Curriculum, Diversity, Policy, School Community

What Happened to the “Public” in Public Education?

Canadians share a civic culture that includes both individual and communitarian values as well as political institutions, such as democracy, the rule of law, and protection of human rights. We transmit this shared civic culture from one generation to the next through education, and we do this most successfully by means of public education.

Alas, many Canadians seem to have lost track of the role that public education plays in the nurturing of our civic culture. We have allowed consumerist thinking – the more choice, the better – to infect public policy around education. A moment’s reflection reminds us that the corollary of consumerism is fragmentation, which is very problematic for the transmission of shared civic culture. Education is, in any event, a generative and productive activity, not one of consumption.

It is time to re-examine our thinking around choice in public education. In this article, we argue the need for that re-examination and propose a decision-making tool – a public impact assessment – that could be useful to policymakers.

We begin with two preliminary observations.

First, so as to avoid confusion, we make clear from the outset our view that choice in public education is good – sometimes even necessary – but providing ever more choice does not necessarily make a school system better and may ultimately destroy it. In the context of good education, citizenship, and community building, it is important that choice in public education be conducive to the attainment of both public policy objectives and the needs of the student. In our view, public school systems should not facilitate choice that is simply a market response to consumer demand for different “packaging”, elite accommodation, or any other factor irrelevant to those two primary objectives.

Second, we acknowledge that the province we know best, Alberta, has taken the mantra – the more choice, the better – to unique extremes. For example, private schools in Alberta receive 70 percent of the per student grant awarded to public schools. Ontario and four other provinces provide no government financial support at all for attendance at private schools. But some of the other problematic choices have become embedded in the public school system itself, both in Alberta and elsewhere, through the offering of publicly-funded alternative programs – choices – keyed to such factors as religion, language, gender, or place of origin.

What is Public Education?

 In our view, public education has the following characteristics:

  • Public education is a deliberate model of the best that a civil democratic society can be. This is not accidental, or occasional, or a matter of convenience. Public schools look and function like the democratic, civil, pluralist society of which they are an integral part.
  • All children have a right to be included in public education, and the community has a responsibility to be inclusive: every adult in a community has both a right and a responsibility to be involved in the education of all children, not just their own or their grandchildren’s.
  • Parents play a unique and vital role in the raising of their children, but children are not mere chattels of their parents. The broader community has good reason to be involved in the upbringing and education of children.
  • Public education educates children together unless there is a good reason, justified by evidence and consistent with the goals of nurturing a strong civil democratic society, for educating particular groups of students in segregated settings. When children are educated in segregated settings, the limitations of the setting are explicitly acknowledged and compensated for.
  • Public education celebrates diversity. Children should be educated together, not in order to try to make them all the same, but so they may come to value everyone’s unique individuality.
  • Public education supports social mobility because a democratic society will fail if it does not constantly strive for greater fairness, ensuring that every child has the opportunity to benefit from its public education system, regardless of economic status.

Education should be broadly understood. We are not thinking of public education primarily in terms of programs of studies, courses, curriculum, or pedagogy. What happens on the playground, in the hallways and cafeterias, and in purposeful one-to-one exchanges between students and between student and teacher may be more important to public schooling success than is the “formal” learning. What students absorb by implication can be as important as what they absorb by explicit teaching.

As we see it, public education serves four purposes. It develops students 1) for their own sake, but also 2) as creative and contributing members of society, 3) as effective citizens who exercise personal responsibility in the community, and 4) as members of a public with shared responsibilities to one another. This last objective seems to us increasingly difficult to achieve, in part because the student population is being increasingly fragmented – and isolated – by an ever proliferating number of alternate programs and schools. In our view, public education’s role in sustaining the very idea of “a public” may be imperiled by this increasing fragmentation and the segregation that accompanies it.

In our view, public education’s role in sustaining the very idea of “a public” may be imperiled by this increasing fragmentation and the segregation that accompanies it.

The predominant current approach to publicly-funded education is basically this: Education is a solely personal or family matter, so the more choice, the better. As a result, parents are increasingly channelling students into special-interest types of education – schools for elite athletes or artists, or schools that promote a particular pedagogical approach or a similar outlook on life, such as a common religion. These special-interest, alternate programs are exclusive in the sense that they are not accessible to all. Thus they challenge fundamental precepts of public education and ignore – and therefore contribute nothing or very little – to the achievement of our societal aspirations for public education as a community builder.

These trends flow from ill-considered public policy, which can, of course, be changed if the necessary political will can be mustered.

Inclusivity: The Default Setting

Canada is the envy of much of the world in that our highly diverse population lives for the most part in peace and mutual respect. Canadians accomplish this by embracing diversity, all the while keeping front-and-centre Canadian civic values, which include democracy, the rule of law, and protection of human rights. All of these have a solid notion of equality at their core. In our view it is important to begin with an inclusive perspective and to segregate children only for reasons that demonstrably improve educational outcomes and enhance public education, community, and democracy.

We acknowledge that there may be circumstances where our society’s goals for public education are best served by segregating certain groups of children. For example, the resources available in mainstream schools may not be adequate to handle the educational needs of some children with serious learning disabilities, especially during particularly difficult periods of their development such as their teenage years.

Not all choice-based schools threaten Canadian democracy and civic values, but some do – particularly those that segregate children along lines such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or economic status.

Not all choice-based schools threaten Canadian democracy and civic values, but some do – particularly those that segregate children along lines such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or economic status. History teaches us that segregation promotes elitism and militates against the development of a fair-minded, inclusive democracy. What, then, justifies dividing children along these lines for their education? For example, we have a long, painful history of girls’ exclusion from education, or their relegation to much inferior education. Why is it now thought that gender segregation in education is a good idea? Even if girls were not disadvantaged as a result of gender segregation, might boys be disadvantaged by an education that does not include the presence of girls?

Religion seems to us a particularly troublesome basis for the segregation of children. In Fall 2011, the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) was considering a policy responding to the unique needs of gay and gender minority (GLBT) students. There was pushback from a number of supporters of some of the religious schools that operate under the aegis of EPSB. According to them, homosexuality, trans-sexuality, and other sexual and gender minority orientations are religiously unacceptable. The Board unanimously adopted the GLBT policy – which is perfectly consistent with Canadian human rights law – but will face difficulty implementing it in those schools that profess incompatible values.

In this context, the special benefit given Catholics – through the separate school systems in Alberta, Ontario, and Saskatchewan – flies in the face of what we understand Canada to be in the 21st century. How can this unique privilege, based on an historical anomaly, continue to be justified in a liberal democracy committed to serving the interests of all citizens equally? This matter calls out for honest, full, and open debate, which – we recommend – should be followed by plebiscites in Alberta, Ontario, and Saskatchewan on whether separate boards should be disbanded.

Time Out to Reconsider and Assess

To the best of our knowledge, the concerns we raise here are not being adequately addressed in many parts of the country. In order to create opportunities to have that conversation, we recommend that both school boards and departments of education take a “time-out” from approving further alternate programs and schools. During such a break, Canadians could assess whether we have our priorities right on public education.

Choosing a school or program is not like choosing a product – toothpaste, for example – from the store shelf. We can afford to be indifferent to the choice of toothpaste other citizens make. But taken cumulatively, parents’ decisions on schools or programs have a huge impact on the continued well-being of a crucial public institution – public education. Much of that impact may be unintended, so all involved need to be more aware of the consequences of their decisions.

We recommend that ­– in order to minimize fragmentation and segregation – every proposal for a new alternate program or school be subjected to a public assessment of its impact on our civic values. 

We suggest consideration of a tool that would require both proponents of alternate programs, and schools and officials with the power to approve those alternates, to take those impacts into account. We recommend that ­– in order to minimize fragmentation and segregation – every proposal for a new alternate program or school be subjected to a public assessment of its impact on our civic values. These assessments would address the potential impact on availability of resources to existing schools, and other such administrative issues, but would also take into account the impact on the education of the student, broadly understood, on the well-being of the community, and on the integrity of the public.

As with environmental impact assessment processes, proponents of new alternate programs and schools would bear the responsibility to prepare a “public impact report” which would be subject to a careful, independent review by both the public-at-large and decision-makers. With the imposition of such a requirement, both proponents and decision-makers would have to turn their minds to the very issues we believe are currently being either ignored or given insufficient weight. They would have to address whether the proposed new program or school is consistent with the vision of creating a strong and dynamic public that shares the civic values necessary to keeping Canada a healthy, pluralist democracy.


We know that we should not take our democracy for granted. As Thomas Jefferson, the great American statesman, said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” To retain democracy, the idea of the public must be preserved, and keeping public education alive and well, we believe, is necessary to that goal. 

EN BREF – De nombreux Canadiens semblent avoir oublié le rôle joué par le système public d’éducation dans l’acquisition d’une culture civique. Notre mentalité de consommateur qui nous porte à croire que « plus on a de choix, mieux c’est » a corrompu les politiques éducatives. Une saine réflexion nous rappelle toutefois que le corollaire du consumérisme est la fragmentation. Les choix doivent favoriser autant l’atteinte des objectifs des politiques éducatives que les besoins des élèves. Nous croyons que le système d’éducation ne devrait pas se plier automatiquement aux demandes d’une société de consommation qui souhaite des « formules toutes faites », ni accommoder indûment une élite ou tout autre besoin ne relevant pas de ces deux objectifs de base. Certes, les écoles axées sur les choix ne menacent pas toute la démocratie et toutes les valeurs civiques canadiennes. Mais certaines le font – particulièrement celles qui regroupent les enfants selon des critères comme la race, l’ethnie, le sexe, la religion ou le statut socioéconomique. L’histoire nous apprend que la ségrégation favorise l’élitisme et nuit au développement d’une démocratie juste et inclusive.

Meet the Expert(s)

Janet Keeping

Janet Keeping, a lawyer, was president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership from April 2006 until March 2012. She has worked on human rights, civil liberties, and other public policy issues for many years, both as a researcher and an activist. jkeeping@chumir.ca

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David King

David King was Executive Director of the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta from 1990 to 2010. Prior to that he served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta (1979-1986) and as Minister of Education (1979-1986). His lifelong interest is civil democracy, strong local communities, and asset-based community development. davidk@grassrootsdemocracy.ca

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