Recently, New Brunswickers learned of a report about our “costly” and “unsustainable” public education system. The report, The Cost Disease Infects Public Education Across Canada, authored by Rod Clifton, and published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (FCPP) and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), recommends slashing public education funding and increasing competition among private and public schools, through adoption of a voucher system.
The announcement of this report, featured in the Irving-owned Brunswick News dailies, coincided (March 31st) with the expiry of Canada’s national health accord. The expiry resulted from Prime Minister Harper’s refusal to meet with provincial Premiers – and the Premiers refusal to demand same – to arrange for the continuation of Canada’s universal health care plan. For those awake and aware, it is clear that the relentless debates generated by the political right against government programmes are designed to persuade the citizenry that we have no other choice but to dismantle, and privatize, that which defines a decent society.
FCPP and AIMS are self-described non-partisan, independent think tanks, but this is not true in any meaningful way. AIMS is a Maritimes’ clone of western Canada-based FCPP, and each advocates consistently for public policies that conform to corporatist, libertarian-right ideology. True to this perspective, FCPP and/or AIMS issued reports recently that have questioned the science behind global warming, recommended privatization of Crown Corporations, condemned Canadian organic farmers and businesses, attacked universal health care in Canada and lobbied for its increasing privatization.
Trying to unravel the money trail of influence is difficult, for Canadian think tanks are not required to disclose their funding. Think tanks are registered as charities with the Canadian Revenue Agency, thus enabling individual donors to claim tax credits, and corporate donors to receive tax deductions.
It is known, however, that FCPP receives support from the Donner Foundation, Aurea Foundation, and Hecht Foundation, among others not wishing to be identified. The British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) described the Donner Foundation as “paymaster to the right” and speculates that without the Donner’s backing in the past decade, Stephen Harper would be a “nobody.” The BCTF also charges that the Aurea Foundation, in its advocacy of “free market” deregulation, works covertly for the Harper government, and that the Hecht Foundation – enriched by money from selling weaponry – has a mission to destabilize public education.
Kudos to the New Brunswick Teachers Association (NBTA) for criticizing the Clifton report. But its critique (at least as reported in the mainstream media) focused on the Clifton’s use of old data, and did not address the big picture: Should New Brunswick head in directions well underway in the U.S., regarding a “freedom of choice” voucher system?
There, public tax dollars are redistributed in the form of vouchers, to support (1) private schools, (2) public schools, or (3) charter schools. Under this system, private schools receiving public funding do not have to follow the same rules as public schools, which are subject to public oversight. Charter schools are often former public schools, closed down or in dire straits due to systemic underfunding by state and local governments, then saved or revived by gravy train-seeking corporate hedge-fund managers, private investors and philanthropists, enticed by vast sums of public money. These schools exercise considerable autonomy, tend to inculcate students into the mindscape of corporate citizenship, compete with one another and public schools in the game of standardized testing, and are expected to provide higher academic achievement for the students they drain from the public schools. And sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.
Education historian Diane Ravitch foresees that within a few years, 80% of public schools in the U.S. will have become charter schools, with the remaining few becoming “dumping grounds” for unwanted kids, those who would bring down test scores for the charter schools. Ravitch concludes that “what’s at stake is the future of…public education” and that as one of the foundation stones of democracy, “an attack on public education is an attack on democracy.”
We would do well to heed Ravitch’s warning and reject any transformation of our educational system into one where success and failure is pegged to the fattening of corporate and private wallets with our tax dollars. The NBTA and advocates of public education must voice strong condemnation of this report to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, for much, much is at stake.
Gary Heathcote is a member of the NB Media Co-op.