As the water hole shrinks, the animals start looking at each other differently.
This quote is frequently shared around Barnett House and often attributed to former president Larry Booi. It reminds us that scarcity of resources can often turn allies into adversaries.
Recently, the Public School Boards Association of Alberta launched a campaign pushing for the elimination of the separate and francophone school systems. In response, the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association formed an alliance to publicly advocate for the protection of Catholic education.
Now, instead of having many voices amplified together to protect the joint interests of public education broadly, we have fewer splintered voices calling for the protection of their own interest or, even worse, speaking against the interests of natural allies.
In Alberta, public education refers to schools operated by public, Catholic and francophone school boards. We have used the term “public education” for decades to talk about this group of school systems because they share common features that serve students and the public interest well.
Public education is free. Parents do not have to pay tuition in order to attend public, Catholic or francophone schools. This ensures that all students have access to a high-quality education regardless of their socioeconomic status or ability to pay.
Public education is funded from public revenues. It is a shared responsibility of all Albertans regardless of whether they have children attending or not. The funds are distributed equitably in order to ensure that learning needs are met regardless of where a student lives.
Public education is governed by elected boards. The existence of elected boards representing the general public brings public accountability for the use of public funds. It ensures that schools are not just accountable to the parents of the students, but also to the community at large and to all of the people that fund them.
Public education employs teachers who are full members of their profession. As active members of a unified profession, teachers in public, separate and francophone school jurisdictions are held to high standards of practice and conduct while also benefiting from a collegial profession that allows for a certain degree of professional autonomy. The focus can be on student learning instead of on employee servitude.
Public education accepts all students. Yes, the three systems are set up to serve different populations (with constitutional reasons for that): be it francophone, Catholic or secular/protestant populations, none of these systems is allowed to turn away students within its population group. There are no exclusions made based on academic ability, learning need, socioeconomic status, ability to pay, family status, race, class or beliefs. Regardless of student, we take them all.
There may be some exceptions within public education to each of the five characteristics above, but by and large, the public education jurisdictions work toward serving these ideals — much more so than private models that are in use.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association has a strong history as the leading provincial advocate for public education. In the 1990s we created the Public Education Action Centre to bring teachers, parents and other citizens together to advocate together for a strong public education system. It was in similar economic times against a rising threat of education funding cuts that our Public Education Works campaign was born.
Since then, we have worked to brand the term “public education” as an inclusive term that represents all schools in Alberta’s public, Catholic and francophone jurisdictions. Bringing advocates for the three systems together to support a common cause is much more effective than trying to advocate for separate causes in smaller groups. Whenever possible, when we use the phrase “public education,” we include the proviso that “In Alberta, public education refers to public, separate and francophone schools.”
Although some are requesting that we produce additional materials that state “I believe in Catholic education,” we strongly believe that it’s best to promote our shared interests under a single banner that unifies us rather than create different messages that segregate us.
The term public education should not be surrendered to the sole use of public schools. All supporters should band together to declare “I believe in public education.” ❚
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