The conservative argument for public education

Where should conservatives stand in regards to public school?

Anthony Daoud Montreal QC

The discourse regarding education has experienced a more pronounced resurgence as of late. Legislators on all sides of the aisle have placed education into the upper echelon of electoral priorities.

The results have been a cycle of reciprocating slander between political parties, which has found its way into even the most mundane conversations.

Emerging from this conflict is a question which can dramatically alter the course of right-wing policy; where should conservatives stand in regards to public school?

Some may desire more expansive privatization of education, for any number of reasons. Others may prefer the abolition of school boards in general, like politicians currently at the helm of Quebec’s government.

The fact remains that public schools are a triumph brought about by our social system, and conservatives ought to defend these institutions so that future generations may be privy to receive an education without financial concern.

And yet, conservatives are not social democrats nor do we espouse socialist ideologies, but there is a level of duty to our country which we uphold, and a component of such relies upon protecting public education.

As stated, there is sufficient conservative reasoning to establish public schools as an irreplaceable guarantee.

Public schools in Canada

Statistics Canada latest figure indicates 5,068,587 students are currently enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools. An impressive 7% of our population.

21% of students who attended public elementary and secondary school graduate university by the age of 23, in comparison the number is only 14% higher for former private school students (35%).

In 2016 alone, Canadian “Apprenticeship Training Programs” received an influx of 417,300 registrations.

Our labour market requires plumbers, electricians, mechanics, etc, therefore, the proper functionality of these programs, and trade schools cannot be undermined. Coupled with the safeguarding of educational institutions, this is a necessary provision.

Katie Hyslop of The Tyee notes that although public schools are meant to be fully subsidized by the government, instances still exist whereby parents are required to pay certain expenses. Agendas should be covered by the government, but parents should be afforded the liberty of purchasing the school supplies of their choice.

In the United States, parents spend an average of $510 on back-to-school supplies. Further examination of the market finds that back to school spending is worth a total of $27.6 billion.

With so much potential revenue to be made, the government’s involvement in education should have barriers of constraint. Moreover, with the system currently in place, parents of all socio-economic backgrounds can freely choose the retailer of their choice.

Although the figures are representative for the United States, parallels could be drawn with Canada too. In 2017, Canadian parents spent an average of $880 in back-to-school spending. Another factor that is worth notable consideration is today’s requirement of technology in all areas of education.

The Fraser Institute found a significant jump in “education spending in public schools” between 2006/07 and 2015/16. The increase is valued at being $9.2 billion. While that figure may summon dissatisfaction amongst those who support a reduction in government spending, there is a reason for the expenditure change. In the nine-year window, however, “salaries and wages increased by 33.2 per cent” going from $28.8 billion to $38.4 billion.

The Conservative argument

The seemingly unbreakable union between conservatism and a free-market oriented approach to economics is but an evolution of the ideology’s early self.

This isn’t to discard capitalism, for it has proved itself to be the fairest and successful economic system ever. Capitalism has lifted billions out of poverty and is responsible for allowing human uniqueness and ingenuity to flourish. Simply put, the free market grants prosperity.

But if conservatism wants to remain a force in our changing world, it is necessary to examine past individuals who have contributed to philosophical foundations, and draw from their conceptions.

British conservative Roger Scruton does an immaculate attempt to deconstruct the politic’s history in his work “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition”. Scruton places great emphasis on the post-French Revolution thinker’s who are due credit for their participation in forming conservative thought.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was an early British conservative, who remained sceptical about the cultural impact caused by fervent capitalism that increased in tandem with the industrial revolution. He called for government intervention in the market to help the poor and “provide education” to upkeep (what he considered to be) Western values.

John Ruskin (1819-1900), another English conservative was both anti-capitalist and anti-socialist. Going forward, it would be wise for Tory politicians to acknowledge the early teachings when constructing an adequate method to navigate our complicated world.

This isn’t a call to re-define conservatism, but rather to point towards a segment of political philosophy which can be applied to contemporary issues. Conservatives ought to conserve elements of conservatism to retain that which we seek to protect in a world subject to rapid change.

Challenges with education

There are certain flaws with elementary and secondary education.

Firstly, the politicization of education has caused justifiable concern. Only 27% of teachers identify as conservative, a rather minuscule amount in comparison to the left. In the United States, the union for teachers largely supports the Democrat Party.

As Chris Baylor of the Washington Post wrote: “They [teachers unions]  are a vital part of liberal coalitions and the Democratic Party”. With radical progressivism and contemporary liberal thought becoming mainstreamed in academia, it is little surprise conservatives hold disdain with public schools.

Instead of viewing the alternative as pushing for more private and charter schools, conservatives can push for curriculum which holds regard for Western traditions and ideals. This is notwithstanding the fact that religious schools can only be private.

Another, more financially pragmatic concern, is that Canadians spend on average 43% of their salary on taxes. A proper course of action should be pursued whereby taxes are lowered and more money from wasteful spending put into public education. Embedded in this is a dichotomy between fiscal responsibility and a return to conservative origins; effectively applying the past to the present.

Lastly, the Canadian constitution makes education a provincial jurisdiction, therefore the appliance of any ambitious policy would ultimately need to be legislated by the provincial governments.


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