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High praise for public education

From Monday's Globe and Mail

I recently logged on to Google Earth for the first time, to take a bird's-eye view of my neighbourhood: Parkdale, a mixed-income district in central Toronto. And I learned a surprising lesson. The most visible feature in our community, from that sky-high vantage point, is none other than our humble public school.

When you think about it, this is quite fitting. That building's importance to our neighbourhood goes way beyond reading, writing and arithmetic.

Physically, the school is the largest and most recognizable building in our 'hood. Indeed, it was only because of it that I could find our house, otherwise indistinguishable from all those other roofs, in the first place. I started at the school, then "walked home," following my daughters' route. The school clearly provides an organizing point for the community. Indeed, whether or not it's in session, the schoolyard is a welcome green magnet in our urbanized milieu.

Naturally, its safety-proofed playground and sports fields are well-used by students. But dozens of non-students come each evening, too, from teenaged skateboarders and trick cyclists to adult joggers and dog walkers. Indoors, the school is a resource for the whole community. Swimming lessons in the pool; music lessons; community meetings in the auditorium. For children bombarded with advertising from birth, the school provides a rare non-commercial space: something that exists for a purpose other than selling something, and hence where you'll never have to bark at your kids, "No, we can't buy that!"

Swarms of stay-at-home parents bring their preschoolers to the parenting centre, where they enjoy unstructured runaround time, referrals to outside services, adult conversation. There's a child-care facility, too, providing a one-stop destination (including after-school care) for kids from 3 to 13.

But our school's importance to its community goes far beyond these facilities and services. Its high-quality education for students of Parkdale's many backgrounds is a priceless contribution to social cohesion. This egalitarianism enhances our ability to get along as neighbours, in addition to boosting our children's chances in life.

Together, our two girls have had a dozen different home-room teachers. All were good; several were extraordinary. All students have their challenges, and this school has tried to integrate and support those with special needs. This may pull down standardized test scores a tad, but provides a more important lesson to our kids in the importance of inclusion. And the school works to create a safe, bully-free environment. That's something we could emulate in, say, our workplaces.

Speaking of which, our public school is itself an important, high-quality employer. Indeed, it's perhaps the largest workplace in our immediate neighbourhood. Several dozen professionals - teachers, administrators, specialized support workers, maintenance staff - ply their trades there. They earn decent incomes, protected by their unions, and they pump their earnings back into the regional economy.

I wouldn't pretend that everything is perfect. Some problems take way too long to get fixed. Governance can always be improved. But on the whole, I feel blessed that our family receives the services of this dedicated, high-performance public institution. And I am happy to pay taxes to support it.

Every neighbourhood needs and deserves a high-quality public school like ours. Collectively, we should recommit to providing the resources, attention and care that public schools need to stay at the top of their games. By the same token, anything that undermines the economic and social basis of public education poses, in my view, a nefarious threat to the Canadian fabric.

This includes subsidies and other incentives for private schooling, which is at least as dangerous, in my view, as private health care. But almost as bad are market-like "reforms" that have been proposed for the public system - such as promoting more competition between schools. These measures have been proven to exacerbate inequality between schools and their neighbourhoods, accelerating the ghettoization that's already threatening our cities. In short, we should worry less about how to get our own particular children into the best particular schools and more about providing top-notch public schools for every child in every neighbourhood.

So, this week, as children and their parents march back to classes, say a little thank you to your friendly local school.

As our school is a prized asset in our neighbourhood, so is public education in general a gift to our whole society. That children from all classes and backgrounds attend the same building, get to know each other and learn from the same teachers is nothing short of a miracle. And it all starts right there in the neighbourhood.

Jim Stanford is an economist with the Canadian Auto Workers union.

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