Given the current political moment, and how high the stakes are for public institutions and those served by them, I’d like to focus on the importance of truly reflective, honest and effective engagement between all of us — all of us — who are connected to public education.  But in pushing back against social regression, educators, advocates and allies cannot afford complacency or defensiveness. The stakes are too high and we really need to get this right if we are to move in a direction that, collectively, serves us all much better, much more fairly, and much more sustainably.  That focus on reflection is particularly key because, while I think educators have a huge role to play here, I don’t think they’re the ones who, when defending public education, need to or even should always be on the front lines. Which means that strong and authentic connections between educators and the communities in which they work and live have never been more important.

Educators as individuals need to build alliances with groups whose public support undercuts the government’s narrative, rather than reinforcing it. I’m speaking, of course, of parents. Not just white, middle class, composting, centre-left, urban, dog-walking moms. Given the parents’-rights narrative Ford is increasingly trumpeting, I’m also talking about parents who work shifts; parents of colour and Indigenous parents and LGBTQ2 parents and ESL parents and parents who wear turbans and hijabs. If we don’t know how to listen to each other, and work together, then people run the risk of feeling increasingly isolated. That can make people particularly susceptible to arguments that bureaucracies can’t be trusted, schools don’t listen to parents, taxes are too high, and money is wasted, and cheaper is better, and public sector workers including educators have their own agenda, and it has something to do with more money and more benefits. This is the narrative we need to push back against if we’re to reverse the damage being done every day. 

Democratic engagement is exactly what we need as an antidote to disillusionment, distrust, and the divisions that faux-populist governments will exploit for political gain. The problem is, we’re understandably busy, and we’re out of practice. If we’re to break through that anger and frustration and disengagement—and we must—progressives will need to work with the populace in ways we haven’t had to do in decades. It involves the tried and tested method of talking—face to face communication to counter the narrative of the lazy, unaccountable public servant working for massive, faceless government institutions that has taken root over the last few decades. The professions in the best position to do this are those who work with the public—who are at the centre of these points of contact, and have a very visible presence. We also have to come to terms with the “post-truth era,” though arguably it’s not so much an era as it is simply a much bigger platform for those who want to invent, locate, or circulate “alternative facts”.

Ipsos Reid recently released a poll looking at public perceptions of the education system across the country, and the results were still pretty good. This isn’t a huge surprise. People are in general fairly supportive of their local school, though the perception of education has certainly taken a beating over the past few decades by various governments, generally of the cost-cutting, back-to-basics persuasion. But while the population was perhaps shockingly pretty evenly split on rolling back the curriculum by 20 years, a clear majority—including those who agreed with the rollback—were in favour of the actual content of what the 2015 curriculum actually taught from kindergarten to grade 8. 

This counterintuitive disconnect also needs to inform the conversations we will have to have with each other, the ways we organize, and what we must be prepared to listen to or push back against. This reframing of the truth—and whether it matters—is something we need to acknowledge when we’re talking with each other because we need to prepare for it and push back against it. Facts still matter, but, clearly, we need more than facts.
Truth be told, we don’t have a lot of community-based infrastructures left from which to, as my dad would say, organize the revolution. But we do have the education sector which is rooted in community and community development. It’s something that pretty much everyone has an opinion on, which can be challenging, especially when those opinions are informed by classism or racism or simply spending too much time on anti-choice websites. But it’s also a venue for broad civic and community involvement. Organizing around schools can help build community, test our realities and our understanding of the issues, and help us engage and to be engaged. However, this will only work if we learn how to shut the hell up and listen to the deeply socioeconomically unequal ways in which kids experience school. We need to acknowledge this, we need to identify why this happens, and we need to do commit to doing better, starting with listening to those most affected. We need to build trust from the ground up. If we’re going to build a movement that not only restores but enhances social programs through social cohesiveness and social engagement, well-meaning public education supporters inside and outside the profession cannot afford the luxury of defensiveness. The stakes at all levels are too high to suggest that we just need to turn the clock back a smidge.

At its best, education provides a way into discussions or to facilitate connections that might otherwise never happen. It puts kids and communities at the heart of the conversation: who is helped, who is hurt, and what don’t I know about when it comes to what’s best for not just my kid? It’s a segue to discussions about taxation, spending, justice, racism, colonialism, health and well-being, food security, housing—topics that people might not feel equipped to jump right into, but can find their way to through discussions about the local school. These are the discussions we need to have if we’re to make progress in a comprehensive and an ongoing way.

Written by Erika Shaker

Erika Shaker

Senior Education Researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Editor of the quarterly education journal, Our Schools/Our Selves.