Michael Zwaagstra: Public Schools Should Remain Neutral on Gender Identity and Other Controversial Issues

Michael Zwaagstra: Public Schools Should Remain Neutral on Gender Identity and Other Controversial Issues
Police stand between protesters opposed to gender diversity in schools and counter-protesters in Halifax on Sept. 20, 2023. (The Canadian Press/Darren Calabrese)
Michael Zwaagstra
10/27/2023
Updated:
11/6/2023
0:00
Commentary

Canadians do not all agree on everything. If they did, there would be no need for different political parties, or elections for that matter. In reality, Canada is a diverse country composed of people with different beliefs, values, and preferences, which means we must be judicious and balanced when we interact with our friends, neighbours, and coworkers who hold different opinions from us.

Nowhere is this more important than in our public education system. While an increasing number of parents are choosing independent schools and even homeschools, a large majority still send their children to a government-run public schools.

Thus, when public school teachers welcome students into their classrooms, they accept the responsibility of working together with their parents, including parents whose beliefs differ from their own. It’s not the role of teachers to ensure that students adopt “correct” beliefs, whether on religion, politics, environmentalism, or gender identity.

Simply put, public schools exist to serve the community, not the other way around. The moment parents discover that teachers are pushing their personal beliefs on students—or hiding important information from parents—is the moment when public schools will lose the trust of the communities they serve. Once this trust is lost, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to regain.

For example, public opinion polls show that the vast majority of parents believe parents should at least be informed if their children adopt a new gender identity at school. Polls also show that most Canadians hold the traditional view that there are only two genders. Whether these beliefs are right or wrong is not the point. Public schools must be a safe environment for all students, including those whose parents hold traditional values.
Unfortunately, the hyperbolic overreaction of teacher unions and school board administrators to the recent “1 Million March 4 Children” protests that took place across the country was a textbook example of how not to treat parents. Denouncing the parents who participated in these protests as bigoted homophobes was a poor way to bring people together and certainly did not build bridges. All it did was ramp up tensions and send the message that these families do not belong in the public school system.
The decision by some school boards to fly the “Progress Pride” flag at their schools during these protests further amplified the tensions between the two sides. Surely there was a better way of expressing support for LGBTQ students than deliberately provoking those parents for whom, rightly or wrongly, that flag has become a symbol of intolerance.

Some things are non-negotiable. Ensuring all students are treated with respect is one of them. However, this is best done by cracking down on bullying and creating a learning environment where all students, regardless of their background or beliefs, are focused on the academic basics. There’s no more need to fly the Progress Pride flag at schools to express solidarity with LGBTQ students than there’s to put giant crosses in front of schools to make Christian students feel welcome.

In other words, public schools need a whole lot more genuine empathy and a lot less meaningless tokenism. Treating one group of students with respect does not mean alienating another group of students whose parents happen to have different values. Only by staying neutral on controversial topics can public schools hope to keep the trust of all the families they serve.

Sadly, public school boards appear to have lost their academic focus. Given declining test scores on international assessments, one would think schools would get back to basics rather than take on divisive social issues that are better left at home.

If public schools cannot do this, then expect to see a whole lot more parents choose to educate their children in other ways. Expanding the choices (independent schools, charter schools, homeschooling) available to parents is an effective way of ensuring that their children are not stuck with teachers who do not respect their beliefs.

Public schools must serve everyone. Losing sight of this is one of the fastest ways to shrink the public education system even further. Maintaining strict neutrality on controversial topics is an absolute necessity.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute. He is the author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”