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“Parental choice” is a dog-whistle—let’s recognize it as such

It’s less about choice, and more about privilege, privatization, populism, and patriarchy

June 23, 2023

6-minute read

The ‘parental choice’ movement is increasingly organized and networked across borders. Understanding the ways it weaponizes both legitimate and illegitimate grievances with institutional power structures is crucial towards defending public education.

What we have been seeing in Canada, over the past three decades in particular, is corporatization of the public system. Corporatization has many manifestations—public money redirected (often as vouchers) to pay for or support private sector educational services, private schools or private-lite schools (charter schools); an increased corporate presence in public schools and classrooms or the contracting out of education services and materials to private entities, including curriculum design and provision or public-private partnerships.

This corporatization is the tip of a privatization iceberg that the far right (and the people who court them) tells us isn’t privatization at all. It’s about choice, they say. Who could disagree with that? But here “choice” is a dangerous fig leaf that is being leveraged to redirect money away from a universal public system towards an exclusionary private one.

These attacks on equity impact the most marginalized kids—kids who are poor, racialized, differently abled, queer, and more—who have no options outside of an increasingly underfunded public system. And we see how this agenda isn’t about success or fairness or excellence at all—it’s about profit and ideology.

To understand the implications of the 'parental choice' movement in the current education debates, we need to understand four concepts—privilege, privatization, populism, and patriarchy—and how they are connected.

Privilege

    Choice doesn't happen in a vacuum, whether at the supermarket, in real estate or in schools. Not everyone has access to the same choices, or lives with the choices they make – or others make on their behalf – in the same manner.

    Education ‘choice’ can take multiple forms, but parents generally justify it using the language of “for my kid.” And who could argue with a parent just looking out for what’s best for their child – even if it’s somewhat fuzzy about whether this is about what’s best for the child vs the control a parent asserts over their child. There’s a world of difference between advocating for down time and water fountain trips, and insisting on being informed if their child has joined a GSA.

    Whose choices get prioritized at the school council meeting? Drama kids, or science class for gifted students? Of course, some parents can, and do, advocate much more effectively than others—as a result of opportunities not everyone has, or access to networks and resources that may charge a price for admission.

    All this normalizes the move away from collective approaches that recognize the need for flexibility for learning needs and interests, and towards a model that is based on funding-per-student, and whose needs get prioritized, within the steel trap of scarce resources. This is where parental “choice” leverages not just an individualized frame, but a privatized one. And it rarely stops at school council meetings.

    Privatization

      Many boutique programs or special magnet schools are still nominally public. They can’t discriminate, but they can use coded expressions like “good fit” during the selection process. They may also come with a fee, but the assurance that no one will be turned away for financial reasons. The choice to self-disclose often has its own challenges—and not all parents who have the funds or social caché to keep pressing refresh while the registration website reloads or to stay up all night in lineups, let alone paying for the coaching required to help ensure their child’s successful application.

      These are the allowances that have been made to keep discriminating parents happy with the public system, so long as there’s just enough specialization to benefit their kid’s interests and needs, without going full private.

      Carried one step further, it’s the charter model, where public dollars pay for schools that look very private. But just because charter schools aren’t in Canada other than Alberta, it doesn't mean the same mindset isn’t at work. It’s merely one step further along the privatization continuum.

      The final—at least for now—step on the privatization scale is the voucher or tax credit model, where private parental choice is funded by public dollars. Currently, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and to some extent Nova Scotia have pursued this model. It has also been fully embraced by Alberta and Quebec, with severe equity implications.

      There are nascent initiatives in other provinces too, like Ontario, where the government implemented “Catch Up” payments of $200 - $250 per child to offset extra education-related costs incurred during COVID—such as tutors, whose market share exploded—rather than comprehensive investment in public education for all kids.

      Individualized handouts provide a fraction of the benefit that collective pooling of resources would. But that would require a pro-public, universal approach to the programs from which we all benefit, rather than an individualized approach that provides a public subsidy for parents who can afford private choices, while further depleting reserves through tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest, and ensuring ongoing underfunding of the public infrastructure.

      Populism

        Populism is a political frame that focuses on ordinary people, rather than the elites. What makes it regressive or progressive, of course, is who defines what it is to be ordinary, what it means to be elite, and who benefits or is hurt by the solutions being proposed (or demands being made).

        Public education is a ready-made target for populist campaigns – it’s community-focused, it’s about kids, and everyone has an opinion about it. These elements make organizing around public education very powerful.

        There is no question that public schools are being scapegoated in the culture wars. This was abundantly clear in the last round of school board elections that saw a social media and organizing campaign targeting progressives and scapegoating trans kids in particular.

        It’s not just an election issue, although it’s certainly been mobilized by politicians, including by Pierre Poilievre during his leadership campaign. And while there may be some variation, the general narrative is as follows: parents are the boss, educators are intent on circumventing that authority, and schools are training children to become subversive progressives who can’t add. And you, the taxpayer, is forced to pay for all of these things without having any say.

        The push for a narrower, more “rigorous”, less arts’ focused, more market-responsive public school system is not new. These zombies keep being resuscitated, and they will always have an audience of stalwart public education critics. But now they’re layered on top of decades of insufficient funding, where frustration with leaky roofs and growing class sizes and fewer extracurricular activities and insufficient acknowledgement of system oppression and more standardized tests is increasing – all of which disproportionately hurts already marginalized kids and communities, and all of which was made worse with COVID. And parents who can afford to look elsewhere – in the public system, or as private “extra”, or in the private system – just may, especially if there’s financial incentive to do so.

        Patriarchy

          In the eyes of public education’s opponents, it’s an archetypical power struggle: the traditional family holding off the full force of a government institution that thinks it knows better than actual people. Father (figure) knows best vs a feminized workforce intent on controlling the children, and reshaping the future for nefarious ends.

          This false narrative resonates with certain segments of the population who are resentful at the perceived erosion of their authority and privilege—those who yearn for schools that don’t question parental authority, or won’t raise difficult questions about sexual health and consent, or gender identity, or residential schools, or Canada’s own racism.

          And consequently this narrative has been extraordinarily effective at mobilizing troops in the culture wars—in increasingly volatile ways—maliciously targeting educators who dare to talk about diversity and safe spaces, and perversely labeling marginalized and vulnerable kids and communities as elites.

          It’s also been instrumental in fuelling privatization initiatives in education, where provincial governments use public money to leverage private selection of schools that more closely resemble a certain set of principles and beliefs. Sometimes it’s overtly religious, sometimes it’s about other forms of control. But ultimately, it’s about dismantling public education—a movement away from publicly provided to publicly funded, from publicly accountable to privately determined and consumed.

          It’s no longer about wanting something better for our kids than we had for ourselves – it’s about wanting for our kids a reproduction of the structures that we find familiar, and no questions asked. It’s about fitting in to predetermined and prescribed roles – whether about class, or race, or gender – these days especially gender. And it’s the ongoing pushback against any form of progress.

          Defending public schools

          Public schools becoming ground zero of right-wing campaigns that are anti-equity in nature and focus, and hierarchical in structure is, in many ways, the logical conclusion of the road we’ve been on for some time.

          But resistance cannot be a return to a pro-public school status quo. As with all public institutions, there is an urgent need to do better, particularly for marginalized kids and communities who have been frustrated and failed by what’s currently in place.

          We cannot afford the luxury of defensiveness. Because this is what helps feed right-wing populist movements predicated on grievances not being heard; on the narrative that public institutions are impersonal, faceless, wasteful, taxpayer funded bureaucracies that erode parental authority and hurt kids – whether with masks, or by talking about gender identity.

          We know better – but that also means we are responsible for doing better.

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