Opinion
Education Opinion

Watching Canada’s Emerging Struggle

By Stephen Arons — January 25, 1984 9 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Americans have been using the law to reform education for over a century. This activity, especially in the last four decades, has been in either real or symbolic recognition of the desire to reform society by the legal manipulation of schooling.

Now, for the first time, Canada is about to embark on a similar venture. The country having recently adopted its first written constitution, Canadian school officials, attorneys, and courts are anticipating a possible flood of constitutional litigation through which they may either significantly democratize and improve their education system or become paralyzed by a mass of brittle legalisms. Canada’s experience as a new frontier for education reform will provide a set of experiences from which Americans have much to gain, including the impetus for a long-overdue re-examination of the role of law in American education reform.

Canada’s culture, education system, and new constitution--though certainly different from ours--are similar enough to make a comparison of education-reform issues in the two societies useful to both. Such a process formally began in June 1983 when Canadian educators, legal scholars, and policymakers gathered for three days of discussion under the insightful leadership of Michael Manley-Casimir, professor of education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. The central question occupying the participants was whether the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms will be a catalyst for education reform.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms differs from the U.S. Constitution in several important ways. The Charter lists among the fundamental freedoms of Canadians, in a section similar to our First Amendment, not only freedom of religion, but freedom of “conscience.” The implication of this concept is that the formation and expression of secular as well as religious beliefs are protected from government manipulation. In its section on “equality rights,” the Charter lists not only equal protection but “equal benefit” of the laws. It also enumerates, but does not limit, the categories of discrimination that are forbidden under the Charter. The list includes “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.” The breadth of coverage of equality rights is thus significantly expanded over that of the U.S. Constitution. Coupled with the Charter’s Section 28, which calls for equal rights for “male and female persons,” this section appears to do what an equal-rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution would do. Significantly, the equality provision also contains a section legitimizing affirmative-action programs designed for “the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups. ...”

Perhaps most novel in the Charter is a provision guaranteeing “Minority Language Educational Rights,” the thrust of which is to preserve the right of English- and French-speaking minorities to have their children educated in their own language. The same constitutional sensitivity to cultural diversity and pride is expressed in a clause requiring Charter interpretations that are “consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” The Charter also protects the rights of “denominational, separate, or dissentient schools” to continue to receive public funding. The apparent intent of this clause is the preservation of economically meaningful family choice of religious or independent schools, and its effect will be to continue a practice of state-subsidized choice that many Americans fear.

Canadian culture and education also display important differences from the United States, and these suggest differences in what may be accomplished by using Charter litigation for education reform.

For example, both countries are pluralistic, but the Canadians must accept a bilingual inheritance, and assimilationism must necessarily be more muted. Thus, Canadians may have a greater capacity to credit cultural diversity in their school system than we do. Canadians are less concerned with ensuring that government-run schools are the only ones that receive tax dollars when freely chosen by Canadian families (although real freedom of choice remains an issue because of limitations on government spending on non-government schools). The dominant group in Canada shares the same roots in English liberty as does the U.S., but Canadians have tolerated government controls and majority impositions in schools and elsewhere that many Americans would find repressive. Finally, Canada has a more conservative judicial tradition and a less stridently individualistic culture than does the U.S. These facts taken together suggest a reluctance to produce massive education reforms through the litigation of individual rights and freedoms.

In spite of these and other differences in culture and constitution, Canadians and Americans do face some similar education-reform issues.

First, both societies are concerned with finding ways to promote educational excellence without over-regulating schools and without denigrating the rights of subcultures and individuals to define excellence according to their own visions of the good life and sound citizenship. At issue here is the balance between schooling as a utilitarian expression of “national interest” and education as a form of individual development and cultural transcendence. Insofar as education is a process of cultural transmission as well as individual liberation, this balance will be as difficult to strike in Canada as in the U.S.

Second, both societies are in search of ways to secure equality of educational opportunity, especially for women, for ethnic, language, and racial minorities, and for those with inadequate financial resources. Canada, though it has a long and honorable history of protecting fugitive slaves from the U.S., has also neglected and discriminated in schooling against non-Europeans and people who settled Canada before the French and English. In Canada and the U.S., the tendency to tolerate a scarcity of education resources just where they are most needed, or to abandon respect for cultural differences where those differences are most in evidence, sets up a painful tension in societies that proclaim an equalitarian ideal but live a hierarchic reality.

Third, both societies are struggling to arrive at a clear understanding of the roles of teachers and students in an over-institutionalized school setting. To enhance the status and skills of teachers and to provide a fair measure of respect for students might make teaching and learning more productive, but neither goal is easy to achieve amid a crossfire of competing special interests and shrinking education budgets.

Mr. Manley-Casimir boils these grand issues down to two that he feels are most likely to emerge as early targets of education-reform litigation under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: the preservation of English and French minority-language rights in education; and the provision of equal benefit of the law to gifted as well as special-needs children. The similarity to our own issues of bilingual education and the targeting of education resources is clear. Further down the line, Mr. Manley-Casimir sees cases involving the equalization of public funding for independent- and religious-school students, who currently receive only about 25 percent of the tax money flowing to government-school students in many places in Canada. Our struggles on the national and state level over tuition tax credits and tuition vouchers provide the American parallel.

Mr. Manley-Casimir says that issues such as student rights and equitable financing among public-school districts are not likely to arise any time soon in Canada--the former because the Canadian public is not receptive to the idea that students are people with rights; the latter because financial disparities among public-school districts are not nearly so glaring in Canada as they are in the U.S.

It is, of course, too early to say how well Canadians will do in handling these issues of education quality, equality, and liberty. (The equality provision of the Charter does not take effect until 1985, though other sections are already in place and being tested in lower courts.) For now, American educators and school reformers might wish their neighbors to the north well, hoping to learn from their success how to improve our own, similar, system. Or we might be jealous of the Canadian opportunity, wishing we could extricate ourselves from a hyper-legalized and bureaucratized present and take part in fashioning an as-yet-uncharted future. We might even hope that those seeking to reform schooling in Canada through law do no better than we have done, thereby showing that Americans have accomplished the most that could be expected with seemingly intractable problems. But whatever our personal or professional views, developments in Canada are likely to become a rich source of information about new possibilities for dealing with old dilemmas.

It is plain that we have much to learn from the unfolding of these issues in Canada, especially by observing how much reform can take place through compromise and mediation, and without the legalization of education policy that usually comes from taking an adversary posture toward asserted education rights.

We may also discover new ways to think about these issues if the Canadian experience prompts a thoughtful and thorough retrospective review of how well American education reform through law has worked. My initial review of the long history of education litigation in the U.S. yields the discomforting conclusion that, in spite of enormous advances, there have been a number of substantial and persistent misconceptions and errors in the U.S. experience of using litigation to reform schooling. Such an initial review indicates that a more complete retrospective of law and education reform in America would not only refresh the past but clarify the present reform possibilities.

America was, for those who came here voluntarily, a frontier of opportunities to build a better life or simply to escape the oppressiveness of an ossified and over-regulated past. We have been exploring new frontiers ever since. But perhaps now (in education at least) it is America that has become ossified and over-regulated--a society in which policy assumptions, institutional restrictions, and vested interests have come to outweigh opportunities. Perhaps there is some of the hopefulness and flexibility of the frontier in the Canadian opportunity for education reform. American educators and reformers do not need to emigrate to Canada, however, to discover whether there are better ways to realize the enduring quest for equitable educational excellence. Simply by reviewing our own successes and failures honestly, and watching Canada’s emerging struggle with an open mind, we may be able to awaken our sense of the possible and our will to cut through the old restraints of mind and institution.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 1984 edition of Education Week as Watching Canada’s Emerging Struggle


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Education FDA: ‘Very, Very Hopeful’ COVID Shots Will Be Ready for Younger Kids This Year
Dr. Peter Marks said he is hopeful that COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds will be underway by year’s end. Maybe sooner.
4 min read
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021. On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Marks urged parents to be patient, saying the agency will rapidly evaluate vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds as soon as it gets the needed data.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AP