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Commentary: Why public schools matter

Universal access to publicly-funded healthcare is a source of national pride and a social policy that Canadians are willing to go to great lengths to defend.

Universal access to publicly-funded healthcare is a source of national pride and a social policy that Canadians are willing to go to great lengths to defend.  But how passionate are we about preserving a robust public education system?  Recent events locally and provincially challenge our resolve on this very issue  Exshaw School is under threat of closure due to changes in federal funding for indigenous students and public schools province-wide are under threat from the UCP government’s proposed Choice in Education Act.

Education like health is a public good.  Market theory with its emphasis on choice and competition - with few external controls - cannot be applied to education any more than it can be to health.  Providing public funding for charter, private and religious schools to compete with public schools only undermines the efficiencies of a single high-performing system.

Public schools are an effective means of delivering education.  Research from the United States shows that public schools outperform private schools when socioeconomic status is taken into account.  Finland has the highest-ranking education system in the world and all schools in the country are publicly funded; no school is allowed to charge tuition fees.  Schools are encouraged to co-operate and innovate together rather than compete with one another, leading to world class results.

Inclusion is the hallmark of public schools.  Public schools recognize every child’s right to education and welcome every child. By contrast, Catholic schools may turn away students based on religion, charter schools screen out students with low test scores, and private schools refuse students who cannot pay tuition fees.  We wouldn’t accept a health care system that denied people service on the basis of religion, ability or income, so why do we tolerate an education system that does exactly that?  

By accepting and valuing children from all backgrounds, public schools embrace and celebrate diversity.  They teach inclusion and tolerance, foster good citizenship and increase empathy.  Public schools best prepare students for the real world where businesses thrive on employee diversity, and where complex political and social problems are solved by including diverse perspectives in decision-making.

Health and education are inextricably linked:  poor health can be an obstacle to pursuing education, while educational attainment leads to better health outcomes.  Education improves health directly by providing individuals with basic knowledge and skills, and indirectly enhances people’s ability to lead a healthy life by improving life circumstances in employment, income, food security and social support networks. 

Public schools are a powerful way to reduce avoidable and unfair health differences (health inequities) among different segments of society.  Being free and accessible to all, public schools reach and benefit everyone regardless of race, religion and socioeconomic status.  Education is the great equalizer, reducing income inequities and breaking the cycle of poverty for the most disadvantaged.  Decreasing inequity benefits rich and poor alike:  more equal societies have less mental illness, fewer crimes, less substance use and more trust among strangers.  

Public schools are also community hubs that bring together families and neighbours, creating bonds and interpersonal relationships through shared experiences.  Frequent contact with neighbours and other community members increases trust, social networks and shared values, all factors linked to better health outcomes.  

Public schools give all children an opportunity to develop to their full potential, and in doing so, improve health and social outcomes for individuals, families and communities.  The provincial public engagement survey on choice in education closed last week and as a physician and a parent, I let Jason Kenney and the UCP government know that I choose a province that is more tolerant, safe and healthy because of universal access to high quality education.  When it comes to education in Alberta, public schools are the only choice.

Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in Alberta. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Public Health Association and is past Chair of the Bow Valley Primary Care Network.

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