In her article, “Parent Advocacy: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Annie Kidder zeroes in on a classic public policy dilemma when she says, “It is very difficult, in the face of strong parent advocacy, to find a balance between the desires of individual parents or groups, and…an overall need for equity in the education system.”
These words took me back to my early involvement with public schools in Ontario, as a trustee on the now-defunct Central Algoma Board of Education (CABE) – a small, rural board east of Sault Ste. Marie that has since been swallowed up by the school board serving that city.
Unlike many larger boards, CABE didn’t have political factions and its trustees didn’t represent entrenched interest groups; trustees decided most issues by consensus before the chair called for an official vote. When there were divisive issues, they almost always involved finding the balance Kidder refers to, and local policymakers – albeit with much diminished authority – are still struggling with the same dilemmas.
How to provide for a disruptive child whose behaviour interfered with the rest of the class? Whether to close the run-down town school and bus students to the country, or the newer country school where children are already on buses and would have to go just a few miles farther? How many resources to devote to programs for gifted students when those same resources could be used to help struggling students? Entitlement vs. equity.
These questions plague those making decisions about schools because they are true dilemmas: there is no “right” answer. And, of course, it’s just such questions that bring parents and other interest groups to the fore, because if there’s no “right” answer, there must be at least two conflicting answers that seem obviously right to someone.
Making a decision in such cases becomes even more difficult because, as Kidder points out, some parents and interest groups speak more loudly and clearly than others. But volume is not a basis on which to make decisions affecting the lives of all children. The whisperers have a right to be heard as well.
Maybe that’s why I’m still in mourning for small school boards like CABE, long after the province, in its wisdom, decided to fold them into larger urban boards. It’s true, they didn’t benefit from economies of scale. It’s true, they couldn’t offer the range of programs offered in the cities. And those things do matter. But in the face of a dilemma, they were close enough to hear the whispers.