Chapter Three: Policy and Politics

3.3 The Influence of Politics and Power

Important policy decisions, whether they occur in education or in other fields, are made through political processes. Although there are many definitions of the term politics, one of the most frequently cited and enduring is that politics determines “who gets what, when, how” (Laswell, 1950). In other words, politics is the process used by a society (or an organization within a society) to determine how to distribute power, wealth, opportunity, status, and other social goods. Education politics concerns the determination of what will be taught, where, by whom, how, to whom, and under what circumstances.

Politics also involves questions of choice, although opinions about what choices are to be made will often differ. This means that politics is centrally affected by questions of power. Since not everyone can have what they want, the question is, who does get what they want and who does not? Political philosopher Glenn Tinder describes a political system as “a set of arrangements by which some people dominate others” (2003, p. 162). In Canada, the rhetoric is that everyone is equal, but political influence in our country is highly unequal, and those who have the least wealth and status tend also to have the least influence on political decision-making.

Every education policy decision can be seen as being, in some sense, a political decision. However, this does not mean that every educational issue will be the subject of intense public discussion and political lobbying. Indeed, most policy decisions in education are made with little or no public attention. Ministries of education, school boards, schools, and teachers are constantly making policy decisions without public input or concern. Sometimes these decisions are controversial within the organization itself—the department of education, the school district, or the school—and sometimes not. But even if they are not controversial education policy decisions, because they involve questions of public choice and concern, are essentially political in nature.

Many people think of politics as the formal process of elections, political parties, and the actions of governments—the things we see on the national news or read about in the newspaper or hear about on the internet. This is an important part of education politics. But as was pointed out in Chapter 2, each level of the system has particular responsibilities and can make policy decisions within these responsibilities. There is a great deal of political activity at the federal and provincial level, as well as in school districts, not only by the elected bodies themselves but also by all of those trying to influence the direction of policy. Some of the most basic policies are cast into provincial legislation, giving them legal force, and making them difficult to change. For example, compulsory school attendance is a policy that has been made into law in all Canadian provinces. Additionally, provincial Cabinets and ministers of education may issue policy statements that are supported by varying degrees of legal force – for example new policies on anti-bullying. School boards may pass motions setting out various policies within their areas of jurisdiction, such as deciding which programs will be offered in which schools or how principals will be appointed.

Politics as defined in this book includes these activities, but also extends to the actions and attitudes of every member of society. Every time an individual or group tries either to change or maintain the existing order, politics is involved; this process is part of the fabric of democracy. A school principal or staff member makes policy decisions in areas such as student discipline, teaching methods, or student evaluation. Individual teachers make many decisions about the nature of their teaching, such as how students should behave, what sort of instruction will be provided, or what kinds of assignments will be given. All of these can be seen as policy decisions in that they shape the actions of people in schools, even though they may apply to only a few students, or may be made informally by individual teachers.

Politics, broadly conceived, may be defined as the way each of us, whether individually or working with others, tries to make the kind of school, community, or society that we want to have. Thus, political processes occur continuously in groups and organizations at all levels. The actions of a group of parents in urging a new program in their school, or of a group of students wanting a change in discipline policies, or of an Indigenous group wanting more influence in a school their children attend are all political actions in the realm of education.


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