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Choice movement is no laughing matter

February 23, 2016 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

As I write this editorial, I’m in Calgary to deliver a teachers’ convention session on politics and the teaching profession.

While I’m a born and bred Edmontonian, I have strong roots in Calgary — my dad and a large portion of my extended family are from the Calgary area. I love Calgary but, as an Edmontonian, I love making fun of Calgarians.

I know I probably shouldn’t alienate such a large share of my readership, but sometimes it’s just too irresistible.

What’s the difference between a smart Calgarian and a unicorn? Nothing. They’re both fictional.

What do you call 32 Calgarians in the same room? A full set of teeth.

I’m sorry. Too soon?

OK, I’ll lay off on making fun of Calgarians’ dental hygiene; I can see why they’re sensitive lately. The news on the radio as I drove to Calgary discussed a new University of Calgary study that showed that, since 2011, when Calgary stopped adding fluoride to its water supply, tooth decay has increased in Calgary children at a higher rate than in Edmonton children.

I’m intrigued by the original decision of Calgary’s city council to stop fluoridation, the theoretical underpinnings that drove it, and the lessons that can be applied to education.

Without getting into the full pros and cons of the debate, I think it is valuable to note that the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics support and advocate for fluoridation. In the meantime, websites like and present the case against fluoridation.

In the 1940s and ’50s, fluoridation was viewed by some as part of a communist conspiracy to indoctrinate children. These theories would often include and undermine mass vaccination programs and socialized health care at the same time.

More recently, the argument has rested less on the notion of a conspiracy theory but, rather, has evolved into one of individual liberty versus common good. While the 2011 decision of Calgary’s city council was sold on cost savings, I’m doubtful that the $7 saved by each Calgarian overrides the underlying motivation of individual liberty.

The basic premise is this: the government should not be allowed to subject me to involuntary additives in the water supply. This is a spurious argument given that the government adds other chemicals, like chlorine, to the water to ensure that it’s safe to drink.

And here is where it relates to education. This notion of individual liberty versus common good is often a source of tension in the education sector, so much so that it is the crux of my teachers’ convention presentation on politics and the teaching profession.

The notion of individual liberty drives the “choice” movement in education, which is often used to argue for the support of alternative models like home schooling, private schools and charter schools. Choice is a useful frame in which to promote these models, since it is difficult to argue against.

I believe, however, that choice is used as a smokescreen to undermine public education based on the notion that the public system is so flawed that other models of delivery are greatly needed. This is definitely the case with the debate in the United States.

While on the surface, choice is hard to argue against, there are two primary issues with it.

First, choice flourishes at the cost of equity. That is to say, not everyone has the same ability to exercise choice. For instance, people who live in rural areas will never be able to shop between a variety of local schools. Financial means will be a barrier for many to pay tuition or transport their children to far-flung private or charter schools. And restrictive admission requirements mean that some schools of choice will always be reserved for exclusive niche groups.

Second, choice, as a means to exercise individual liberty, does not respond to the common good of an inclusive public education system. Public education is best served by accepting all students, regardless of background, and having them learn together as future citizens in a pluralistic society.

Much like fluoride in water guards against the tooth decay of all children, public education protects against social decay. We should fluoridate water and we should support quality public education.

Editor’s note: Mr. Teghtmeyer is misguided in his unwarranted attacks on Calgarians. I will be having a word with him.

I welcome your comments—contact me at

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