Ontario parents uncomfortable with ‘social justice’ education may have nowhere else to go

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, March 15, 2017

So-called social justice education is becoming a prominent part of the curriculum in many Ontario elementary schools.

In fact, according to a recent essay from education consultant Paul Bennett, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario is increasingly relying on a resource entitled “Social Justice Begins with Me.” Mr. Bennett describes social justice education as a “vehicle for addressing social injustices through the schools.”

Few parents would object to schools trying to teach children about the importance of respecting others and the harms caused by discrimination. But there’s no consensus on the definitions of some of the problems the social justice curriculum aims to identify and stamp out. So teaching could easily cross the line from education to political indoctrination.

Take, for example, sexism—one problem the social justice curriculum covers. Surely most parents would agree it’s appropriate for schools to teach children what sexism is or that it’s wrong (and illegal) for prospective employers to discriminate against women.

But a recent example from Ryerson University helps illustrate the importance of keeping this type of instruction within appropriate bounds. In this incident, an instructor explicitly discouraged a student from writing a paper about the “myth of the gender wage gap” that would have argued much of the observed wage gap between men and women stems from the number of hours worked, educational choices and other factors rather than discrimination.

This is a mainstream opinion among experts and a reasonable essay thesis, but the Ryerson instructor told the student she was flatly wrong and should only write about it if she relied exclusively on “feminist” sources.

Remember, this happened at a university where the power and knowledge gap between instructors and students is dramatically less than in a Grade 3 classroom. It’s easy to imagine how teaching on these issues could go off the rails in an elementary school if teachers view the inculcation of a particular worldview as part of their job. Moreover, the rise of social justice education may squeeze out other proven approaches to “character education” focused primarily on developing student resilience and accountability.

How serious a problem is this in Ontario? It’s hard to know, and it surely differs from classroom to classroom. But it’s troubling that some parents concerned about curriculum in the government-run system in Ontario have little choice or alternatives.

In several other provinces, if parents send their child to an independent school, the provincial government helps defray the costs by contributing about 50 per cent of the operating cost of educating a student in the government-run school system. This puts independent alternatives within the financial reach of more families.

This lowering of financial barriers is likely one reason that one in eight students in British Columbia attends an independent school compared to one in 20 in Ontario where independent school parents receive no support and must pay full cost for their child’s schooling—as well as the full tax bill they pay to support government-run schools.

It’s impossible to say definitively whether social justice education is good or bad. It likely depends on specific teacher approaches and the needs of specific children. But for families who do not feel well-served by this approach in the classroom, or the government-run system generally, Ontario could do much more to make other options financially viable.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.