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Is education news coverage skewing perceptions of public schools?

Wikimedia Commons photo by robertvan1.

With constant news of public school underfunding in BC this year, it was only a matter of time before an age-old debate reared its head: the relative value of public versus private schools.

But this time around, the debate seems to be spinning out of control. Explanations for a shift toward private schools are based on often-skewed perceptions about public schools that are disseminated by the media on a daily basis.

Take Shelley Fralic's recent article for the Vancouver Sun. In it, she calls the public school system, "the victim of sanctioned busing, economic pressures, parental ennui, union bullying, demographic shifts and social dysfunction", and says she's not surprised to see Vancouver's private school enrolment increasing.

If you take these words as fact, of course you'd want to avoid associating with such a system.

But Fralic's perceptions seem to be rooted in something other than direct experience with schools. Anyone working in the public school system knows that for every example of "social dysfunction", there is an example of a concerned teacher taking steps to support a student through a rough time.

What troubles me is that Fralic's opinions could easily have been formed by anyone reading the latest news in BC education. Arguments, conflict, and seemingly intractable social problems are what make the education news - not the daily grind of teachers doing their jobs. The success stories of how teachers are affecting positive change in their students rarely reach the public's ears, as ubiquitous as they are inside the schools.

So Fralic is probably not the only British Columbian who has jumped to the conclusion that "private school, unlike public, is not a free-for-all". No wonder private school enrollment is increasing, if parents are getting all their information from the media.

This is not to say that the reality of public schools is all sunshine and roses. Constructive criticism of public schools is a vital piece of a democratic society - after all, schools are in charge of shaping our next cohort of citizens and leaders.

But how can we have a useful dialogue about the relative merits of public versus private education when there is unsubstantiated vitriol against public schools being dispersed through the province's biggest news sources? 

What we need to hear are the voices of the private and public school educators themselves.

Are you a public or private school educator? Share your story by emailing: [email protected]

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