10/29/2012 04:57 EDT | Updated 12/29/2012 05:12 EST

Blackboards as Billboards Undermine Public Education

The Calgary Board of Education recently changed its policy in order to accept corporate advertising in classrooms and other school spaces. We should not welcome this possibility. The felt need for billboards in classrooms is emblematic of an eroding government commitment to public education rather than a simple transaction to raise money for schools.

Public boards of education are charged with "public education," and we need to be clear about what this means.

Public education serves public purposes. Of course, we want schools to help each child to achieve his or her full potential as an individual. But public education is also more than just a training ground for individual success.

Public education helps to create and sustain "the public" by modeling the very best that a civil democracy can be. It does this by encouraging students to fully understand their role in, and commitment to, life in a civil democracy. This is good for the community as a whole, not just individuals.

We all have an interest, as a public, in ensuring that we meet the twofold goal of educating individuals for success and for their role as citizens in a healthy democracy.

Yet, recent trends in education funding in Alberta exhibit some worrying disparities. Charter and private schools currently attract considerably more resources than the poorest of schools in the public system, and they still get public per student funding. This has significant consequences. For example, compare outcomes at Webber Academy and Patrick Airlie in the Fraser Institute's School Report Card website.

If we turn classrooms into just another market for ads, is there any reason not to expect that donor and advertising dollars are most likely to flow to the schools and parents who already have the greatest resources?

Disparity in education funding encourages a society where only children with the greatest resources have access to good education and leaves the poorest school children with a poorer education and therefore less opportunity. Economically segmented, diverse student bodies can go through their entire school lives without interaction. This reinforces and solidifies economic and opportunity gaps among students and helps to further entrench a permanent disadvantaged class.

This has serious consequences for the health of a democracy, not to mention its toll on individuals who lack opportunities.

Indeed, the erosion of public education in favour of private interests is one of the reasons that social mobility is on the decline in America. We do not want to inherit this problem from our American neighbours, so we should be mindful of poor policy choices that will take us down this road.

A strong public education system is at the core of a strong civil democracy, and a central element of creating responsible citizens. The work of the public system cannot be left to chance or as the accidental outcome of private interests in the education "marketplace." Raising extra revenue for your child's school by allowing billboards and private revenue may sound like a good idea, but we must reflect on and plan how society wishes to create future citizens and what values we want to instill in the classroom.

Even if advertising dollars don't flow disproportionately to advantaged schools, it's not clear that encouraging private advertising in public schools is the way to solve a funding shortfall.

Education's public purpose can be compromised when children are educated in settings not deliberately set up as models of a civil democratic community. Allowing particular donors to fund public education may be a first step in allowing them to set its agenda. How would we decide which funders are acceptable? Would we accept billboards from corporations with ethically-questionable practices or messages or from religious or advocacy organizations?

Plus, children today are subject to a constant barrage of advertising in their everyday lives. Isn't there something important about creating a school environment free of external distractions in order to concentrate on learning?

To instill Canadian values and democratic citizenship, we must ensure that the public adequately funds schools without the need for corporate influence. We, the public, need to take this responsibility on for ourselves.

For the most part, Alberta has a very good public education system. Compared to many jurisdictions in the world, it is an envied public asset. There is value for our entire democratic civil society in supporting public education, and good reason for each of us to contribute to it through the public purse.

If current funding for schools is insufficient, then let's fix it. But replacing blackboards with billboards is not the way to do it.

Kelly Ernst is senior program director with the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.