Schools Go Queer

Gay guarantee for provincial curriculum.
Contract assures same-sex couple will have unprecedented influence over B.C. curriculum.

Janet Steffenhagen
Vancouver Sun

British Columbia is giving a same-sex couple an unprecedented role in a review of the provincial curriculum to ensure respectful teachings about sexual orientation from kindergarten to Grade 12.

A six-page contract, signed by the Education Ministry and obtained by The Vancouver Sun, guarantees Peter and Murray Corren a significant voice in the revision of classroom lessons to recognize gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people and the creation of a new social-justice course — to include teachings about sexual orientation — for Grade 12 students.

The parties have agreed to seek mediation in the event of a dispute and have acknowledged the contract is legally binding.

Many educators welcomed the agreement, saying it will make B.C. a North American leader in teaching respect for diversity. But most admitted they don’t know what the changes might look like in practice.

Independent schools that receive government funding insisted they wouldn’t be affected by the deal, even though they are required by law to teach the same curriculum as public schools.

“As far as we’re concerned, this agreement applies to public schools only,” said Doug Lauson, head of the Federation of Independent School Associations and associate superintendent of Catholic schools in Vancouver.

The ministry would not confirm that directly. Spokeswoman Corinna Filion said in an e-mail Thursday the ministry can’t speculate on what curriculum revisions will result, but added “it’s not anticipated that any change would impact the ability of an independent school to continue teaching courses from a faith-based perspective.”

Most independent schools in B.C. are faith-based.

Attorney-General Wally Oppal played down the changes in announcing them earlier this month, saying it was “a classic case of much ado about little or nothing.” The government’s news release at the time focused on the new social justice course, which will be an elective available for interested schools but won’t be required learning.

He did not release the contract and the Correns said at the time it was intended to be confidential.

This week, Murray Corren said the anticipated changes to the curriculum, along with tougher limits on parental rights to remove their children from classes teaching “sensitive content,” are far more important than the new elective course.

He said the deal was a major victory after a lengthy human-rights battle to have gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people reflected in the everyday curriculum.

“It’s very significant,” Murray Corren, a Coquitlam literacy teacher, said of the agreement. “We wouldn’t have worked for 10 years to sell out for something as minor as just a simple elective course. But when the ministry came to us with this proposal … we were more than happy to reach a settlement with them.”

The Correns, who were among the first same-sex couples to be wed in B.C., agreed as part of the deal to drop their human-rights complaint, which had been headed for a lengthy hearing this summer before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

Asked what he hopes the six-page contract will produce, Corren replied: “Fair and appropriate reflection of non-heterosexual realities in the curriculum.”

Or, as he put it earlier in documents filed with the tribunal, he wants schools to teach: “Queer history and historical figures, the presence of positive queer role models — past and present — the contributions made by queers to various epochs, societies and civilizations and legal issues relating to (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) people, same-sex marriage and adoption.”

The ministry has agreed to consult regularly with the Correns in developing guidelines for the curriculum review and setting priorities.

The Correns say the subjects that require urgent attention are social studies for K-7, health and career education for K-9 and — to a lesser extent — English-language arts for K-7.

Other members of the public, along with education stakeholders, will have opportunities to comment on the proposed changes but won’t have the same guaranteed input.

Murray Corren said it’s only right that he and Peter are widely consulted about the changes. “I can’t tell you how many hours, days, weeks, months and years of our personal time that we spent on this. And I didn’t see anybody else running in to participate with us, to support us. Nobody.

“I even asked my own school district to intervene and they refused.”

The Correns will receive no financial remuneration as part of the deal.

Curriculum experts said the deal with the Correns is highly unusual but commendable.

“I’m very supportive of the intent of the agreement and I think that the curriculum revision with regards to issues of diversity including sexual orientation and gender identity is really path-breaking and important,” said Wayne Ross, an education professor at the University of B.C.

He said he is unaware of any similar agreement that guarantees a private party an “explicitly designated seat at the table in terms of curriculum development that’s going to affect an entire province.”

But he said he understands why the Correns were given a designated role in light of their human-rights complaint and believes the ministry will still have final say.

Charles Ungerleider, who is also a UBC education professor and was the NDP’s deputy education minister when the Correns began their battle 10 years ago, said he applauds the Liberal government for signing the deal.

“It’s a reasonable solution to the issue,” he said. “I would have been receptive to this as deputy minister.”

Ungerleider said gay, lesbian and transgendered students have a tough time in school — “it’s getting better, but it’s by no means an easy time” — and the changes anticipated by the deal can be expected to improve their lot.

Furthermore, he said the Correns’ goals are a reflection of Canada’s social-justice values.

“In effect, they are advocating for all youngsters and a better society for you and me.”

Penny Tees, president of the B.C. School Trustees’ Association, said she hadn’t read the contract but was confident it reflects an intent from all involved to improve public education.

Shawn Wilson, chairman of the Surrey school board, said the agreement “is working towards something that needs to be done.”

Although the Surrey board was previously involved in a lengthy court battle to stop the introduction of books featuring same-sex families into kindergarten classes, he said the board has never objected to the discussion of such issues in senior grades. He was unaware that the K-7 curriculum was also under review.

The harshest criticism of the contract came from Xtra West, a gay and lesbian newspaper in Vancouver that accused the Correns of settling too soon for too little. “I want the government to liberally sprinkle queer content throughout all the course material where we are now conspicuously absent,” Robin Perelle said in an editorial.

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- The ministry will amend policy to ensure parents can choose alternative delivery for “sensitive” subject matter in three courses only: Health and Career K-7, Career 8-9 and Planning 10. The amended policy will be given to the Correns on July 15 and they will have until Aug. 1 to comment.

- The ministry will draft guidelines for the K-12 curriculum review and give the Correns a copy by Aug. 1. They will have 30 days to comment.

- The Correns will provide a list of groups with expertise in sexual orientation and homophobia and the ministry will solicit feedback directly from those organizations.

- The ministry will give the Correns a draft of Social Justice 12 before releasing it publicly and will “make revisions as appropriate” in light of their response.

- The deputy education minister will meet the Correns every six months until Sept. 1, 2007 to ensure timely and adequate implementation of the terms of the agreement.
© The Vancouver Sun 2006