The cultural war has been in full bloom in U.S. education for at least five years. Now it has spread to public schools in Canada.
This war pits left-leaning liberal teachers, administrators, parents, and school board trustees against right-leaning conservatives. The liberals support many curricula and teaching methods that conservatives fundamentally reject, and there is, without a doubt, an insurmountable difference in what the two groups want from public education.
For example, these groups differ in their expectations for sexually explicit books carried in school libraries, especially in libraries for early- and middle-year students. They also differ in their expectations of transgendered males flouting their sexuality in drag queen story-hours. As well, they differ in who should be using female washrooms and changerooms, and whether transgendered males can play on female sports teams, especially in sports that involve body contact.
Increasingly, there have been flare-ups at school board meetings over these issues. In Brandon, Manitoba, for example, a large group of liberals crowded into Vincent Massey High School gymnasium to speak against a proposal to ban trans books from school libraries. On the other side, was a small group of parents and religious leaders who supported banning the books because they were “pornographic.”
A little over a year ago, a school trustee election took place in BC and many parents thought that their trustees did not represent their conservative concerns. Consequently, some parents formed Parents Voice BC (PVBC), dedicated to electing trustees who would put parental educational concerns at the top of the agenda. The group’s campaign slogan was “Take Back our Schools,” and PVBC proclaimed that candidates would support a policy that “schools should focus on preparing students for productive adulthood, not [on] the passing trends of the day.”
In Ontario, several candidates let their names stand for school board elections because “they objected to the increased focus on “critical race theory” and “radical gender ideology.” One of the contrary-minded candidates was a teacher, Chanel Pfahl, who reported in The Ottawa Citizen:
Unfortunately, as a teacher I have seen first-hand that activism in the educational system has resulted in teaching approaches that in my view are harmful to students and society. The current unhealthy fixation with gender, identity politics and victimization will not put our students in a position to face the challenges of the next decades.
These are only a few of the many polarizing issues that now plague public schools in Canada.
David Leis, Vice President of Engagement and Development at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, has summed up these concerns when he said: “In Canada, people haven’t fully understood what’s really happening in … school curriculum…. And it’s not just simply about the sexualization of children. It is also about parental rights to educate their children in the way they see fit.”
An important question arises: What can be done so that the children of both conservatives and liberals can have the type of education they want? Battling this question in school board meetings is not helping. There must be a better way.
Fortunately, the way to get the education parents desire can be arranged. We have, in fact, made this arrangement in medical service providing each Canadian with a medical card that can be used to obtain the medical services they need even if they must wait.
The card allowing Canadians to obtain these services is called a “voucher,” and vouchers could be used so that parents and their children could obtain the education that meets their needs. Most importantly, this would empower parents and disempower educational bureaucracies, like school trustees and teachers’ unions, that control much of what happens in public schools now.
In addition, empowering parents would create opportunities for teachers who want to escape from the public system to set up independent schools.
Likely the creation of these schools would take place in urban areas first, giving these children greater opportunities than students in rural areas. But as soon as a few independent schools were successfully set up, there would be increased pressure to provide independent schools in rural areas. The process of setting up truly independent schools would create competition resulting in more schools responding to the needs of students and their parents.
Before vouchering parents and their children, provincial and territorial governments would, of course, need to pass enabling legislation. One step to ensure that all schools fulfill their most important social requirement would be to require that all students meet achievement standards in the core subjects at the end of early, middle, and senior years.
There is extensive scholarly literature on the use of vouchers in education. Provincial and territorial governments can easily review this literature and coordinate their efforts through the Council of Ministers of Education.
Obviously, it is time for education ministries to deal with the increasing polarization in public schools. Rather than having school trustees try to force every student into the same mold, it is time to let more independent schools blossom and for students and their parents to find schools that meet their expectations. It is time to stop fighting over fundamental values and start giving students the education they and their parents value.
Rodney A. Clifton is professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. His most recent book with Mark DeWolf is From Truth Comes Reconciliation: An Assessment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.