You know, education is a funny business.
I say business intentionally of course. Often times, public education is maligned by critics as, to use the business vernacular, being too expensive. It is seen as wasteful. This is a favourite argument of those who present charter schools and multi-tiered educational systems as a solution to what they see as a current public education malaise. And in the eyes of many of those folks, public education is the ultimate crown corporation. I mean, its workers are unionized and overpaid, it is management heavy and bureaucratically entrenched, and it is churning out a sub-par product.
At least according to the critics.
Well, I am a staunch supporter of the public education system. I have never made any bones about that. And so I am often puzzled at how much air time is given to supposed experts who would tear down this system if they could. Because, at the end of the day, the best chance our little province has of getting out of the sorry state it finds itself in is through expanding and supporting public education.
I mean, look around. Nova Scotia isn’t a have not province anymore. It is rapidly becoming a have naught province. Even among her Maritime sisters, she is starting to pale. PEI has always had farming and Anne. New Brunswick has the Irvings and the McCains. Newfoundland has, well, lots. And what do we have? Christmas trees, blueberries and the occasional lobster?
Obviously there is more to our province than that, but as economies change, we run the risk of being left in the dust. But the one area we shine, the one thing we have that is, in my opinion at least, second to none is a top-notch education system. And it is here where our future lies.
Consider the words of Ray Ivany, the chairman of the five member commission set up by Dexter’s NDP government to look for ways to build the Nova Scotia economy. Ivany, President of Acadia University, spoke in the Chronicle Herald on May 10 of how the people in this province need to build a new mindset. Nova Scotians he spoke to identified that we, ourselves, need to adopt a “can do” attitude. The article spoke of the need for creating a “culture of innovation” and “adding value to resources”. What better device for leading that innovation than public education?
This is far from impossible. The world is full of examples of similar stories where a population simply made a decision to get better. Consider Israel. Recently, in the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wendt suggested that Canada could learn a lot from Israel and its approach to education. Israel has no natural resources it can sell. It is not surrounded by friendly neighbours willing to collaborate. Israel, according to Wendt, can only survive by using its brain power. What if Nova Scotians started thinking like that?
Now, there are many obstacles. But we have the infrastructure, the expertise and the raw material to move our province forward, no longer carrying the weight on our backs, but moving it with our minds. Finland made a similar decision to do just that over thirty years ago. They made a long-term, focussed and sometimes painful decision to support public education in their country, no matter the cost. They built their foundation on the simple idea that everyone had a right to an excellent education, and that public school should be the great equalizer. Now the Finns have a school system that is the envy of the rest of the world. And before the business model cries “Foul!” around the cost of such ideas, it might be nice to consider that all that education and innovation brought about a tidy little economic spinoff called Nokia.
Last week, the NDP government sat down with Nova Scotia’s Universities to try to stave off a 100 million dollar shortfall that they may be facing in the next few years. There was some irony in this conversation, as this is the exact number that the Universities told the NDP they would be short when the government cut education funding last year. Still, they are talking. That is a good sign.
Nova Scotia has a highly trained cadre of over 10,000 public school teachers. It has 11 universities, 13 community colleges and somewhere in the vicinity of 450 public schools. This is a tremendous amount of potential. We simply need a collective focus and the will to make education our greatest natural resource.