Where is Sheldon Chumir now that he is so sorely needed?
Where is his voice of reason in light of the renewed assault on the spirit of public education?
Alas, Chumir — lawyer, Rhodes scholar, entrepreneur, MLA, civil libertarian, gentle and humorous friend — died in 1992 at the too-young age of 51. But those of us long in the tooth and long of memory have not forgotten his fierce and reasoned arguments against the encroachment of religion into the “public” school system.
It’s not a far reach to believe he’d be appalled at the similar flourishing of charter schools in Alberta’s public system.
Chumir died two years before the 1994 legislation that opened the floodgates for such specialized schools.
Just days ago, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, along with Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, announced $72 million in new funding to expand the charter school system. (Of that, $47 million will be new capital spending.) Alberta remains the only province to allow such splitting of the system, modelled on an American innovation. (The question of why separate schools are entrenched is for another time, and involves the 1867 BNA Act. Needless to say, taxpayers can choose which system receives their share of the kitty.)
It’s not the concept of streaming children to take advantage of their talents and abilities that is the problem; it’s the concept of using my tax dollars to fund such segregation.
I have no problem with private schools, paid for by parents. I may not like them much, but there will always be such institutions. Indeed, my first exposure to education was the Calgary Montessori School. It sent the four-year-old on a path of intellectual curiosity, which proved to be the best “talent” for a journalist. Subsequently, I was dutifully herded into the publicly funded system. (In my case, the “public” system was a Catholic school funded by taxes designated for that specific use.)
One of the loudest voices in opposition to charter schools was former Progressive Conservative MLA and former senator Ron Ghitter. Alberta has now had charter schools for the past 20 years, but when they were relatively new, Ghitter wrote: “We are told that public education is a failure, that our schools are teaching left-wing values, that they are secular, without discipline or standards. The solution? Private and charter schools — oddly not to strengthen public education but to weaken it further.”
And therein lies the rub: the other side of such splintering of the system. Remove the diversity that should flourish in our schools and everyone suffers.
In the former senator’s words, written before the explosion in technology and social media: “We need the strongest public education system possible so that all our kids will have the advantages of learning and understanding the new technology. The public system must not become a depository for the poor, the disabled, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. That is not what our nation is about, and we will pay dearly in the coming years if that is allowed to happen.”
There is an apt analogy here, although in a way it seems to justify charter schools: private versus public health care. Those who support private care are passionate in their arguments supporting their “right” to pay for what they need. It’s the same argument parents make for wanting the education system to prioritize their own children rather than boost all students.
Privatizing health care includes the specious notion that freeing the health structure of those who can afford to pay would strengthen public care. But what it actually does is rob health care staff from the system. There are private clinics operating within the system through contracts from the province, and if you support private care, that seems most reasonable. But the backbone of a single-payer system is our public institutions. Strip them of talent, resources and money and we are all hooped.
That’s the danger of expanding private care and the danger of supporting the hiving off of students from the public system of education. This is the “walled garden” approach. It caters to highly specialized tastes and preferences — what individual parents want their children to learn.
In the end, those students who aren’t exposed to all varieties of thought are the ones who are robbed of a well-rounded education.
They will be the ones ill-prepared for the future.