In 2002 the provincial government introduced legislation to place a School Planning Council (SPC) in every public school in British Columbia. Membership in each SPC was to include 3 parents elected from the parents advisory council, 1 teacher elected from school-based staff, and the principal of the school. Any parent who was employed by any school district was banned from being elected as a parent rep and, initially, students were excluded. Later a single student rep, appointed by principals in consultation with students, from amongst grade 10, 11, or 12 students was added. The publicly stated reason for legislating SPCs revolved around ideologies of parent involvement in education and was promulgated as an effective mechanism for placing the education of children at the front of our provincial agenda.
I have sat as an elected parent rep on a SPC since the councils were first established; first as a parent rep in an elementary school and, for the last two years, as a parent rep on a Secondary SPC. Through out this process I have been able to see first hand the ways in which the SPC functions. I will of course caution readers that I am drawing here from my particular experience as a parent who, like many, was less than enthused about the prospects but recognizing that they were in place and would not be withdrawn jumped in to try and play some role in the way in which these councils function.SPCs are thus charged with the responsibility of drafting a school growth plan. The Ministry of Education guidelines, regulations, and the enabling provincial legislation describe a clear demarcation of roles and responsibilities, even anticipating the possibility that partner groups might boycott the proceedings or that the plan may not conform to expectations at the school board or ministry levels. The legal authority to appoint members to the council, to require the principal to draft a plan if the SPC’s plan deviates from the Ministry’s terms of reference, or for the school board to step in itself and write the plan is clearly inscribed in the legislation.
The school growth plan strikes me as a rather strange document that is explicitly based upon an ideology of constant improvement and steady increases in achievement (typically measured narrowly). Drawing upon an array of statistical data that summarizes standardized test scores (provincial course exams and Foundation Skills Assessment ), measures of social responsibility, safety , and satisfaction , and assorted other pieces of information that lend themselves toward quantification the school growth plans are supposed to set goals, objectives, and ways to evaluate them that will lead to constant improvement in all areas of the school. Qualitative data could be incorporated but few SPC members, School Board or Ministry staff appear fully aware of the possibilities and ways to move from anecdote to effective use of qualitative data. The end result can end up being plans that identify ‘trends’ emerging from statistically insignificant changes in descriptive data: i.e. test scores increase by 1% over a period of two years. This is not, of course to say, that useful and important dialouge does not occure -it does-. Rather, it is to suggest that a vision of education that is focussed simply on increasing student achievement is a narrow and bereft approach to learning and teaching.
So, how does a SPC contribute to democratizing our schools? Unfortunately I would suggest not at all. Under the previous system school based Parent Advisory Councils combined with district confederations had in many areas of the province established a reasonably effective network and process of consultation and inclusion of parents at school and district levels. This is not to say that there were no problems or that everything worked well as some magical point in the pre-SPC past: far from it.
A number of features mitigate against SPCs being agents of democratic reform. First, there are restrictions that prohibit any parent who works for a school district to participate. Second, the is a mix between legislatively appointed members (principals) and administrator appointed members (senior grade students). I should make very clear before anyone I know feels offended by pointing to the democratic deficit of appointed SPC members. This should in no way be taken to imply or suggest that appointed members do any less of a job than do elected reps. However, if we are focused on democratic participation than membership on a democratic body should –I would argue- be based on a democratic as opposed to a delegation of authority process. Third, there is a complete exclusion of other school-based staff (educational support workers, clerical, and physical plant) and no effective mechanism to include wider community involvement (aside from tri-annual trustee elections). Finally, there remain a large number of professional educators who remain unconvinced that SPCs are anything more than an attempt to undermine their teaching and working conditions through a backdoor process that proclaims to advance parental involvement.
There is a body of academic and popular writing that juxtaposes parental involvement in decision making against teacher unionism. Writers such as Mark Holmes and Edward Wynne are explicit in being “unsympathetic to strong union structures in schools” (Making the School an Effective Community. New York: Falmer Press, 1989:135). Members of this school of thought conceive of unions as using collective agreements “to advance a barrage of complaints, grievances and even personal attacts” (Holmes and Wynne 1989:134). Writers like Holmes are clear that their goal is to weaken unions and that one of the best ways to do it is through “the growth of private schools, particularly in combination with some form of state aid or voucher system” (Holmes and Wynne 1989:135). The same school of writers also advance the ide that increased parental control over school-based governance can also be used as step toward weakening teacher unionism. In this way SPCs can potentially be understood as part of a wider processes that involves drawing parents into the administrative stream of control in a school and thereby is one attempt to transfer control over local level managerial decisions from school administrators and staff committees to parent dominated school-based management boards.
Many parents do want to be involved. Many of us argue strongly for an effective and democratic role for us in the decision making processes. But at the same time most of us do not wish to displace the role of teachers as professionals in the pedagogy of teaching nor are we really interested in micro-managing the technical side of school-based administration. SPCs have in fact pulled us away from democratizing schools through the limited focus and relative absence of authority and power to make meaningful decisions. Whereas PACs have the capacity to include all parents, the limited membership of the SPCs (both in terms of who may participate and the number of people who are allowed to) works to undermine broad participation. When one takes into account the mandated focus on a school growth plans and the attendant problem inherent in any plan focused completely on constant growth one might be excused for thinking that the SPCs are part of a large scale training programme to get parents and school communities ready for taking over more types of narrowly defined management measures and that our capacity to engage the wider issues involved in educating citizens will ultimately be undermined through a corporatist agenda that places more value on training workers than in educating citizens.
At the end of the day I would argue strongly for parent/teacher/student(where age and maturity allow it) councils based in schools that engage in real learning issues and approaches that place the process of education understood broadly at the center of deliberation.
A Selection of BC online resources related to School Planning Councils