Chapter Three: Policy and Politics
For most political issues, there is no straightforward, pre-defined decision-making process. Politics is essentially related to questions of who has, and is willing to use, power. For any given issue, this is not known at the beginning. For one thing, power is itself an elusive matter. It is not something that can be stored or counted, but rather a function of relationships among people and organizations—which can change rapidly and unexpectedly. When a long-standing government, with a powerful state bureaucracy behind it, suddenly collapses in a matter of days (as has happened in a number of countries in recent years), it is clear that official power does not always bring real power.
The ability to exercise power depends on the particulars of an issue. Sometimes what seem to be relatively simple and straightforward decisions can become highly contentious. For example, a provincial government has the power to prescribe curricula for schools. Usually this occurs without any public furor. But in some cases, such as family life/health education or streaming in secondary schools, these decisions can become intensely political, and the official power of the province will be used cautiously, if at all.
The shape that any particular political process will take is thus unpredictable. Things have a habit of turning out quite differently than we might expect. Depending on circumstances, it is often necessary to make changes to the process, to re-define the issue, or even to start all over again part way through the process. Dror (1986) refers to this as “fuzzy gambling”—a very serious game in which not only the odds but also the rules change as the game proceeds, and where surprises often occur. All of this makes political processes and governments very difficult to manage.
Policy decisions are made formally through governing bodies, such as legislatures or school boards that pass laws or motions, or through administrators who issue directives. Often, however, the important part of the process occurs well before the formal decision is made. Much of the debate about a proposed piece of legislation will occur within the Cabinet and government bureaucracy before the bill ever gets to the legislature. Similarly, a school board may do much of its bargaining over issues outside of the formal board meeting, in discussions among board members. A politician or an administrator may talk with many people before finalizing a decision officially. The meeting described in the prologue to this chapter is an illustration of the difference between a formal decision—to be made in that case, by the school board—and the real decision process. Although it is the responsibility of the minister of education to approve new curricula, when these documents reach his or her desk, a committee of teachers has probably already been at work for several years on the new curriculum, including its pilot testing in schools. Unless there are very serious concerns, formal approval is usually just that—a formality. Lengthy participation processes and internal debates mean that decision processes can sometimes take a very long time—years in many instances—even though the formal decision at the end may occur in a matter of minutes or even seconds.
Of course, decisions can be controversial at different levels, meaning that there are different sorts of political processes. In addition to the politics of elections and protests, there are the bureaucratic politics that take place within an organization. There can be quite a bit of politicking within a school board or school over a decision in which the general public is not particularly interested. For example, a decision about who will teach which courses in a school can lead to a great deal of discussion, lobbying, and concern among teachers without attracting much attention from parents. Similarly, decisions about which new curriculum is next to be developed by the department of education may be controversial among teachers but not the public.
Courts also play a role in shaping political decisions. Courts may require political bodies to take action by deciding that some current state of affairs is inappropriate (e.g., rules governing the privacy of students’ files) or by finding an existing law to be invalid and therefore in need of amendment or abolition (e.g., rulings regarding the governance of official minority language schooling). The role of courts is discussed more fully in the next chapter.
Provincial Governments and School Districts
Some elements of the decision-making process in provincial governments have already been discussed in Chapter 2. In most provinces, the main responsibility for decision-making lies with the Cabinet and its committees. These groups receive advice from civil servants and from political sources such as ministerial advisers, committees of the political party, backbench members of the governing party, and a wide variety of people and groups who may have access to the premier, the minister of education or other politicians.
Provincial governments also use a variety of other mechanisms to deal with educational policy issues. These may include delegating particular functions to boards or commissions, creating advisory boards, sponsoring commissions of inquiry of various kinds, or undertaking studies of issues. When a government is not sure how to proceed with an issue, for example, it may create a commission to study the matter in more depth and make recommendations. Some issues that have the potential to be contentious are delegated, either in legislation or through Cabinet order, to a separate board or agency. For instance, questions about teacher certification may be handled by a board composed of representatives of the teachers’ organization, the provincial government, the school districts, and other interest groups. This group considers various issues relating to certification and makes recommendations to the minister.
School districts are created through provincial legislation. The relationship between provincial governments and school districts can be highly political in that each often would like the other to do something differently. There are political pressures exerted by provincial governments on school boards, and by school boards on provinces. Because it is school districts that actually deliver educational services, the provincial government must achieve most of its policy purposes through the districts. Implementation of a new program, a shift in the handling of special education, more emphasis on learning about bullying, increased attention to mental health—implementation of all of these depends on the active cooperation of schools and school districts.
Although provinces have the power to compel school districts to carry out provincial policies, they are generally reluctant to use this power. School boards may criticize provincial governments quite severely, in an effort to cause political embarrassment, and in some cases school boards may be closer to the feelings of their constituents. However, as noted in Chapter 2, over time in Canada, authority has shifted from school boards to provincial governments. Control over funding has been centralized in all provinces, and ministers have taken on increased power over matters such as curriculum content, assessment of student achievement, and the public reporting of school outcomes. In addition, in several provinces, ministries have temporarily taken control of one or more school districts, removing the elected board, when they felt a situation was especially bad (Lunau, 2008; Stueck, 2016).
Provinces have several other means—varying in their degrees of coerciveness— with which to influence what school boards do. First, a province can pass legislation requiring boards to implement a particular program. For example, many provinces have required school boards to implement some form of parent council, and there has been provincial legislation on reporting achievement results that has required schools to adopt new procedures and to deal with new issues. Second, a province can issue regulations under existing legislation. For example, the minister of education in some provinces can issue a regulation specifying the number of professional development days schools can have. Third, a province can issue a policy statement, which, though not binding in law, does put considerable pressure on school districts to comply. For example, a province can issue a statement outlining what it believes school districts ought to do to evaluate teachers, or the steps to be taken in reporting achievement to parents. A school district would need to mount a convincing case to support taking any other direction. There is nothing automatic about which vehicle is used for what purpose. For example, in some provinces reporting to parents is specified in legislation; in others, through regulation; and in others, through policy.
Fourth, a province can provide direct service in a high-priority area, bypassing the school boards by setting up its own programs or by funding schools directly to do specific things. This option is not often used any more. At one time, most schools for deaf or blind students were run directly by provinces, but many have now been turned over to school districts. Provinces do provide direct service in areas closely related to education, such as employment training.
Fifth, a province can provide incentives for boards to do something. For example, the ministry or department of education might provide grants to start new programs, training to teachers in a particular area, or materials, free or at low cost, all as a way of inducing school districts to do something the province wishes them to do. Sixth, and finally, a province can mobilize opinion as a way of putting pressure on school districts. A minister of education or the premier of a province can make speeches and public statements urging school boards to make their budgets public, or to have school advisory committees. If the idea catches on with the public, school boards will find themselves under pressure to respond, even though there is no official or legal requirement for them to do so.
School boards, on the other hand, also put political pressure on provinces. Their prime means for doing so is to blame various problems on the provincial government, which is, after all, the more senior government. The provincial government may provide less money than a school board wants, with the board then blaming program changes or school closings on inadequate provincial funding. The province may require school districts to implement various programs against the board’s wishes; the board may then blame the resulting problems or concerns on the actions of the province. If boards can mobilize enough public support, they can force a change in provincial policy even though they have no legal ability to do so. Thus, each party uses a variety of political devices to try to convince voters that it is advancing the public interest.
Politics Within School Districts
Although most of the legal authority for education rests with the provinces, much of the public debate occurs at the local level, within a school district. Typically, in such cases there are two or more factions within the school or district that have very different policy goals. The prologue to this chapter offered one such example. Another good example is a school district caught between a fixed amount of revenue provided by the province and pressures to expand programs and services. Groups of parents and others will argue that class sizes are too large, that small schools need to be kept open, or that special education supports need to be increased. However, the board simply does not have enough revenue to do all the things that are being asked for. The school board can be caught in the middle of this debate, which may be very heated and involve stormy meetings, boycotts, threats, and highly polarized positions. One consequence of this is that many school boards and provinces have recently developed explicit Codes of Conduct for school board trustees (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2021; Toronto District School Board, 2021).
Another reason for political debate in a school district may have to do with the perceived fairness of resource allocation. People living in a particular area may feel that their local school is not being treated as well as another school in another part of the district. Boards can face conflict over which school will be renovated next, which school will get an additional teacher, or which school will be allowed to develop a new program. Conflicts within a school district are often mirrored by conflicts among the elected school trustees. In many school districts, trustees are elected by ward. Each part of the district elects one or more trustees who together make up the board. Trustees may thus feel a strong allegiance to the interests of their particular ward when it comes to issues such as budget allocation or school closings. Even though the board must finally make a single, binding decision, the debate at the school board itself can then be very intense, and conflicts can be very difficult to resolve.
Such heated issues are not, however, the norm. For the most part, education proceeds with very little political debate. School board meetings tend to be uneventful, even dull to the outside observer. Conflict and debate, when it does occur, is frequently over relatively minor concerns. Major issues in schooling, such as grading, promotion practices, curricula, or equitable treatment of all students, are rarely the subject of public or political discussion. Indeed, given the importance of schooling, there should perhaps be more public debate over issues of teaching and learning.
Advocating more public debate is one thing but finding ways to create it is another. There are significant obstacles to doing so. The nature of the mass media, discussed earlier, is one problem. Moreover, there are many issues competing for public attention at any one time. Those whose main interest is health care, the environment, or economic policy also want more informed public debate. Do people have the time and energy to be involved in all of these?
Politics Within Schools
Individual schools are not exempt from political issues. Politics within the school are generally known as micropolitics. These issues can be internal or external. Internally, teachers may disagree with one another, or with the principal, on many matters – how to teach, how to deal with student discipline, how to involve students or parents. Or there may simply be personality conflicts—people who do not like each other, or who feel that some colleagues are not doing their fair share of the work. A skilled leader must be able to identify such conflicts and to work to resolve them in ways that respect everybody’s interests yet also give primacy to educational goals and needs. The danger with such conflicts is that avoiding conflict among staff may be given greater importance than providing the best possible learning situation for students.
Pressure may also be placed on the school by a dissatisfied community. For example, school boards may face pressure from groups of parents who want more music programs or anti-bullying efforts or less testing. Instead of reaching out to work with people to meet their needs, some schools will try to avoid responding by treating parents as ignorant, by using technical language that cloaks real meaning, or by stalling. For schools that display a genuine interest in the community’s character and needs, the community can be an enormous source of strength and support, as will be seen in Chapter 8. But when schools lose touch with their communities, they can find themselves isolated and subject to very powerful pressures to change.