Disaster Capitalism and the Common Sense Revolution: Taking Stock of the Residual Crisis in Ontario's Public Schools

Article excerpt

Since Mike Harris and the Progressive Conservatives took power in Ontario in 1995, we have witnessed some very interesting transformations in many of the social institutions in this province, including the public education system. Under the guise of the "Common Sense Revolution", Harris and his Tory government implemented sweeping and ideologically-motivated changes to various components of government policy; consequently, there has been a significant transformation in the structure, administration and quality of public education in this province.

The philosophical and political approach to public education taken by the Harris government was not by accident; the Harris regime made a deliberate choice to construct public policy around neo-liberal ideologies. The resultant changes made to the public education system are indicative of what happens when neo-liberal ideology and the concept of "disaster capitalism" shape public policy. While the impact of this neo-liberal influence on public education has yielded negative consequences for the most part in Ontario, there still exist ways in which to improve the system.

Neo-liberalism as an ideology and political movement, and the way in which the role of the state in society is perceived and constructed, is based upon the theories and thinking of those such as Milton Friedman. From Friedman's point of view, the primary role of the government is to preserve the freedom of its citizens; this is best accomplished when the government's powers are limited and decentralized. (Friedman, 2002: 2-3) He espoused that society and individuals were best served when the scope of the powers, obligations and duties of the state body were restricted. His position on the role of government in society is intrinsically intertwined with his notions on how society should be organized with respect to the free market. According to Friedman, in a capitalist society, economic activity in the form of a free market, and not the political decisions of the state, should determine the organization of society and the ways in which it operates. (Friedman: 9)

Consequently, his position on the nature of education and the role government should have when it comes to education as a public service is inherently shaped by his advocacy for a free market driven social structure. In an interview conducted in 2002, Friedman stated in regards to the role of government in public education that:

I said, and I would say it even more strongly today, that there may be a case for government financing of education, but there's no case whatsoever for government's administration of schools. But today, I would argue that there's no case even for government financing it. (Kane, 2002: 3)

Given his position on the role of government in social affairs, Friedman advocated that the state should not interfere in the organization of public services. He felt a public service like the education system was best served if it was presided over and managed by private enterprise. This perspective is significant because it offered those in certain quarters a template for how the government should approach the organization and administration of public education.

Friedman's ideas offered certain groups and government officials - in Ontario, the Harris government - a specific framework for constructing public policy concerning things like public education that correlated with his neo-liberal ideology. The adherence to this neo-liberal philosophy in policy-making has had a direct and adverse effect on several groups - such as teachers, school boards, unions, universities and others who receive government subsidies - in the form of job cuts, social reregulation, and restrictive legislation. Furthermore, as the Harris government implemented new regulatory modes in education, education workers in schools and universities felt the detrimental effects in terms of increased workloads and class sizes, shifting curricula and reduced budgets. …