What Future for K – 12 Education in Alberta?

The provincial government has initiated a comprehensive review of the School Act.  The intention is to create an entirely new framework for providing K – 12 education in Alberta.  This is the quintessential opportunity for the public to play its political role, and bring all its values, aspirations, and priorities to the table, for an important public conversation.

This is one of those occasions when the role of the public is to set the agenda, and the role of government is to understand what the public wants.

For more than 175 years, the principal means of providing K – 12 education in North America has been via public school education, although parochial and private schools have been always been available, as has tutoring and home schooling.  For most of these 175 years public school education was organized to serve two equally important purposes — meet the needs of the child — to draw out the good person — and meet the needs of the community — to draw out the good citizen.  One hundred fifty years ago, what we now call the public school was often called the “common school”, because it gave every student a common background and tool kit to live life in the community.  The curriculum was often called the “national curriculum”, not because it originated with the national government but because it was intended to create a nation, a common cullture.

We need to reconsider the nature of public school education, in the light of our history, our current situation and needs, and our aspirations for the future of our community.

Public school education is not public merely because it is publicly regulated, or publicly funded from taxes.  In Alberta, separate schools, charter schools and other private schools, and home schooling are all publicly regulated and funded.

Today, public school education is characterized as vital, and attractive, because of three characteristics that are unique to it among all means of providing education.

Public school education is mandated.  Other delivery systems are allowed, sometimes even encouraged.  Only public school education is required to be available to every child, no matter where the child lives in the province and regardless of the circumstances of the child.
Public school education is inclusive, as a matter of conviction and by design.  Every child has the right to attend a public school, without preconditions of any kind.  In addition, every adult is entitled and responsible to participate in the government of public school education (unless a minority faith has created a separate school system).  Public school education is inclusive from the playground to the classroom, to the staffroom, to the Boardroom, to the voting booth.  There is both a right to be included and a responsibility to include.
Public school education operates to be a model of a civil democratic society.  It is not simply organized to be governed democratically:  it is designed to model a civil democratic community so that students are drawn into the community they will live in as adults.

The first discussion that Albertans need to have, the first decision that Albertans need to deliver to their government, is about whether, as a matter of public policy, our education law framework will continue to mandate public school education for every child in Alberta, no matter what other systems are permitted.  The answer needn’t be “yes”.  In spite of our history, there are many places in the world that don’t mandate public education for every child.  There are those who would argue that — in Alberta at this time — K – 12 education should be privatized in one way or another.

In any case, those who promote public school education need also to talk about its unique characteristics.  Is it important that public school education be inclusive and, if so, what does that mean for the 21st century?  Is the inclusion of adults in government still relevant and powerful, or should we focus simply on the inclusion of students as learners?  Are the right to be included, and the responsibility to include both important and relevant, or should we focus on the right, without regard for the responsibility.

Is it important that public school education be organized and provided as a deliberate model of a civil democratic society?  Is it important that the community relate to public school education as a means of self-determination and self-government, or should we simply organize public school education for efficiency, effectiveness, and economy?

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One Response to “What Future for K – 12 Education in Alberta?”

  1. Esme Comfort Says:

    As usual David, you give us perspective and wisdom.
    True democracy is inclusive indeed… and it should be civil and transparent. When it is, it is messy, difficult, complex and in the end we are all the better for it… if very tired! If public school were simply organized for efficiency and economy, would it be effective? I think not.

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