In response to a Langley Township council motion, I recently weighed in on the debate: Are churches a health hazard or essential service? I am grateful that in very short order, Langley council came around on this issue.
But COVID lockdowns have exposed another critical civil-society institution that we ought to re-examine: Schooling. Or, more specifically, the school system. I seek to address two questions here: What state is the school system in, and how, as Christians, are we to respond where it falls short?
First, the good. Parents, teachers, and school administrators have worked tirelessly to navigate the difficult – and at times confusing and even contradictory – health orders from Bonnie Henry’s office.
This was clearly seen in independent schools. Most did not miss a single day of class, as they transitioned from in-person to remote ‘triage’ schooling last spring.
Presently, schools in BC are open, but the one-sniffle-away-from-shutting-down atmosphere has made for an extraordinarily challenging work culture and learning environment. (Across the pond, nearly half of England’s school principals plan to retire after COVID.) Teachers have been – and continue to be – true champions.
But the school system has not done them any favours.
As I wrote back in May in a Cardus policy paper, the lockdown exposed three fatal cracks in the government-run school system. First, the system’s inflexibility all but ensured remote instruction would be a failure (which it was!). Second, the curtain was pulled back to reveal what a myth ‘equal delivery of education’ really is. And third, the lockdown exposed severe inefficiency in the allocation of resources. Although my analysis focused on one province, most of the critique is relevant Canada-wide – and to most jurisdictions across North America.
One of Canada’s foremost education experts, Paul Bennett, dives into this in considerably more detail in this Cardus webinar and in his new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools.
He convincingly argues schools were ill-prepared for disruption. For decades the bureaucrat-controlled education monopoly has grown increasingly distant and less connected – and, thus, largely unresponsive – to the public it claims to serve. It can seem frustrating, even futile, to try and make your voice heard. Bennett describes this boundary separating insiders from outsiders as an impenetrable fortress – akin to Max Weber’s proverbial ‘iron cage’.
The iron cage metaphor, according to Bennett, epitomizes the education system. It represents the tyranny of rationalization and bureaucratic control, where central planners’ calculated, large-scale, top-down schemes for our betterment – as straight and solid as steel bars – actually form the cage that traps us individuals in the tyranny of an unnatural social order.
But why is this? How is it that we, as a society, tolerate this iron cage in education but nowhere else?
There’s an economic answer and a theological one.
Let’s start with economics.
The education system is truly ‘price-less’. As education economists John Merrifield and Lindsey Burke presented last month at the International School Choice and Reform Conference, education is free at the point of delivery.
This matters. Whether or not we like to admit it, incentives affect behaviour. Think of it this way: When you spend your money on yourself, you have a very strong incentive to economize and maximize value. (This is one of the reasons why consumer products and services [like new cars and cellphone service] typically decline in price over time; whereas, subsidized industries [like healthcare, childcare, housing, and education] consistently outpace inflation.) We are much less price-sensitive spending other people’s money, especially if it’s on someone else.
The K-12 education system is, perhaps, the best example of this.
How is school paid for? By your neighbour’s property taxes for your other neighbour’s children. Thus, there is little to no incentive to economize or maximize value. This is why, despite a flat-line trend in government-school enrolment, rising education costs continue to outrun inflation.
But are there specific policy levers that address this? Yes, three, in fact. To quote Burke:
If we think about the K-12 government monopoly and what really keeps it intact, we see that it is a three-part issue: It is publicly-funded, assigned, and compulsory. That is, not only does the government mandate your child attend school, but for the most part they mandate what school that child attends – largely assigned on the basis of where your family can afford to live. And, of course, all of this is publicly funded through your taxpayer dollars.
In other words, the system is structurally designed to resist any pressure to change. (And, keep in mind, it is controlled by unelected bureaucrats, whose careers depend on its continuance – and, therefore, design it in their image.)
John Merrifield expands on this at length in his new book, School System Reform: How and Why is a Price-Less Tale.
His solution? Non-discrimination schooling.
In short, allow self-organizing communities to create bespoke alternatives on a level playing field with government-run schools, by funding students not systems.
Similarly, Bennett says we need to “completely rethink education governance…from the schools up.” He calls for “humanizing” education, where students come first in small – 250 to 300 student – schools, where a “family-centric approach” genuinely embraces parent engagement.
Both Bennett and Merrifield insist that any attempt to optimize the structurally inefficient, centrally-organized system is embarking on the truly impossible.
Rather than attempt to engineer better schools, Merrifield recommends “gardening” better schools by changing the underlying assumptions and conditions.
Which brings us to theology.
Few need convincing we live in a fallen world. It’s obvious. But how ought we respond to this fallenness?
More specifically, how do we interpret what came before and after the fall? And how does this guide our response to what Bennett calls for: “cage-busting” our way forward in education?
Theologically, there are five competing visions that we must navigate. (I’ll borrow heavily from Bruce Ashford’s address and paper, What Hath Nature to Do with Grace?, which borrows heavily from Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture.)
Is Christianity above, against, or in tension with culture? Or, as is taught in government-run schools, do nature and culture exist without grace?
Where we view grace above nature – as is common in the church circles I hail from – we view church ministry as ‘first-class’ Christianity, and everyone else rides coach. Grace is upstairs. Culture is in the basement.
If grace is against nature – another commonly held view in my church – our tendency is to withdraw from society.
Still others – again, at my church! – will argue grace is independent of culture; the two co-exist side-by-side. More than a few scholarly theologians favour the view of two separate kingdoms “[running] on parallel tracks [that] should not be conflated,” to quote Ashford. This view opposes “spiritualizing” the natural realm or “pursuing cultural activities in the hope that we can transform this world, change the culture…or bring ‘healing’ to the natural realm.” But, as Ashford points out, this vision underestimates the effects of sin, the breadth of Scripture’s relevance, and fosters “an unhealthy social passivism.”
(Albeit, as Ashford rightly notes, none of these views should be seen as “opponents”, but rather as “mutually beneficial conversation partners arguing together toward truth.” I wholeheartedly agree!)
The fourth view, nature without grace, is obviously atheistic, so I need not convince this audience of its demerits.
Finally, it is the fifth vision – Christianity in and for culture; grace renewing nature – that I want us to seriously consider. In the first chapter of Colossians and eighth chapter of Romans, we see that salvation not only liberates the individual soul but also all of creation from bondage.
To quote Ashford:
[Christ’s] lordship is as wide as creation, and therefore, it is as wide as our cultural lives, and therefore, it is as wide as our educational lives. So, our mission therefore – the Christian mission – is as wide as the entirety of our social and cultural lives, involving both our words and our deeds, our teaching and our learning.
So, when we head into a realm of study in education – mathematics, theology, psychology, biology, literature, you name it – [we want to ask three questions]:
First, what is God’s creational design for this sort of activity?…
Second, how has this discipline been corrupted and misdirected by sin and idolatry?
Third, how can I enter into that discipline and seek to redirect it to its true end in Christ?
In his book, Every Square Inch, Ashford makes the case that Christians are to live lives of faithful obedience and witness in the midst of, and for the good of, culture.
As it relates to education, our role as Christians is to cultivate for our children a nurturing vision of education that seeks to restore and renew nature – to realize human flourishing, for the common good. Ultimately, acting justly for the good of all gives glory to God. But we must not presume that those who don’t share our vision of human flourishing (and the education required for this) will agree with us.
Difference exists, and as Christians – who recognize that all people are made in God’s image and with a will – we should be the first to oppose the state forcing a particular view on any family. We should seek to cultivate an educational system in which the government provides a structure that creates and supports space for families to educate their children in ways that they deem best, within the bounds of reason and public order.