Free PR for private schools

By Stephen Gowans

Who needs to spend money on expensive public relations expertise, when you can get all the PR you want free, courtesy of Margaret Wente, the Globe and Mail's, lets-privatize-health-care-and education columnist?

Wente is always going on about how Canada's middle class would be better off if we all did away with a public health care system that makes you wait in queues for operations when you should be able to pay to jump to the head of line. And public schools -- those new-age, touchy-feely places that don't teach your kids to read and write and instead train little Dylan and Caitlin for a brilliant future working for the Save the Whales foundation, but little else -- are a frequent target. These days they've been singled out for a prolonged bombardment by Wente's artillery.

Oh, but she has a litany of complaints, guaranteed not to endear her to public school teachers.  "Most of Ontario's elementary schools remain firmly in the grip of a progressivist philosophy that maintains that their most important job is not to inspire kids to get high marks, but to nurture a high self-concept and good interpersonal skills," she writes. And acidly, "No kids anywhere in the world can match our kids in conflict-resolution techniques, or journal-keeping, or non-violence, or respect for those who are different from themselves. Now, if only they can read."

No doubt Wente is held in higher esteem by Sylvan Learning Centres and other private schools, and by Kumon, which Wente lionized in a recent column. For those who have made a business of education, Wente's  diatribes against the competition are surely invaluable. And welcome. It's nice that the Globe and Mail can be so helpful to private businesses.

As for me, I'm puzzled. Try as I might, I can't match Ms. Wente's descriptions with my childrens' experiences in Ontario public schools. For them, there has been no shortage of competition and emphasis on mathematics and reading is more over-done, than wanting. And the home work load is punishing.

And yet Wente creates the impression that public schools are teaming with illiterates, make few demands of kids, and don't rank order pupils for fear of damaging egos. I've yet to run across a single friend or classmate of my children who didn't know how to read. My daughter's school makes a fetish of ranking kids on the basis of academic achievement, holding end of term assemblies where medals of various degrees are awarded for academic performance, while the unfortunates who have fallen short are urged to work harder next term.

Given the yawning gap between the reality, as my children have experienced it, and the picture Wente paints, might I be forgiven for wondering whether Wente's columns have become thinly disguised promotional pamphlets for private schools?

Most galling of all is that Wente attacks public schools for doing too much of what they actually do too little of (teaching the virtues of anti-racism, non-violence, respect for diversity and saving the planet, while foregoing the inane practice of rank ordering kids on everything they do.) At worst, Wente's columns are deliberately contrived fiction, cynically fashioned to undermine confidence in public schools, with the aim of fattening the profits of the private school industry. At best, they're the sincere writings of a fool.