Many schools profess to be public schools, including some separate, charter, and private schools. And, in Alberta separate, charter, and private schools — and home schooling — are public in the sense that they operate at the pleasure of the provincial government, they receive some funding from the public purse, and they are regulated in various ways by Alberta Education (the Department of Education of the Government of Alberta).
But separate, and charter, and private schools do not offer public school education, as is apparent from two somewhat different perspectives.
The perspective of the child and parents
For the child and the parents of the child, the litmus test for public education is found in two intertwined questions. Does the child attend school on her (his) terms, or on terms that are laid down by the school? Is the child’s initial acceptance by the school unconditional, regardless of race, or religion, or family income, or intellectual capacity, or self-discipline, or language, or any other consideration, or is the child’s acceptance conditional upon agreeing to a certain pedagogical approach, or adopting a certain cultural perspective, or adhering to a certain faith, or paying a prescribed tuition?
To put it another way, is the school initially inclusive or is it initially exclusive?
In a civil democracy, the public school system has a mandate to accept every child, without pre-condition of any kind. A child attends a public school without needing to ask permission, or meet certain conditions, and without the threat that the public school might subsequently disclaim responsibility. This practice reflects the foundational convictions of a democratic community: it is also the basis for drawing children into an understanding of what it means to live in a civil democratic community.
The perspective of the civil democratic community
For the civil democratic community, the litmus test for public education can be found in the three questions. “Is the entire public directly enrolled in the government of the school?” “Is the system inclusive of every child, without pre-conditions of any kind?” “Is the school designed to be, first and foremost, a deliberate model of a civil democratic community?”
Public school education is governed directly by the people through their government, local, provincial, or national. Every citizen has both the right and the responsibility to be involved in the government of public school education, if only to elect the agents who will provide representative government. (This is a pretty low standard for democratic involvement; every community should aspire to more.)
On the other hand, separate schools and charter as well as other private schools exist because some citizens want a limited franchise for the government of their school(s), and these citizens want to determine the limits of who will be involved in the government of their schools.
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?