Gay education activists and NDP critics are giving the draft of the Social Justice 12 elective the thumbs-up, but say the next hurdle is to ensure that student enrolment and funding for the initiative are sufficient to make offering the course sustainable.
“What is great to see is that all the protected grounds under the BC Human Rights Code are listed front-row and centre in the prescribed learning outcomes, including sexual orientation,” says anti-homophobia consultant Glen Hansman, noting that in the past sexual orientation was “left to the side.”
James Chamberlain of BC’s Gay and Lesbian Educators (GALE) concurs.
“I was really pleased to see they had sexual orientation listed. It shows they have done their homework,” he asserts.
“It shows that the team that put the draft together have thought about many of the issues that affect our community, including gender identity and other grounds, that are not currently protected.”
Chamberlain also applauds the focus on students developing critical thinking and ethical reasoning skills, and asking them to become agents of social change.
For his part, Hansman says he is most excited about the section entitled Moving Towards a Socially Just World that calls upon students to implement a plan of action on a social justice issue they care about. It is his hope, he says, that this will be an opportunity for students to connect with individuals and organizations that are fighting against transphobia and homophobia, that are making the world safe for women and that are working to eradicate child poverty.
“Hopefully, the inclusive nature of this IRP [Integrated Resource Package] will set the tone for the revisions that will be done to the rest of the K-12 curriculum as per the government’s settlement with the Correns,” says Hansman.
The BC Ministry of Education began developing Social Justice 12 after settling a human rights complaint filed by gay activists Peter and Murray Corren. The Correns alleged that the government’s omission of gay realities from the public school curriculum violated the BC Human Rights Code.
In settling the case last spring, the government promised to pilot an elective course on social justice issues; tighten restrictions on students opting out of classes they or their parents find objectionable; and develop, in consultation with the Correns, gay-friendly guidelines to help ministry staff evaluate course content in their regular curriculum reviews.
The main question, Hansman says, is whether all this is “good enough.”
“We have to keep in mind that everything depends on what individual teachers and individual students decide to focus on in the classroom,” Hansman contends, pointing out that “this isn’t the gay conversion course” that some conservative groups claimed to be anticipating.
“I never expected a course on social justice to be entirely about sexual orientation and gender identity,” says NPD human rights critic Nicholas Simons, who is gay.
“I think that it’s obviously going to be discussed in the context of that course, as will ethnocentrism and various other ways people think about things.
“A lot of people who have been critical of the formulation of this course, I think, will look at it objectively and realize the values we teach about tolerance can impact them as well,” he suggests, saying he wishes it wasn’t an elective, but a standard part of the curriculum.
“The impetus for this course will be through teachers who are social justice activists, who are volunteering to teach the course, or asking their schools to include it in their schedules,” says Chamberlain.
“This might be a generalization or stereotype on my part, but large school districts might be more inclined to offer this because they have the population, and because they feel they need to offer students more choices,” Chamberlain predicts. “Smaller school districts or more rural school districts might say, ‘Oh, it’s fringe’ and not relevant to people’s daily lives.”
The question remains whether the ministry is committed to funding this course in the long term and not just for the 2007 pilot year and the 2008 implementation year, according to Chamberlain.
“The provincial government’s chronic under-funding of the public school system makes it difficult for secondary schools to offer elective courses like Social Justice 12,” argues Hansman.
“If SJ 12 is going to mean anything, then there need to be funds to support it,” he emphasizes.
Xtra West’s attempts to reach education minister Shirley Bond for comment were, yet again, unsuccessful.
Ministry spokesperson Lara Perzoff says the minister is on personal leave and not available for an interview. When asked if a spokesperson knowledgeable about the elective can comment in her place, Perzoff says the minister is the only one authorized to comment on behalf of the ministry.
Simons says it’s up to the community to ensure that courses considered important for students are funded properly.
“As with all good intentions, they are hollow without follow up,” Simons points out.
“So it’s good to have the curriculum, yes. But Glen’s right. We need to make sure that the associated funding goes with it. And if it doesn’t, then we’ll see whether there’s political will to support the idea of promoting tolerance.”