The recent strike action has given me some pause. On Monday, the elementary teachers in Toronto went on strike — there was a complete withdrawal of services. That morning, as I was putting on my long johns and trying desperately to fit into my long shirt (?), a thought popped into my head just as it was emerging from the neck of said shirt: I know that I believe in public education, but why?
Want to hear me read this post to you? Click play.
To me, it’s a given, public education, that is. It’s as fundamental to the development of a healthy society as are roads, washrooms, and taxes. Asking why it’s important is like asking why you need to know the difference between your left and right and my left and right. How are you ever going to get through life without it?
Incidentally, there are cultures that use cardinal directions. The Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian Aboriginal peoples, describe where things are using geographic descriptions, i.e., north, south, east, and west.
The most obvious distinguishing factor between public and private education is socioeconomic. Everyone is able to attend a public school; only those who can afford to, can attend a private school. Private schools do offer subsidies by way of scholarships to students but the recipient must compete for the award. If you are of schooling age, you can attend a public school. Segmentation occurs when you have only one portion of society who can benefit from a service.
Students who attend private high schools score higher on academic tests and are more likely to graduate from a postsecondary institution1. This, however, does not appear to be associated with the education they are receiving from the school itself. It is the socioeconomic and peer relationships that a student has that account for such academic achievement.
When you have segmentation within society, you lose access to diversity. And, here is where the problems with private education start to arise for me.
Curds and whey.
I grew up in a diverse community in Calgary. I went to high school in a more affluent area of town. My perspective of myself and my relationships with others changed during my high school years. It was during that time that there was a marked difference between the world I was experiencing at school and the one I went home to.
Now, my story isn’t worthy of a movie, but it did have an impact on how I view my world today.
At my designated school, no one ever talked about wanting to go to a private school. It wasn’t a topic of discussion because it wasn’t a reality for most of us. I remember thinking that our English teacher’s Mazda Miata was a really cool sports car.
At the public high school I went to, students were coming and going from private schools. More students had cars than bus passes. Then, the Acura Type R was the cool car that I desired.
It was in high school that I started to see myself as not-White. The demographics of the student population meant that many of my daily interactions were with Caucasian people. It’s nobody’s fault, it just was the case. If we extrapolate out from here, the demographic of the students who did/were/are attend(ing) private schools from the same community where I went to high school were largely Caucasian. Similar communities across the city – where people who could afford private schools lived – shared a similar demographic.
What public school does is increase exposure to the variety of people you will inevitably meet in life. It affords you the opportunity to learn about more than just a culture; it gives you an experience with a microcosm of those very cultures. From these experiences, you learn how to conduct yourself in a manner that is respectful to all parties involved. What you can’t read about are the nuances of a culture. You must experience a culture, however little of it that you do, in order to get a deeper, more authentic, and organic understanding of it.
Within cultures, there are a variety of people. The open-arms of a public education system brings everyone together. Culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy is played out in the hallways of the school. The mistakes you make teach you how to be empathetic, sincere, and helpful. The different experiences teach you what it means to be concerned – to care for another. These lessons are near impossible to replicate in a classroom setting.
The value of public education is not about money, it’s about experience. Many of the students who attend private schools have access to different parts of society but they lose out on the variety that exists outside of them.