When John Ralston Saul passed through Vancouver this week, the celebrated thinker turned scold. Canada's democracy, he told audiences, is eroding with every dime deducted from education budgets. Saul, a historian, found it natural to cite dead authorities. He quoted Tory and future Father of Confederation R.D. Wilmot, who argued in 1852 that public education "promotes the peace and preserves the well-being of society. The rich man is interested in proportion to his riches and should contribute most to the maintenance of schools." But a report released last week by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development brings the argument right up to date. Education at a Glance 2004 found that Canada's spending on public education lags behind other developed countries. OECD member countries spend an average of $7,480 per school student. B.C. spends 13 per cent less than that, or $6,529 per student according to Ministry of Education statistics. "We invite them in, then cut back' At Strathcona Elementary School in the Downtown Eastside, Saul and his wife Governor General Adrienne Clarkson met children and families who have experienced the sharp point of government cutbacks in such areas as ESL: more than half Strathcona's students are not fluent in English. They get less and less support, according to Patricia Fahrni, the program co-ordinator for community interpreting at Vancouver Community College, who has a long-standing connection to immigrant services and ESL education in the city. Until two years ago, she said, newly-arrived "parents, and the kids who were going to be in the school, would go to the Oakridge Reception Centre. There was an opportunity to have the parents understand more about the system, to calm the kids worries, to be able to test the kids in a standard way and understand how they would fit in school. That's gone now." Although teachers and schools try their best to place students wisely, she said the lack of specialist teachers, together with the loss of the reception centre, means kids' integration into school can be bumpy. Saul saw a democratic disconnect in that story. "We invite them in," he said of immigrants. "It's our decision--but then cut back on the number of ESL teachers and services!" High poverty rate in classrooms Half the kids who thronged the Governor General and her husband at Strathcona live in poverty. Lenore Clemens, the school's outgoing PAC chair said hunger is a daily reality for many children. A free breakfast at the community centre adjacent to the school is crammed every morning, but the fees for the hot-lunch program have almost doubled. "People can't afford that," she said. "How can we even conceive of 'equality' of education when kids are going hungry, and families don't even have money for food, clothes or rent? And it's not their fault. The so-called 'Liberals' are making it so much worse." Rick Archambault, another member of the Strathcona PAC agrees that the school has many unmet needs. Cuts to a program targeting inner-city schools means the number of child, family and youth workers has been reduced, making it more difficult to meet the challenges posed by the school's many special needs children. Compared to the provincial average, Strathcona has four times as many students with moderate behaviour problems, and twice as many students with severe behaviour problems. The principal of Strathcona, Jim Ion, said staff reductions have ratcheted up the pressure on teachers and other front-line workers. "We're riding out this wave of cut-backs on the backs of teachers and other support staff members who are awesome, and I'm just wondering how much longer we can do this." Widening wealth divide Parents at Strathcona say the cash crunch is producing inequities within the system. Clemens cited the problem of textbooks. Keeping schools stocked with up-to-date texts is a problem across the province, but schools in wealthy areas are able to raise thousands of dollars from parents to replace them. While parents at Queen Mary Elementary in Point Grey were recently asked to contribute $100 a family towards new books for the school, Clemens said parents at Strathcona could never begin to raise enough money to buy a new set of texts. "Maybe the rich west side schools could send their used texts to the east side," Clemens said, laughing mirthlessly. Saul sharply criticized this growing reliance on parental contributions for things like texts, in order to make up for the gaps left by government underfunding. This, he said, "is essentially an increase in private education, a stripping down of services offered in the schools, and of course paying for an increasing number of what I received as normal, and what they are now describing as extras." The chair of the Vancouver School Board, Adriane Montani, agreed, saying, "the reason this is of concern is the inequities it creates and the undermining of, as Saul talks about, the egalitarian intent of public education." 'Too poor to have librarians' The "nerve centre" of schools, said Saul, are libraries, and he blasted what he considers their inadequate funding. "This incredibly sophisticated, well-educated society has convinced itself that it is too poor to have librarians. It doesn't make any sense. We have eliminated, particularly in the elementary schools, more and more professional librarians with the result, of course, that libraries are not always open, that they're not properly used." The BCTF cites Ministry of Education figures showing that library positions across the province have fallen from 939 to 706 over the past four years. In addition, a study by the BC Teacher Librarians shows money available for library materials has declined by 12 per cent over the same period, sliding from $14.07 to $12.33 per student. "This trend is particularly disturbing considering the continued increase in cost of library materials and technology," the report notes. These kinds of cuts to school libraries are short-sighted and destructive, Saul said. "How can you advance civilization when you're actually cutting the number of books available? What does that mean in neighbourhoods where parents don't read because they are immigrants, or poor? Does that not lead us to a class-based society?" Saul said Canadians need only look south to see the effects of allowing inequities to grow in public education. "Our neighbour chose to go to an elite education-- which is increasingly divided from the public system--and it makes them more and more like the old Britain, which was a class-based society." 'Civic engagement' key to curriculum The Governor General and Saul spent a day at Gladstone Secondary, which they both praised as an example of the best in public education. The school, they noted, honours the arts no less than academic subjects, and takes seriously the mandate of public education to educate citizens in the fullest sense of the word. Evidence of civic engagement at Gladstone ranges from community service awards the school has won, to the students who jockey to be the one to escort visitors to the office. Tim McGeer, a Gladstone teacher, said at Gladstone, "along with academic education, there's a huge other thrust going on, and that's social responsibility, citizenship, creating the whole person and not only just teaching kids, but helping to renew community at the same time." Woodwork students take on projects that will contribute to the community; last year they made miniature bird-houses as Christmas decorations which were given to immigrant families. Textiles students practice their skills by making blankets for AIDS babies, and toiletry kits for women's shelters. Last year students staged a play about the seismic risks facing many B.C. schools, attracting pledges of action from politicians. "The kind of learning we're talking about," McGeer said, "is more challenging to measure." While Gladstone scores low on The Fraser Institute's 'report card', Saul termed that conservative think tank's rankings "the ultimate utilitarian approach" and said the mere measure of averaged test scores fundamentally misunderstands both the nature of civilization and of intelligence. 'Chorus of phony tragedy' Speaking to a packed auditorium, the Governor General told students, "This school is very good academically … and it's also a school in which there are a lot of activities like music, like drama, and that makes a very interesting kind of academic background," Clarkson told students. Just as importantly, she said, Gladstone students are learning a core value of Canadian citizenship, namely that "everyone who is alive has something to contribute to their society, their community, and their friends." During his Vancouver swing, Saul reminded his various audiences that the early architects of our modern political system, Conservatives and Liberals alike, campaigned vigorously for free, high-quality, inclusive public education. Saul implied those early figures would be appalled to see the decline in educational funding for schools in Vancouver, which serve some of Canada's poorest children. "Over the last ten to 15 years," Saul said, "there has been a growing chorus, an orchestrated chorus, a bad Greek chorus of a phony tragedy, claiming that there is a failure, and that is a failure of public education, of the economy--and that there are too many taxes." Judith Ince is on staff of The Tyee.