BILL 64, if passed, would succeed in cutting some of the last strands tying education to democracy in the English-speaking western world, a movement which had its beginnings in the post-war European continent.
Friedrich von Hayek, the founder of neoclassical economic theory, persuaded the political elite of the day that their future lay in a deregulated capitalistic marketplace, and in the reduction of government investment in public services. But even he would be shocked by the latest developments in Manitoba.
A rough timeline would have had Hayek meeting the newly elected Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher, in 1975. Immediately upon her election as prime minister in 1979, she began to implement his economic theory of mass privatization of state assets. The oil and gas industry and the national British Airways were privatized. The powerful miners’ unions were relentlessly pilloried as enemies of the state.
Public services such as health and education were methodically dismantled, systematically privatized in the name of personal choice, while taxes for the wealthy were reduced. In the name of creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation, among other public goods, airlines, telecommunications, banking, trucking and environmental protections were deregulated. Is this starting to sound familiar?
In 1981 Ronald Reagan, a big fan of Thatcherism, began his first of two terms as president of the United States. For educators, one of his most notorious actions was to twist the findings of the 1966 Coleman Report on Equality of Educational Opportunity into the prevailing economic theory. Coleman found that differences in school achievement were predominantly a result of student family background and that of their classmates, not the differences in school resources. In so doing, he revealed the "root cause" of what we now call the achievement gap.
Successive governments in the U.S. and Canada have knowingly misused the Coleman report to justify reducing funding to schools, arguing that the achievement gap can’t be solved by "throwing more money at the system," because "differences in school resources" don’t make a difference. They have systematically avoided tackling the real issues — child poverty, racial minority disadvantage and a culturally insensitive school system.
The public school system has been steadily eroded into just another private commodity among other scarce commodities to be competed for in a marketplace of school choice. School choice became the mechanism by which a privileged class could "end run" civil-rights legislation. Reagan’s charter schools, voucher systems, for-profit schools and home schooling provisions allowed already-privileged parents to withdraw their supports from public schools, many paying more to keep their children out of desegregated schools.
A steady stream of schemes, such as the recently proposed KIPP model (Bill 64 won’t destroy public education, March 31), continue to distract from poverty’s realities. American test scores have continued to decline, a continuous stream of lawsuits has failed to stem the tide of public school underfunding, and the children of the have-nots continue to learn not how to become equal citizens, but that the system is stacked against them.
Ironically, Better Education Starts Today (BEST), the document that outlines the proposed implementation of Bill 64, states that the government will "examine the linkages between poverty and education," and "respond to the root causes of absenteeism," as if somehow the answer has escaped us since 1966.
In Bill 64 Earns a Failing Grade, (March 29), Jim Silver exposes the ongoing deliberate avoidance of the facts first noted in the Coleman report. As he notes, the poverty/poor educational achievement relationship has been studied and confirmed multiple times since the Coleman report. The suggestion that we still don’t know is disingenuous at best.
Hayek’s perspectives have deepened the partisan political divide, deregulation has led to airline disasters and fake news, and privatization has undermined public services. Contrarily, investment and employment increased following Obama’s tax increases. Hayek’s warnings about centralization leading to totalitarianism are conveniently ignored as the powerful claim more power.
The powerful perversely claim to be "victims" of democracy, suppressing voter participation, fighting environmental protections, fuelling racial discrimination and denying equal access to health care and education. Maybe Hayek took civility, co-operation and empathy for granted, not anticipating that the free market could generate a thirst for greater protectionism by, and greed and privilege for, the already privileged.
By now we should know better.
Bill 64 is Americanization, not modernization. It deliberately fails to acknowledge and mention public education’s role in democracy — its inclusive power and potential for equality — dismissing the civic-ethical dispositions and the intellectual-emotional means for citizenship. Following the U.S. in education reform is educational and democratic folly.
John R. Wiens is dean emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba. A lifelong educator, he has served as a teacher, counsellor, work education co-ordinator, principal, school superintendent and university professor.