Chapter Three: Policy and Politics

3.12 Conclusion

Unhappiness with politics is widespread today. Many Canadians feel that our current processes are not serving their needs, that politicians are self-serving and interested only in their own re-election, and that politics has become preoccupied with the wrong things, while the big issues facing our country are not being addressed. A disturbing result is that levels of voting and of political interest in Canada are declining, especially among young people.

Political processes can lead to conflict, bad decisions, and bad results. Any political process can be improved, and such improvements should be sought. But it is vitally important for each citizen to retain his or her faith that political processes, whatever their faults, are important and worth struggling over. Democracy rests on the belief that people by and large can and will make reasonable decisions about how a society should work. These issues are worked out through politics.

Critical statements about educational politics by educators often imply that schools would be better if educators made the important decisions themselves. Thus, one alternative to politics is to turn more decisions about education over to the professionals. In this model, teachers and administrators would make all of the policy decisions affecting education.

While this idea is inviting to those who work in education, it has serious problems. Many decisions about education do rest with professional educators, but educators themselves disagree about many matters of educational policy. Teachers disagree among themselves about grading policies, the best way to teach languages, discipline, and many other issues.

The claim to expert authority must also rest on some demonstrated knowledge, unique to the experts, that entitles them to make decisions. We can accept that professional educators have important advice to give about teaching and curriculum, but do we think that they should establish the goals of schools independent of what students, parents, and other people want? Is the decision about whether to put more stress on science (or any other subject) a matter in which educators have expertise, or should it involve all of us in deciding what we value? Should it be up to teachers to decide how many students can take the courses that lead to university admission? In fact, most of the truly important decisions about education are matters that require judgments on the part of the public as well as educators. Moreover, education is publicly funded, and it is difficult to think that the public will provide billions of dollars for education while leaving the entire determination about the use of the money to teachers and administrators. Would we be willing to leave all policy decisions about national defence to soldiers, or all decisions about highways to transport engineers? Expertise matters, and the views of educators should be important, but policy-making cannot be solely a matter of expertise.

This brings us to the second vehicle that is often suggested as a substitute for politics—the use of markets. In this view, education should be turned into a commodity, much like cars. People should be free to buy as much or as little as they want, wherever they want. Such a model tries to replace political judgments with the decisions of individual consumers. Yet there are even more problems with market solutions than there are with governance by experts. For one thing, all markets are affected in important ways by decisions made through public political processes. Given the highly interdependent nature of our world, it is just not possible to separate one area of economic and social activity from others. To take one example, the money available for education may be affected by changing employment levels in industry, but these in turn may be affected by the number and quality of people completing educational programs.

It is also important to note that education is something that benefits not simply the person being educated, but all of us, which makes it a public good (more will be said about this in Chapter 5). Suppose under a market system, some people decided not to have any formal education at all—just as people can choose not to buy a car or go to a movie. Would this be satisfactory? Should it be allowed? Compulsory attendance laws all across the world bear witness to the view that education is too important to be left entirely to individual choice. If so, then we cannot rely on market mechanisms to replace political decisions.

We take the position that politics, despite its meanness, messiness, and shortcomings, is a necessary and fundamental part of education. Teachers need to be aware of political processes, and they need to see themselves as political actors. There are many ways in which teachers can influence politics. Many teachers are actively involved in political parties. Many teachers have been elected and have held Cabinet positions in Canadian governments. Others are active in teachers’ organizations working for the reforms and changes they value. Many teachers have been elected as school board members in the places they live because of their deep concern for education. Teachers are also active as parents and in many community organizations.

For other teachers, their most important political work occurs in the school and with students. Teachers make a political contribution when they practise democratic values in their classrooms, treat students with respect and empathy, discuss important issues with students, work to break down stereotypes, collaborate with their colleagues for the betterment of the school, and create closer ties between the school and the community. As was pointed out in Chapter 1, the role of the teacher is a moral one, and the teacher’s moral actions provide very clear political messages about her or his views of justice and right.

Political processes, like other human processes, are far from perfect. It is easy to see why people become frustrated with them. But for better or worse, politics is the way in which human societies make decisions about many important things. We therefore need to understand something about politics and to work for change if we are to understand and improve schools.