Chapter Three: Policy and Politics
Linda Chartrand was already quite concerned when the meeting began, and what followed did not make her feel any better. There were 10 of them, meeting in the large and rather formal committee room in the school board office. Nobody was feeling very cheerful.
Superintendent Ron Brandt began by reviewing the situation. “As you know, a number of parents in this school district have objected to the use of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood in our high-school English literature program. They have appeared as a delegation before the school board asking—no, I’d better say demanding—that we remove the book from our program because they claim it is both obscene and blasphemous. While I’m sure none of us here shares that view, we do have to take their opinion seriously. They have certainly indicated that they won’t accept no for an answer; if we don’t respond, they’ll continue to fight the issue, perhaps running candidates in the school board elections next fall.
“We’ve gathered here the chair of the school board, myself, the two high-school principals, the English department heads, and teachers from the district’s language arts curriculum committee to decide what to do. I’d appreciate your comments. Mr. Pershanti, as chair of the board, would you like to begin?”
“Thank you, Ron,” said Arvin Pershanti. “The board finds itself in a very awkward situation here. We believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is a perfectly legitimate book to teach in high school. It’s approved by the provincial Department of Education. It was selected by our teacher curriculum committee. We’ve been teaching it for several years with no problems. But now we definitely have a problem. “The trustees are wondering if we might consider temporarily taking the book off the program, at least for a year or two, until the fuss dies down.”
Seta Bolissian, one of the teachers present, burst out, “How can you say that? Are we going to knuckle under to a small group of conservative naysayers? What about our academic freedom as teachers? What about what’s best for our students? What about the vast majority of parents who are quite happy with the curriculum? Surely there are some principles at stake here.”
“Well,” said Lou Bryan, one of the principals, “points of principle are all very well, but we also have a practical problem. This may be a small group of people, but they can sure cause a big set of problems for us. We’ve got a good atmosphere of cooperation in this district. If we let this issue get out of hand, all of that could turn into conflict, distrust, and mutual recrimination. I ask myself if one novel, however good it might be, is worth all of that. And I come to the conclusion that the board’s strategy is a good one. They’re not asking us to give up our principles, only to exercise some discretion for a little while. It seems like a good solution to me.”
Linda reflected that this was hardly surprising. Lou Bryan, who had been her principal a few years ago, was well known in the district for agreeing wholeheartedly with whatever the board or the superintendent wanted.
Now Larry Tucci, the other principal, was speaking. “Can’t we make this the province’s issue somehow? After all, The Handmaid’s Tale is on their list of approved books. Couldn’t we dump the issue into the lap of the minister of education?”
“I’ve thought of that,” said Ron Brandt. “I spoke with the provincial director of curriculum earlier today. He said that he thought the minister, if the question came to her, would say it was up to the school board. After all, we aren’t required to use that book; it’s just one on the list from which we select. And the minister would likely point out that decisions about community standards belong to local school boards. She might even say that she would never want to interfere with the autonomy of the board in making these choices. I don’t think that strategy will work, I’m sorry to say.”
“We can’t just think about this instance, either.” Department Head of English Joan Gold now had the floor. “If we give in this time, we will be encouraging other groups to make similar demands. We need to think of a way to deal with these sorts of issues so as to try to reach some solution that everyone can live with. I believe that decisions about curricular materials should be made by teachers – that is our professional right and responsibility. But we do need a process in which people who are unhappy can raise their concerns and have them heard without it turning into a game of political hardball.”
“Joan is right,” Linda broke in. “Let’s remember that 20 or 30 years ago our schools were full of books that portrayed Indigenous people as savages and women only as housewives. People who complained about those things were probably thought about just the same way we’re talking about this group—as crackpots or extremists. I don’t want The Handmaid’s Tale removed from the curriculum, and certainly not because someone demands it and issues threats. But we do need to make a serious effort to hear what their concerns are, and to try to respond to them in some way. I can’t believe that we couldn’t reach an acceptable compromise if we tried to debate the matter with some understanding.”
“I like what you’re saying,” said Ed Safniuk, another teacher. “There are many kids in my class from cultures that have quite different values, and many of their parents have problems with books like this. I think we need to broaden the issue to ask what literature best serves our students’ needs. That is something we can discuss with parents and students, rather than making this a power struggle.”
“You’re naïve, Linda, and you too, Ed,” said Larry Tucci. “These people don’t want a serious dialogue. They’re determined to have their way, no matter what. I’d like to see the board tell them to drop dead, but I can understand why the trustees may not want to do so, and I’m prepared to live with the solution Mr. Pershanti put forward.”
Although some educators might deplore it, politics pervade almost every aspect of education. Provincial governments develop and legislate, or put into policy, major changes in many aspects of schooling, including governance, testing, curriculum, and teacher training. Parents are more involved and vigorous in expressing their views than ever before. Many external groups, such as business or community organizations, are also actively involved in political issues around education. Schools are often a subject of political debate and media coverage. Expectations for schools are increasing and diversifying, with the result that everyone in the school system—teachers, principals, school boards, and provincial governments—is under more political pressure.
Understanding the dynamics of education politics is fundamental to understanding the nature of public education in Canada. This chapter focuses on the following questions of policy and politics in education:
- What do we mean by policy, and why are policy questions important in education?
- How do political processes operate to establish policies?
- What are some of the dilemmas or tensions inherent in the politics of Canadian education?
- What are some of the central questions that can be used to analyse and understand political and policy debates?
- How do these questions help us to understand the politics of education at the provincial, school board, and school levels?