shows, I've been struck by how its founder, the legendary Jean Vanier, and others spoke about how much they've learned from developmentally disabled people who've lived with them.
For them, it was a two-way street, with everyone being enriched by spending time together. Similarly, it's a two-way street for gifted children in public schools who are exposed to those with intellectual and emotional deficits. They learn from one another, building greater empathy in our community.
There's a photo that Straight web editor Stephen Hui took of striking teachers who were standing on West Broadway. Four of them were side-by-side carrying a sign, each with one word. If you string the words together, it said: "We teach every kid."
This simple statement sums up why public education resonates so strongly with some of us. Public education is the great equalizer. It enables someone like Jimmy Pattison, who was born in poverty, to become a billionaire and donate tens of millions of dollars to health care.
It helps Michael J. Fox rise from obscurity in middle-class Burnaby to become a beloved actor and the public face of Parkinson's disease. His common touch and basic humility, forged in the public schools of Burnaby, have allowed him to raise millions of dollars to fight his disease.
Difference in values
With students out of school for nearly two weeks this fall, I've concluded that what we're really seeing isn't a difference of opinion over money. It's a difference in values.
The people who are overseeing the government's fight with teachers don't value what makes public schools so extraordinary: that they teach every child. If the premier truly cherished this notion, she wouldn't be appealing a court decision instructing the government to abide by the constitution and spend more money to help students with special needs.
It's not just kids with special needs who are hurt by this government's decision. It's also the other kids in public schools whose teachers must devote even more attention to the challenging students without sufficient help. I heard one teacher on the radio saying what she performs in classrooms is triage.
If the education minister were passionate about ensuring that every child is taught, he would put as much effort into resolving this strike as he is in letting parents know about a $40-per-day babysitting program.
He knows that some of these public-education dollars will wind up in the pockets of stay-at-home parents, who will gleefully spend it on other things. While this distresses those who cherish public education, it doesn't seem to trouble Premier Christy Clark or Education Minister Peter Fassbender.
This babysitting money is not available to help kids with special needs who are over 12 years old. In fact, it's not available to any student over 12.
No wonder secondary students have begun holding demonstrations. Those in Grade 12 are worried about gaining admission into postsecondary institutions. They undoubtedly recognize that private-school students will have an advantage over them.
How should parents respond?
It's not a stretch to assume that there will be more attacks on public education as long as Clark remains premier.
Supporters of public education have a few options at their disposal. In the short term, the best thing might be to volunteer to help elect school trustees in November who will unequivocally support public education and counter any attempts by the B.C. Liberal government to erode it.
Over the longer term, supporters of public schools might want to consider laying the groundwork for a recall campaign targeted against specific B.C. Liberal MLAs to bring about a minority government. If Clark were to lose her majority in the legislature, she would be far more cautious going forward.
Here's my suggestion, which will no doubt elicit howls of outrage from supporters of the government's position. The targeted MLAs should not be chosen on the basis of their role in the current fiasco. Rather, they should be identified on the following criteria:
* How close did the MLA come to losing in the last election?
* What percentage of K-12 students in the MLA's constituency attends public schools?
* How easy is it to obtain the necessary signatures in that constituency to have the MLA recalled?
If seven B.C. Liberal MLAs were recalled, it would create a minority government. This would leave two thoughtful legislators, independent Vicki Huntington and Green MLA Andrew Weaver, holding the balance of power.
If the recall campaign were seen as an attempt to elect an NDP government, it would probably fail. A large majority of voters didn't want an NDP government in 2013. But if it were seen as merely an attempt to force the B.C. Liberals to stop attacking public education, the recall campaign just might succeed.
It would also have a higher level of success if people knew who would be running in by-elections to succeed any ousted B.C. Liberal MLA.
One option would be for the Greens and the NDP to state in advance that they will agree to run a joint candidate in this special circumstance. Both Weaver and the B.C. NDP support the teachers' call for binding arbitration, so there's no disagreement between them on this issue.
Under this scenario, they could settle on a municipal councillor or school trustee, who's already been elected in the past by voters. A primary criterion for the backing of both parties would be that the person had previously expressed support for binding arbitration to end the teachers strike.
Going this route would be a chance for the new leader of the B.C. NDP, John Horgan, to demonstrate that he's not just a partisan hack who wants power, but who's truly interested in protecting public education. This is a core issue for his party's members, many of whom would support doing something like this to end the B.C. Liberal majority.
Any agreement between the Greens and the B.C. NDP could expire when the writ is dropped for the next provincial election. That would allow them to campaign against one another in 2017.
In the meantime, those who are devoted to public education would be given a voice to stop the Clark government's efforts to undermine confidence in the school system.
The B.C. NDP has already flubbed three chances to defeat the B.C. Liberals. At the moment, the federal New Democrats are polling very poorly. And aside from the odd public statement, the B.C. NDP has been far too cautious with regard to the teachers strike, perhaps out of fear of alienating media commentators who've swallowed some or all of the government's Kool-Aid.
Defenders of public education can empower themselves to rise up just as Bill Vander Zalm did to slay the harmonized sales tax. They don't have to wait for overly timid politicians to lead any charge. Parents can get organized now and clip the premier's wings so she'll act more responsibly in the future. It's probably the only thing that will have an effect on her intransigent position.