Chapter Three: Policy and Politics

3.9 The Complexity of Political Decision Making

The term decision-making process is actually a rather simplistic and abstract way of describing how decisions are made. What appear to be simple decisions on the surface can have far-reaching consequences. The decision to consolidate rural schools has had major implications not just for schools but also for rural life in Canada. The decision to move some aspects of control of education on reserves to First Nations has had significant impact on those jurisdictions. More mundane decisions, such as reassigning a teacher or changing a dress code, can have major effects on individuals.

Many political issues are revisited again and again. Thus, rather than thinking of political decisions as final, it would be more accurate to think of them as temporary accommodations that may be changed again at a later date. We have already discussed several tensions that have been constants in Canadian education—the tension between the common public school system and the need to accommodate the diverse interests of a multicultural society; the tension between local control and centralized control of schools; and the tension between the role of professionals and the role of citizens in directing schools. These issues persist in education policy, manifesting themselves over and over again as particular decisions are made.

Some may view the unceasing debate as tiresome, wishing that the issue could be decided once and for all. It may make more sense to be glad that we live in a world in which we can learn from experience and remake our future to take advantage of what we have learned. The possibility of improvement—the chance to make things better—is always open to us. In the 1960s, hundreds of small Canadian schools were closed. Now, in most provinces, school-closing decisions are made much more carefully and with a great deal of community participation. Not so very long ago, Indigenous young people were taken away from their families and placed in residential schools, where they were forbidden to speak Indigenous languages. Today, many more Indigenous children go to school in their own communities, and there is a slowly increasing emphasis on teaching in Indigenous languages.

We are not suggesting that things are getting better in every way. While some situations improve, other problems are as serious as ever and new problems are constantly arising to challenge us. But the debate about what we should do, together with the willingness to think and argue about what is best for education, is a vital part of trying to make the world a better place.