In Ford's Ontario, keep an eye on public schools

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For an advance hint about what to expect in the age of Doug, I suggest keeping an eye on public schools. Not universities, which are a sideshow. Few people have one of those nearby but there's a school several blocks from most of us.

The sex ed curriculum will be an overt omen but there's a bigger picture.

Schools were the flashpoint in the Mike Harris era in Ontario (1995-2002), which preceded the Stephen Harper years in Ottawa. Ontario Premier Doug Ford's staff is already swollen with ex-Harperites and an early Ford act was handing a competition-free nomination to Mike Harris Jr. Harper and Harris have been the twin beacons on Ford's path.

Harris's own public career began on school boards and he'd been a teacher himself. This disposed him negatively, not positively. For minister, he pointedly named a Grade 11 dropout, John Snobelen, who immediately told his staff to fabricate a "useful crisis" in public education to justify drastic attacks on it.

That included grabbing control of funding from local boards, undermining the public system with tax breaks for parents who put their kids in private schools, and bringing in standardized tests, which threatened to crowd out everything else done in classrooms. Teachers and their unions became Harris's main opposition and everyone got used to frequent, sometimes illegal strikes.

Hammering public schools has also been a Trump hallmark. Ford does not embrace racism the way Trump does, but he's a Trump fan anyway. Trump placed his own ignoramus, Betsy de Vos, in charge there. Her life's mission has been dumping public schools for private, so-called charter schools. Trump himself said, "I love the poorly educated." That's not the same as the uneducated, which could result from neglect. "Poorly" implies deliberate bad teaching. Keep them stupid.

The main pushback has come from U.S. teachers and their unions, often in "red," Trump-voting states. It's been breathtaking. Teachers have fought not just for wages, which are often far below average. They've demanded that the funding come from taxes on the rich or energy corporations, whose taxes had been reduced. They've allied with parents, who generally seem to get it since the aim is to bolster not just schools, but overall social well-being.

Is this a "left" populism -- #RedforEd -- responding to Trump's right populism? Looks like it to me. The teachers' union, the NEA, is the largest in the U.S. -- though they've sometimes had to fight their own union leaders in this area. I feel a bit odd looking to the U.S. for inspiration but U.S. public schools once led the world.

There are big political stakes. Public schools play a special role in the directions a society chooses. How does Trump get away with bluster like: I don't need to prepare for my meeting with Kim. Or: I'll know in the first minute if it's going to work.

It's meant to impress rubes who haven't learned to think clearly or aren't confident challenging forceful statements by guys in pricey suits. A good, free public education prepares you to take on rich blowhards.

In my vulgar Marxist phase, I tended to see education as "superstructure," which depended on more fundamental economic "factors." Better minds than mine, like John Dewey, saw deeper. He was the U.S.'s finest philosopher and also its leading educational thinker. In his view, it was crucial to learn not just how to read, but how to distinguish between "the demagogue and the statesman."

Another U.S. philosopher, basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar, says, in Dewey's tradition, that America's greatest enemy isn't terrorism, it's ignorance. He, too, is fearful of the decline in public education.

In a different column, on whether he agreed with the cancellation of Roseanne Barr's show for her racist outbursts, he wrote, "I don't know yet because I usually need some time to process information and think through all the consequences."

The guy's the model of a citizen: sober, self-aware, critical. Where can anyone learn to think that way? In a great, well-supported public school system.

Image: Danielle Scott/Flickr

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