Conservative governments target future critics in the classroom

NEWS  by Gregory Beatty

Students were barely back in school after the holiday break when the Saskatchewan Party government announced a 24-person committee to review the K to 12 curriculum and the province’s high school graduation requirements.

To borrow an education metaphor, it was the government’s “first assignment” in what’s projected to be a three-year course. And for two main reasons, it got a failing grade.

First, the son of cabinet minister Joe Hargrave was on the committee. Officially, he was representing the Prince Albert Chamber of Commerce. But the appointment smacked of nepotism, and he subsequently withdrew.

The government also got marked down for the lack of diversity on the committee. Critics included Leader-Post/Star-Phoenix political columnist Murray Mandryk.

“Looking at the people who have been appointed, you have two members from the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation who work in the office but not the classroom,” says NDP education critic Carla Beck. “You also have a number of people from chambers of commerce and local business communities.

“What you don’t see is any representation from the disabled and LGBTQ community, and limited representation from the Indigenous community. The Human Rights Commission and Child Advocate aren’t represented either,” says Beck. “So there are a lot of questions about how the government came up with this committee, and what they’ll be doing over the next three years.”

Skool Rules

The curriculum does need to be updated, so Beck supports a review.

She just thinks the government needs to be up front about its vision for public education.

“My understanding is that this committee is the result of some foundational work Sask. Party MLA Lisa Lambert did a few years ago,” Beck says.

The NDP has tried to learn more through a Freedom of Information request, but so far nothing’s surfaced.

“Before we start this review, we need to ask, what is it we want from public education?” says Beck. “What is it we want students to know, and to be able to do when they leave grade 12? Looking at the committee’s composition, I think it’s fair to say that the assumption being made is that school, in large part, should prepare students for the work force.”

University of Saskatchewan education professor Paul Orlowski agrees that the government needs to be honest with people.

“The key question for me whenever a government wants to take on an education review is ‘What is the purpose of schooling?’” he says.

We live in a heavily politicized world, so it comes as no surprise that there have long been conflicting conservative/liberal views on that question, says Orlowski.

“Throughout the 20th century, in places like Canada and the U.S., there was a human capital model where schools should put out workers who can help capitalism carry on, be it labourers in factories, accountants, that kind of thing,” he says.

Some working class people even like that model, says Orlowski, because it holds out the promise of maybe getting a job.

“That’s important,” he says. “But there’s another purpose to schooling, and that’s to foster critical thinkers who can be effective citizens and deal with the complex issues we’re facing like climate change, plastics in the ocean, immigrants and refugees, even threats to democracy through the rise of right-wing populism.

“If we just focus on what a lot of conservative governments want to do, which is cater to the needs of capitalism, with numeracy, literacy and all that standardized testing stuff, the people graduating grade 12 aren’t going to be able to handle that discussion,” says Orlowski.

In Beck’s meetings with different groups around the province she’s heard a similar message. “We do hear concerns about financial literacy and students being ready for the work force,” she says. “But we also hear about the need for students to be ready for university, to be critical thinkers, to ensure that students are experiencing mental wellness and that they have the supports they need.”

Conservative Assault?

The Sask. Party isn’t the only conservative government in Canada that’s busy on the education front. In Alberta and Ontario, the Jason Kenney and Doug Ford governments are both trying to ram through major changes to the K to 12 and post-secondary systems.

In its October budget, the Kenney government cut K to 12 and post-secondary funding but didn’t touch private and religious schools. Alberta already funds them at a higher rate than other provinces (70-per cent of operating costs, versus 50-per cent in Saskatchewan). But in January, Kenney’s government went even further, pledging equal funding to all schools, be they public or private.

When the Kenney government was elected in April, it cancelled a curriculum review that Rachel Notley’s NDP government had started and established its own review panel. Like Saskatchewan’s committee, it doesn’t include any classroom teachers. It does, however, include U.S. consultant Ashley Berner who has links to the Charles Koch Foundation which lobbies for public funding of private and charter schools.

The Kenney government has also changed the funding formula for post-secondary institutions. Beginning this year, 15 per cent will be tied to “metrics” like enrolment, graduation rates and median graduate income. That will rise to 40 per cent by 2022

The Ford government has floated that idea in Ontario too. That comes on top of earlier funding cuts to public education, and a commitment to eliminate over 6,000 teaching jobs in the next five years, which will increase elementary and high school class size.

Those moves have prompted a huge backlash, with teachers conducting a series of rotating strikes.

Money is one motive for conservatives to undermine public education. Like healthcare, it’s a major budget item, so a tempting target for governments looking to reward their corporate backers through privatization.

Ideology figures into it too, with conservatives desperate to rein in what they regard as liberal/leftist bias. But as recent “scandals” in Alberta and Saskatchewan over course materials and a Christmas pageant that dared to mention climate change and the environment show, conservative anger has reached paranoia level, and it’s threatening the integrity of public education.

“There’s an ancient Chinese saying: ‘If we don’t change direction, we’re going to get to where we’re headed’,” says Orlowski.

“It seems easy these days to elect conservative governments,” he adds. “But all they talk about is tax cuts. And tax cuts hurt middle and working class people. They save a hundred bucks a year maybe, but class sizes in public schools are growing, and there are fewer educational assistants to help teachers.”

It’s a tried and true conservative strategy to take important public assets and, through a mix of budget cuts and policy changes, set them up to fail.

“If you have public school classrooms packed with students, and very few educational assistants to help students with special needs, some parents might say ‘I don’t think my kid is going to get a good education so let’s put them in a private school,’” says Orlowski. “So the people that run the private schools, who have usually donated to conservative parties, benefit.”

Be it science denial about climate change or even something as basic as evolution (thanks to evangelical Christians), Gay Straight Alliances, sex education and other so-called “social justice” issues, conservatives have no shortage of axes to grind with public education.

But do people really want education to be a battleground?

The Kenney and Ford proposal to tie post-secondary funding to graduate income, for instance, will inevitably favour STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Support in those areas is important. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of the liberal and fine arts, humanities, and other non-STEM disciplines. They teach skills like creativity, innovation, communication, collaboration and problem-solving that, in today’s fast-paced global information economy, have immense value too.

Regardless of what the end result of the Saskatchewan curriculum review is, says Beck, the government must provide schools and teachers with the resources they need to deliver the curriculum. “Right now, with the state of education, that’s in danger,” she says.

“I’ve heard time and again from teachers that as their classes have got larger and more complex, and their resources have become fewer, that time spent on actual instruction has shrunk,” says Beck.

“If the government doesn’t repair and improve the relationship with teachers and seek their input in this process, ultimately those who will be harmed are the students in our classrooms.”