Don’t think of an elephant.
Today’s editorial is about choice in education. I’d like to present a well-reasoned, rational argument for how we should counter narratives about educational choice and focus on promoting a comprehensive, accessible and cohesive public education system, but I know you are still thinking about that elephant.
You are probably thinking about its rough skin, large flapping ears, gigantic round feet and, of course, its long, sturdy trunk.
You see, elephants are impossible to ignore. So whatever I have to say about elephants automatically conjures up for you an inescapable mental image. Even when I tell you to not think about it.
Noted linguist George Lakoff entitled his 2004 book about political framing, Don’t Think of an Elephant. In that book he discusses how language and metaphors are used in political discourse to evoke a moral frame that is deeply embedded in people’s subconscious to bypass reason and win policy points on emotional response.
The phrase “school choice” is a classic example of this framing strategy used in education. Choice is automatically perceived as a good thing; therefore, people are automatically preconditioned to think that more choice must be better than less choice.
This makes it very difficult to argue against choice, much like it is very difficult not to think of an elephant.
Instead of arguing against choice (because, frankly, I have no problem with choice), let’s call out what is actually being discussed: when our government talks about choice, they are actually talking about privatization.
So, to engage this debate, let’s debate it using the terms of privatization.
Alberta already has enough privatization in education.
We are the only province in the country with charter schools — fully funded, privately operated schools offering alternative education outside of public boards. In Alberta, public education refers to schools operated by public, separate and francophone school boards.
We also provide far more public funding for private schools than any other province. We fund private schools at 70 per cent of the base funding provided to public boards, whereas other provinces offer, at most, 50 per cent funding, and a number of provinces provide no public funding to private schools at all.
Then there is home education, which is also very well-supported by public funds — up to $1,700 per student per year. Again, many provinces offer no funding for home schooling.
Increasing privatization often comes at the expense of public education.
At its policy convention last fall, the UCP voted in favour of a resolution to adopt a voucher system in education, which would offer full public funding to private schools and home schoolers. While the government says it won’t adopt a voucher model, it has also clearly indicated it wants to hold the line on total operational funding for education. This means that any future funding increases for private options must come from funding that already exists for public boards.
Privatization increases inequality in education.
Take a look at most of the advertising and promotion done by private schools and you will see them tout small class sizes. Alternately and often conjointly, they offer significant programming enhancements like outdoor pursuits, elite athletics or college preparatory programs. These benefits come at a cost, sometimes with tuitions that exceed $10,000 or even $20,000 per year. Some schools even specialize in special-needs programming, which means parents who can afford the tuition can access the supports their children require for success, while others within the public system have to beg for the most basic supports.
Enhanced privatization ensures that those who have the means to participate in private education — those who can afford the tuition or meet the strict entrance requirements — have access to the smallest classes and the best educational programs. This exacerbates the inequality that unfortunately already exists in society.
With 93 per cent of students in Alberta attending public, separate and francophone schools, the choice is clear. That choice is public education, and I think public education needs to be the first priority of our government, especially at a time when public funding is being constrained. Privatization leads to education inequality. It comes at the expense of public education and, frankly, we already have enough of it.
Parents’ first choice is for public education; I hope the government will choose it first too. ❚
I welcome your comments—contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.