Vancouver may have its Polar Bear club’s ocean swim; Toronto its Santa Clause Parade. But in Montreal there is an annual ritual which is probably unknown to people outside its environs. In the coldest of weather, parents (or their paid surrogates) camp outside Royal Vale School over a January weekend in order to secure a place for their children in kindergarten.

Royal Vale is a public school with a special curriculum designed to stem the flow of students from public to private schools. Several schools have been created with this in mind, but Royal Vale is considered to be the best, and parents will just about kill to get their kids in.

On the right track

With huge school boards attempting to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population, alternative schools are an intelligent response. There are not enough Royal Vales, as evidenced by the annual camp-out, but the Protestant School Board of greater Montreal, like many major boards is on the right track. Special schools for French immersion, music, theatre, fine arts and maths and sciences already exist. Some ethnic groups have sought to work with schools in their neighborhood to strengthen their children’s traditional history or language skills. There are even schools for teenagers who practice a homosexual lifestyle. All of these exist within publicly funded school boards.

When you consider the recent battle in Montreal over installing condom machines in Catholic schools, or the controversies surrounding programs such as Fully Alive or Impressions, it is evident that many parents want schools with traditional values and curricula.

It’s not just a question of values or morals. Parents and educators hold diverse opinions on both pedagogical methods and curriculum contents in language literature, history, geography, mathematics…probably every subject taught in schools. Where numbers warrant, the school boards should be flexible enough to meet the pedagogical and moral concerns of parents, while maintaining a universal and objective level of skills and comprehension to be achieved at each grade level.

What would happen if the major boards in Montreal or Toronto were to experiment by converting a small number of schools into traditional/classic alternative schools? Without implying that the present system is necessarily inferior, many parents may like to see a return to the 3 Rs, for example, or have their children receive a more comprehensive religious instruction. Would there be so little interest as to make it unfeasible? Or would Toronto parents prove to be as crazy as Montreal parents, and camp out in the cold winter night to give their children a shot at an affordable quality education?

Parents know best

Parents have shown time and time again that they will choose the best education they can afford for their children. Last year, and India businessman committed $1.2 million (US) to help low-income families offset the cost of tuition at the private school of their choice. Neraly four hundred children have left the public system, and two hundred more are on a waiting list. Several hundred others who were already in public schools are also being assisted.

The response to this generous initiative suggests that parents are far from satisfied with the public school system. And while Toronto or Montreal or Saskatoon may not have to contend with some of the problems face by some urban American public schools, many Canadian parents would like to see public schools which are more responsive to their needs and concerns.

One means of achieving responsiveness which has received widespread support in the U.S. is education vouchers. In its simplest form, the voucher idea is to take the education budget, divide among the number of students and give the parents a voucher for each child for the resulting dollar amount.

Those who prefer religious-based education, single sex schools or any particular curriculum specialty would choose a school, either public or private, which best suited their needs and would direct their portion of public funds to that institution. If the demand for a certain curriculum or structure were sufficient, schools would adapt to serve the particular needs of students.

Yet this innovative approach to education funding has met with stiff opposition from professional educators. It is a classic clash of ideologies. As we head toward the dawn of a new century, the struggle between the state and the family for the minds of our children is intensifying.

Giving parents the economic power to choose the education best suited to their children was an important part of President Bush’s recent campaign, the so-called GI Bill for kids. Unfortunately, President-elect Clinton is not pro-choice when it comes to education and there are concerns that the parental choice movement in the United States may be grounded.

It may be time for Canadians to contemplate ways to reinvigorate our education system. School boards which do not develop the ability to respond to the demands of our pluralistic society risk becoming the dinosaurs many suspect they already are.