Public education: Its strength is our numbers

When tracking who influences the political agenda, savvy journalists and community groups know to follow the money.

Take Ontario Proud, for instance. The lobby group (“a who’s who of developers, anti-union groups and construction agencies”) knew its members stood to benefit from a PC government at Queen’s Park, and they got out their chequebooks to help make it happen.

Money talks. We know that. But here’s the thing: decent public services, good jobs, and well-resourced classrooms in our schools also have a huge lobby group behind them.

I don’t mean corporations. I don’t even mean unions, although their role is profound. I mean every single person who sees these things as fundamental to the society they want to live in and see their kids grow up in.

Forget dollars, here are some other numbers: 200,000 students in Ontario protested cuts to education budgets last week. Two days later, something like 30,000 parents, teachers, education workers, kids, grandparents and community members did the same at Queen’s Park. That’s powerful.

It’s not “hold my scotch while I write you a cheque” powerful. It’s traffic-stopping, headline-grabbing, car-honking, bike-bell-ringing, kids-in-strollers, whose-streets-our-streets powerful. Years of neoliberal-induced austerity and disillusionment can, sadly, make us forget this simple fact: that, without huge sums of money, the anti-public-education, anti-public-health-care, low-wages-for-all movement would never stand a chance of convincing us en masse to forget the tremendous impact we can all have when we take collective action.

It’s not likely that we’ll ever see 30,000 business types march on Queen’s Park in their suits (unless perhaps as part of some corporate cosplay). There simply aren’t that many of them willing to give up their weekends and get on buses from across the province to publicly rally in support of their priorities. But, given the accolades the Conservative government received from the business lobby for gutting labour legislation last year, it’s revealing that exactly none of the suits have come forward to champion the education minister’s assertions that larger class sizes teach “resilience.” Where’s the solidarity, guys?

We need to expose the divide between profits and people, between private hoarding and public assets, between smaller classes for private-schooled kids and larger classes for everyone else. And we have to force those apparently agitating for these reforms to own the role they’ve assumed—and the regressive policies the government they elected has imposed on us and our kids.

We all know what good education looks like. It looks like smaller class sizes. More one-on-one time for students with educators and education workers. More guidance and support. More librarians. More extra-curricular activities and elective courses to enrich the educational experiences all kids deserve. A funding formula that that meets students’ needs and doesn’t leave schools and boards having to allocate inadequate resources, further marginalizing vulnerable kids. Schools that respond to community needs and the needs of kids, without depending on a community’s ability to fundraise.

That’s what good education is. And not just for our own kids—for all our kids.

Public education has an amazing ability to bring people together because it is, inherently, about other people. Educators and education workers do their jobs every day for other people’s children. Each child impacts the educational experience of every other child in that classroom. The actual physical structure of the school, and the programs and services it offers, has a profound impact on the entire community in which it’s located. Individual experiences may vary, but they are all related, because public education is an ongoing exercise in empowerment, empathy, and interconnectivity.

We know this. Kids know this. Within a few short weeks, thousands of young people mobilized because they know what further cuts will do—not just to the classrooms of today, but the classrooms of the future, too.

By all accounts, this will not be a one-off, especially after the Premier told students that, unbeknownst to them, they had only walked out of class en masse because they had somehow fallen under the spell of “The Unions”. As a parent of a very engaged teen (and as a former teenager myself), I feel pretty confident in saying this was, from a strategic perspective, The. Worst. Possible. Response. Ever. Dad.

Taking a stand against cuts to public education reminds people, and particularly students, not just that they have a voice … but of how many people are right there, beside them and behind them, working towards a goal that is, at its heart, about each other. That’s a powerful epiphany.

And it’s also the foundation of one hell of a critical mass.


Erika Shaker is Director of Education and Outreach at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and on Twitter at @ErikaShaker.

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