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Deani Van Pelt: Pandemic schooling has made parents the guiding stars of education

Commentary

Stars have emerged in unexpected places during the dark night of the pandemic. Perhaps nowhere more than in homes with school-age kids.

Repeated government school building closures sent kids home. And for months board-provided schooling wasn’t offered even in a virtual format. Compulsory education laws stating that kids must attend school or be educated at home or elsewhere (as, for example, in Ontario’s Education Act) would be observed, but only if parents could pull it off.

When the Ontario government announced in August 2018 that it would deliver an education system that put the rights of parents first it could not have anticipated that within 18 months it would be joining a global movement of testing parental primacy in education.

But it did. And there will be no turning back.

Over the last decades, our societies haven’t spent a lot of time reflecting on the primacy of parents in their kids’ lives. Instead, the state has increasingly displaced many familial roles and acquired a taste for routinely leaving parents on the sidelines, particularly with respect to education.

Yet when government backed away and could no longer offer schooling, it sent kids home. Governments turned to parents. It didn’t turn to the military as it did in long-term care or even to professional educators. Governments turned to parents for the services it had become accustomed to providing. In some places, provincial budgets even allotted parents a few hundred dollars for their efforts.

This isn’t shocking. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. None of us would have preferred instead to institutionalize our kids for a year or two in some alternative residential location to keep them “safe” and ensure they continued their government-offered education.

Yet, on the other hand, this impulse of government to turn to parents in its time of need and the subsequent response of parents to this challenge provides an opportunity to reflect on the natural rights and responsibilities of parents. Perhaps even more importantly it highlights new trends in K-12 education.

If we, and our 21st century democratic governments, know that during times of trauma the best place for our kids is at home with their parents, looking ahead to times of calm, we can no longer continue on the pre-pandemic trajectory of increasingly excluding parents from the educational equation.

Growth in K-12 educational alternatives shows that sidelining parents will simply no longer be an option.

The 2020 founder of Learning Pods Canada, Rachel Danzinger, recently discussed the growth in a new alternative approach to education delivery. Small groups of students, many de-enrolled from formal school, are meeting with facilitating educators, usually hired by their parents, to pursue their education.

According to Danzinger, podding familiarized parents with the attainability of excellent education outside of government-provided schooling. As the parents became more acquainted with alternative curricula and began sharing resources within and across pods, some realized insufficiencies in provincial curricula and some, for the first time, became aware not only of the ideologies embedded in government programs but of how their child was not attaining to their full potential.

Other parent-led approaches to education, including more traditional forms of homeschooling, also grew. According to Peter Stock at the Canadian Centre for Home Education homeschooling in Canada doubled during the pandemic, from estimated rates of somewhere between one and two percent. Twice as many parents as one year earlier did not enrol their children in a school and officially became the primary educator in their kids’ lives.

Affordable independent schools also grew. One association of Christian schools, Edvance, found an average of 10 percent growth in enrolments across its member elementary schools. According to Amanda Dervaitis of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, micro-schooling — small registered private schools of one or two dozen students — also grew in number, sometimes ironically attracting so many students that their micro definition stood to be tested.

The pandemic has revealed parental potential and preference for the education of their kids. When presented with the need and given the options, many parents find small, local, caring, community-based educational alternatives preferable to the larger-scale, anonymity of centrally-designed, bureaucratically-delivered government school options.

The cultural shift in education towards engaged parents is not inconsistent with law in Canada, both legislative and jurisprudential, that provides extensive protection for parental rights in directing and determining their children’s education. Only in the most extreme of cases will the state intervene and supersede a parent’s wishes as parents are presumed to be acting in the best interests of their children and the onus of proving otherwise is on the state seeking to intervene.

Alberta’s Education Act gives a statutory example. Its preamble states that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that may be provided to their children”.

Examples from jurisprudence abound. As recently as 2017 the Ontario Court of Appeal stated that “the right of parents to care for their children and make decisions for their well-being, including decisions about education, is primary, and the state’s authority is secondary to that parental right…The law is clear that the authority of the state to educate children is a delegated authority.”

The pandemic gave parents a taste of being active participants in their kids’ education.

The most famous of the many international conventions and covenants that indicate the primacy of parents is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which reads “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” and protects their freedom to “manifest…religion or belief in teaching.”.

Recognition of the primacy of parents in their children’s education is not just in the realm of legislators, the courts, or international bodies, but also plays a central role in religious and indigenous societies. Indeed, sacred texts such as the Torah and the Book of Proverbs from the ancient world, the words of the prophet Mohammed from the first millennium of the common era, and more recently the Vatican II declaration Gravissimum educationis all recognize parents as the primary and principal educators of their children.

Indigenous peoples also give primacy of place to parents in education and child-raising. The report of the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission gives insight in volume five. “Many students were permanently damaged by residential schools. Separated from their parents, they grew up knowing neither respect nor affection. A school system that mocked and suppressed their families’ cultures and traditions destroyed their sense of self-worth,” the report reads.

Taken together — this extensive codification of parent primacy and our recent pandemic experience that naturally reverted education back within the purview of parent—what will it mean going forward?

While few would appeal for 19th century education left entirely to the home-setting of field, workshop, or hearth, the 20th century vision for a universal, one-size-fits-all education is now over.

The pandemic gave parents a taste of being active participants in their kids’ education. If they were disappointed with the centralized, bureaucratized, standardized approach to education and the curriculum on offer, the experience during the pandemic has reminded them of what was naturally theirs all along.

The veil of the professionalized, unionized world of education was lifted and many lived into what came naturally to them — working much more collaboratively with their child’s teacher or in many cases de-enrolling and taking on the responsibility themselves. Designing learning experiences and settings where their kids could thrive became familiar and attainable.

The coming cultural shift in education towards engaged, rather than excluded, parents stands on a strong foundation — in law, in history, and in practice.

And as we stand on the cusp of new frontiers in education, opportunities for innovation and diversity are endless. Yet one thing is clear: our new guiding stars are parents.

Rob Leone: Conservatives face a monumental challenge to stay relevant

Commentary

Ken Boessenkool recently reflected in The Hub on the need for Conservatives to appeal to their finer sensibilities in terms of the policy suite they offer to each of the movement’s different camps, while avoiding the other elements that turn off many others to the cause.

While I share these thoughts, I would also like to go a few steps further. Here are a collection of lessons from years of being an academic, a party activist and even becoming an elected provincial conservative.

Challenge 1: Leader vs Followers

In a blog post earlier this year, I made the claim that the Conservative Party itself was ungovernable. In that post, I claimed that the Conservative Party elects a leader, and the very next minute, that leader is expected to follow the followers — followers who will ruthlessly guillotine the leader for non-victory while themselves escaping any blame for the cataclysmic failure.

It is a Conservative form of Marxism, where the proletariat collection of members control the bourgeois party elites. It is the most perverse form of organization, and honest questions never arise to analyze whether it is working.

Until Conservatives figure out that this backward organization is untenable, the party will never move forward. A leader needs to have the opportunity to lead. He or she needs to be true to self, believe in the policies being advanced, and have the latitude to figure out where to go.

Instead, our leaders want to fight an election on a particular policy agenda and scorn arises because it isn’t doctrinaire enough. This brings conflict, and rather than members seeing themselves as a dominant part of the conflict, they simply maintain that the leader wasn’t listening. It happens every time a Conservative leader loses.

Challenge 2: Solutions in search of problems

Let’s have a chat about the Conservative Party’s penchant for standing policy documents. This was brought to my attention again last week when members of the Conservative Party voted for their national policy committee.

Imagine writing a policy document for a political party years before an election. In fact, some of the Conservative Party of Canada’s standing policy provisions were written two decades removed from today.

It’s never great fighting the policy battles of yesterday when confronted with an election where voters are preoccupied about the here and now. But, there we have it: every time there’s a policy conference, there’s an avalanche of controversies over policy initiatives that would never make an election platform.

To make matters worse, members will insist that those standing policies are followed. Failure to adhere to yesterday’s standing policy book is seen as an indictment of today’s leadership. Nobody seems to see a problem with this.

This pet peeve is an example of the second major challenge: Conservatives tend to have a policy solution without defining a policy problem. It’s just too easy to brand conservatives as grandpa’s party just by the very nature of its institutional set up.

Surely the suggestion of blowing up the policy process will be seen as radical and controversial inside the tent. However, unless conservatives are talking to people about what they’re concerned about right now, then how will voters ever be convinced that their life will be better under a Conservative government?.

I might well support liberalizing gun laws and know it is important for the base, but it’s not even on the agenda for all but the hardest core of voters. This is a solution for a non-defined problem and while it appeals to a small subset of voters that by and large already vote Conservative, it is not speaking to average voters concerned about their more important life problems who are not voting Conservative.

Policy ideas need to be attached it to a current problem. If Canadians do not see the problem the same way, then it shouldn’t be a priority. This should be an ironclad rule, but one conservatives never seem to follow.

Challenge 3: Every good story must have a happy ending

If an election were like telling a story, we need to talk about the characters, the setting, the conflict, and the resolution when building the plot. Conservatives seem to like to talk about the characters and the conflict, but they struggle to provide a satisfying resolution to that conflict that calms, soothes and gives people hope.

Fear is a great motivating factor for people. Fear of reckless spending. Fear of nanny statism. Fear of governments making decision that ordinary folks should make on their own. Fear speaks to conflict, highlighting the fact that the opponents’ policies and ideas would be bad. That appears to be where conservatives end their narrative.

Hope speaks to a view of life four or ten years from now. How will Canada be better? How will we measure our collective prosperity? How do we turn that small, pocketbook thinking into a grander vision of tomorrow?

Unless a campaign talks about that and sounds authentic about its vision, it will continue to fall off the edge of the election cliff.

Challenge 4: Urban Canada needs a reason to vote Conservative

Have you ever been in a conversation where the person you’re speaking to is talking but not listening? That’s what Conservatives sound like.

There’s an echo chamber in the party that tends to have a loud voice, but it doesn’t reflect what ordinary people are worried about.

I’m a 40-something, educated, dual-income earning, upper-middle class, homeowner in Ontario. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to a vast swath of people, but it increasingly defines the people who live in vote-rich suburban parts of the country. To my dismay, most people like me don’t vote Conservative. Life is good for the most part. However, even though life is good, it’s not like such people don’t have their concerns.

Here are a few based on conversations I have recently had that are not so Covid-specific:

  • Worry about kids getting jobs
  • Don’t know how kids are going to afford homes
  • Work-life balance stress
  • How to care for mom and dad if they were to get ill
  • Personal and family mental health and well-being
  • No time to do anything because we’re shuttling kids to a million things again
  • Traffic and congestion
  • Distress over treatment of Indigenous people
  • Noisy neighbours

The funny thing is that proposing solutions to these urban problems do not have to come at the expense of the rural base. Worrying about kids getting jobs is as much a rural problem as it is an urban one. Affording homes in urban Canada requires a plan to build more homes in urban Canada.

The sorts of things on this list will not appear on the most important issues on a poll. They come out in conversations we should be having with ordinary people.

These are things that if you can tackle them in a neat package of real solutions, it signals to people that there is hope for a better future for them and their children.

Erin O’Toole can win the election if he starts focusing on the things that matter to people, but he and the party need to address its shortcomings before that becomes possible. Time is running out.