Chapter Three: Policy and Politics
How an issue is defined is related to who is providing the definition. Because education is important to the well-being of our entire society, everyone has some stake in what our schools do and how they do it. This means that education policy is important not only to governments, students, and teachers but also to parents and society as a whole. The politics of Canadian education involves a large number of different actors. Some, like provincial departments of education, play roles that are quite well defined, while others, such as parent groups or business lobbies, have more diffuse roles. These various groups, collectively, are often referred to as constituting a “policy community” which Pal (2014) defines as: “groupings of government agencies, pressure groups, media people, and individuals, including academics, who, for various reasons, have an interest in a particular policy field and attempt to influence it” (p. 235).
Let us begin with the formal players who generally play a dominant role in the Canadian education policy community. In Chapter 2, we examined the basic structure underlying the provision of public education in Canada. All three levels of government—federal, provincial, and local—are involved in education. Each level has its powers and responsibilities. However, there are often conflicts between the levels of government over particular issues, as we shall see shortly. Beyond governments, an enormous variety of groups play an active role in educational politics and policy. Some of these groups are involved more or less constantly, while others may be involved only in some issues.
One set of groups represents the key participants in the educational system, often referred to as internal stakeholders. In each province, there are associations of teachers, school trustees, and school administrators (usually different associations for school principals and for school district superintendents). Sometimes there may be several distinct associations for these groups, as in Ontario, where the public, Catholic, and two francophone school systems each have organizations of school boards, teachers, and administrators. In most provinces these stakeholder groups are very influential in setting education policies. Support-staff, such as secretaries, bus drivers, and maintenance and caretaking personnel are unionized in many parts of the country. Their unions may also play an active role, but in most provinces the associations of teachers, trustees, and administrators have been predominant.
In most cases in Canada, ministries of education discuss important policy issues in advance with these latter groups before changes are implemented, leading to a highly consultative policy process (Manzer, 1994). However, as education has attracted growing political attention, provincial governments have been more attentive to other stakeholders, especially parents and community groups. As a result, some policy decisions may be made with less advance consultation with internal stakeholders. Sometimes public consultation processes such as commissions or white papers have been used instead. However, the main stakeholder groups still expect and mostly do have a significant influence on policy.
The role of parent and community groups has also changed. Not long-ago parents had a voice only when they organized themselves and demanded to be heard; school boards were seen to represent the public on most issues. However, in the last two decades all provinces have institutionalized school committees that include parents, and sometimes non-parent community members. In many cases these bodies do not exercise very much influence, but their creation does mark a growing recognition of the political role of these players.
Correspondingly, a number of permanent groups have been formed to represent parents on key issues. For example, Canadian Parents for French, an organization committed to the strengthening of French immersion programs, has had a strong impact on this issue in many provinces. The Association for Children with Learning Disabilities is one among many groups that play an important role in the development of policy in special education, and is a powerful lobby group in many areas. As parents have become more vocal and better organized, the number and importance of such groups have increased. School boards can no longer claim that they represent public opinion without additional steps to involve other people.
Rarely given an explicit role in education politics or policy are the students themselves. Since students are commonly cited by all parties as the prime beneficiaries of schools and the reason why we have schools, it seems odd that they have typically had no formal role in making decisions about various aspects of schooling. In Chapter 4, consideration is given to the legal status of student councils in schools. Considered from a political point of view, however, students have very little power. They generally lack organization, knowledge, wealth, and connections. As a result, and despite the rhetoric, they can be and often are ignored when important decisions about their futures are being made. Where student involvement does exist, it is typically of a token nature, with little or no real influence on subsequent decisions. On occasion, school boards have created student board roles that offer meaningful input on decision-making, but this tends to be few and far between.
There are many other groups whose main focus is not on the educational system, but who may have an interest in some educational issues. Business organizations, labour unions, and various community groups are external stakeholders who may become involved in particular education policy issues. Business groups, such as the Conference Board of Canada, have been especially influential, and tend to stress the importance of schools’ developing good work habits such as punctuality, or skills such as entrepreneurship. Peace organizations and environmental groups may lobby for the inclusion of curriculum material. Child welfare organizations may want the schools to place more stress on educating children about violence and its prevention. Taxpayer groups may organize to press governments to spend less money and thus avoid increases in taxes. In the last few years, mental health groups have been advocating changes in schools that would improve students’ well-being. Because education affects everyone in the society, every organized group can have a legitimate interest in educational issues. Although their importance varies, overall, these lobby groups are more influential than they used to be.
The media also play an important role in many debates about educational issues because they have such a powerful influence on how people see issues. The news media are often criticized in education, as in other fields, for focusing primarily on the negative and giving precedence to stories that are critical. Coverage of education tends to be episodic, and issues are rarely given in-depth treatment. At the same time, most Canadian adults do not have children in the schools, and so may rely heavily on social media, television, and press reports as they form their opinions about education policy issues, just as people do for many other areas of public life. School systems have had to adjust to the powerful role of social media in shaping education politics as people, especially young people, pay more attention to the huge range of material on the internet, whether it is accurate or fake news.
Who Should Participate?
An ongoing question in politics is who should be allowed to participate in the decision-making process. In the case of the educational system, many people will have an interest in formulating policy decisions. For example, teachers and students are almost always affected directly by policy decisions, but so too may be parents, other school staff, and all sorts of individuals and organizations. Many people tend to think that everyone affected by a decision should have a right to participate in making the decision, but that view raises important questions. For one thing, what does it mean to participate in making a decision? Have we participated if we have expressed our point of view, even if it carried no weight in the decision? Is it participation to appear before a school board to make a presentation that is ignored in the board’s decision making? Or have we participated only if we are satisfied with the outcome? One point of view, discussed in Chapter 2, is that we have all participated simply by electing a school board or provincial government. Once elected, a governing body may, but need not, consult us again about each particular decision. After all, being elected is what lends a governing body the authority and legitimacy to make decisions at all. But others would argue that democratic societies rely on consensus when deciding policies, and that consensus can be achieved only if everyone who so wishes can play an active role in the decision-making process, even though this may make the process slower and create additional conflict.
Participation has been seen as a positive value for different reasons. One argument has to do with effectiveness. Some believe that people will be more accepting of a decision, and more willing to abide by it, if they have had a chance to participate in making it. This view is often expressed in regard to various educational innovations, where the belief is that teachers are more likely to implement changes if they have had a say in shaping those changes. The effectiveness argument will be true in some cases, but not in others, depending on how important the issue is and how strongly people feel about it. The stronger people’s views are about an issue, the less likely it is that participation alone will build commitment to the decision. So, while teachers may be willing to support a policy because it has been arrived at through staff discussion, they would not likely agree to have their own jobs eliminated simply because that decision had been made after discussion by all.
The second main argument for participation is a moral one. People have a right to participate in important decisions affecting them, regardless of whether their participation makes the process more effective, or leads to a better decision, or results in consensus. This belief is the foundation of democratic government. In regard to schools, however, it is not clear who has this right to participate. Much of the literature stresses teachers’ participation in decisions. But what about students? After all, they are deeply affected by almost every educational policy, yet often have no voice at all. What about parents, who rarely play an active role in shaping school policies? And what about the community generally? If schools are important to everyone, then perhaps everyone should participate in formulating educational policy. But is such an idea at all practical? Moreover, not everyone wants to participate in every decision. Teachers, for instance, may be content to leave many decisions to school administrators, reserving their own time and energy for the decisions they feel are truly important. Many parents, while interested in supporting their own children’s schooling, do not want to be actively involved in governing the school.
How Does Participation Occur?
Much of our political process is oriented toward groups. Voting, of course, is done by individuals. And individuals can make a difference in the political process through their courage and leadership. But political decisions are made and influenced by groups of people and organized around particular interests, whether broad (a group wishing to improve the public image of education) or narrow (a group wanting a different principal in the local school). It is school boards, or provincial Cabinets, as collective bodies that struggle with budget and policy issues; it is groups of people who organize to lobby for or against particular policy proposals. Indeed, when people are motivated to act politically, they look for group support almost instinctively. The parent who is unhappy with the school and the teacher who feels aggrieved by an administrative decision will both look for support from others, whether neighbours, colleagues, a parents’ association, or the teachers’ organization.
Despite the development of more open political processes over the last century, the ability to participate politically, like so much else in our society, is not distributed equally. People with more money and more connections will have more political influence. Well-financed groups can afford to hire skilled staff and have professional-looking newsletters or websites, so will often be more influential than neighbourhood groups that rely on volunteers working in the evenings. Groups that understand the political process, have easy access to decision makers, and know the jargon may exercise influence disproportionate to their numbers. This influence extends to defining the issues, as discussed earlier, as well as to affecting a particular policy choice.
In the case of education, the policy process is often dominated by established groups and stakeholder organizations. They are already organized and tend to have staff and money. Their executives know and are used to dealing with one another. They are already present in many of the decision-making forums. This fact tends to push the policy process in particular directions. Each group normally acts to protect the welfare of its own members. If the key decisions are being made by people who are already part of the system and benefiting from it there might well be less likelihood of significant change. The lack of participation of some groups, however, does not necessarily occur through such overt processes. After all, every adult citizen in Canada is now entitled to participate in political processes. But some people are still excluded through factors such as process and language. For example, appearing before a school board requires some familiarity with what a school board is and does. It may require the ability to write a brief and present oneself as a fellow professional. It may require familiarity with current legislation and regulations. Being able to associate a particular grievance with an issue that is of genuine public concern is an important ability. These skills are far more likely to be found among people who represent privileged groups and are well connected to the political process.
Political processes can also be designed to be inhibiting. For example, many school boards will allow delegations to appear and ask questions, but will make no comments and will reserve their own discussion of the issue to a later, private portion of the meeting. The delegations thus appear as supplicants requesting a favour rather than as citizens expressing a point of view. A delegation may have no chance to learn what the board thinks of its views, and why. The same is largely true of briefs submitted to various provincial commissions. When a commission receives 1000 or more submissions, how much impact will one more or one less have? How would one know? Box 3.7.1 offers some historical examples of commissions related to public education in Canada.
One of the vehicles governments use to help form public policy is to create a commission. This involves designating a person or small group to conduct an official inquiry into a topic and to issue a public report with recommendations. Commissions usually include extensive processes of public consultation so as to gather as broad a range of views as possible. A look at who participates in these processes is instructive in understanding how people do or do not participate in political events. While commissions are intended to provide a vehicle for broad public input, their consultation activities tend to be dominated by groups and organizations within the system directly affected. This results in much less “public” involvement.
In 1987, the Government of British Columbia set up a royal commission to provide recommendations on the basic direction the province’s education system should take. Chaired by lawyer Barry Sullivan, the commission held 66 public hearings and 54 meetings with teachers, and participated in 23 student assemblies. The report of the commission, issued in 1988, listed the 2350 groups and individuals who had appeared at the hearings or submitted written briefs. An analysis of these lists shows that the great majority of the presenters were affiliated with schools—school boards, teachers’ groups, and parents’ groups. The commission also met with representatives of government agencies and major provincial organizations, including groups representing superintendents, principals and vice principals, secretary-treasurers, school trustees, teachers, independent schools, and university faculties of education.
Ontario created a Royal Commission on Learning in 1993 to look at the direction and future of the public school system. The Ontario commission conducted an even more extensive consultation process than the commission in B.C. It held more than 40 sets of public hearings, visited 36 schools, and received 1400 oral presentations, 1500 written briefs, 350 telephone call comments, and 1500 e-mail comments. It also organized a series of outreach meetings in malls, detention centres, and social service agencies. Although the commission did generate widespread participation, a very large proportion of submissions and presentations were from educational organizations—school boards, administrators, teachers, and parent councils.
In 2018, Manitoba created a Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education mandated to propose a renewed vision for K-12 education. In 2019, the Commission published a policy consultation discussion document and engaged in extensive province-wide consultations that included interactive public workshops, two online surveys, 62 written submissions of which 31 were then presented in three days of public hearings. While these consultations did engage with a wide range of Manitobans, again a large majority of participants came from individuals associated with the education system such as school boards, professional organizations, administrators, and teachers.
These commissions also commissioned research to support their work, largely from university professors. It is no surprise to learn that even the most open consultative process will tend to be dominated by those with the strongest stake in the system, and also by those with the skills, time, and other resources to take advantage of opportunities for participation. Although all three commissions made considerable efforts to hear from all interested parties, some groups had much more input than others.
Sources. Based on: Sullivan, B. (1988). A legacy for learners: Report of the Royal Commission on Education. Province of British Columbia; Ontario. (1994). For the love of learning: Report of the Royal Commission on Learning. Publications Ontario. Manitoba Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education (2020). https://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/educationreview/consultation.html
Language is another effective barrier to participation. Education, like other fields, has developed its own terminology, its own jargon. Those unfamiliar with “word attack skills,” “powers of school boards under the Schools Act,” “most appropriate placement in the least restrictive environment,” and the many other specialized terms in education will find it harder to participate in discussions. Professionals may use jargon, whether consciously or not, as a way of showing their own skill and, effectively, diminishing the contribution of others.
At the same time, it is important to realize that even groups that have relatively little influence can, with the right resources and assistance, mobilize and have an impact on educational decisions. Accordingly, one test of a participative process is to ask how much weight the least powerful carry in the process. If their voices are not heard, we have reason to wonder if the process is as democratic as we might want. We might also want to consider what measures could be taken to make our political processes more open, and to enhance the participation of the least powerful.