Public education facing a rough and rocky road.

As the book begins to close on what has been a record breakingly beautiful summer, a very different set of books are slated to open over the next few days. Yes, for those of us in the business, in what is always seemingly too fast a fashion, school will soon be back in session.

This year, September will mark the beginning of a very significant moment for Nova Scotia Schools. School principals will no longer be members of the NSTU, elected school boards will be a thing of the past, and, of course, school governance will be handled by a core group of former superintendents now called directors, under the close scrutiny of our deputy Minister of Education, Cathy Montreuil. Indeed under this new system, Ms. Montrueil, who previously held positions in the Ontario Ministry of Education, has probably more power in determining the direction of education in our Province than any deputy minister before her.

Acting without the fetters of an elected school board, she will be able to enact changes and determine policy without having to run them by a second layer of bureaucracy.  As well, since the principals are now without the protection of a union, any potentially contentious decisions will also face reduced resistance on the ground. The days of school principals standing up in a meeting and saying “That is a great idea, but it won’t work in my school!” are probably seriously numbered, as insubordination has been cited as potential grounds for dismissal under the new system.

Now, I have been asked about the impact these governance changes will have on the classrooms come the fall, and I must admit, I would expect the general public to notice little, at least in the short-term. Probably the most notable change  for parents will be around advocacy. Determining who to call in the absence of elected officials may prove a daunting task indeed, particularly if parents are not receiving the services they feel they are entitled to from their local school. It will be interesting to see if the new system actually lives up to the hype of being “more responsive’, and perhaps more importantly, what that response looks like.

Inside the schools I would also, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, expect there to be little change in the early going. Certainly, there are bound to be some awkward moments, but the classroom teachers  in our province are professionals. They will play the hand they have been dealt as best they can. As well, the vast majority of administrators with whom I have had the pleasure of being associated over the years are also top-notch. They will, as they have always done, run their schools with the best interest of the students in mind.

So, in the short-term, I believe we will see little difference. The long-term, however, has me very concerned indeed.

You see, the thing of it is that when it comes to certain structures, like school boards and unions, they are almost never valued until they are needed. This is becoming particularly obvious in Ontario right now. Premier Doug Ford’s insistence that teachers use a Health and Physical Education curriculum from the late 1990’s in classrooms, ostensibly because of concerns around the sexual health portion of the guide, has garnered national criticism. Despite warnings from health experts, Ford has gone so far as to threaten teachers with discipline if they choose to teach out of the 2015 guide, which was developed by the former Liberal government.

Now, Premier Ford could have simply maintained the status quo until he had a chance to revise the current curriculum, (presumably to fit the wishes of his more ardent, more conservative followers) but has decided instead to force teachers to use resources that are almost twenty years old, (again, presumably to fit the wishes of his more ardent, more conservative followers). Two of the most vocal critics of that particular move have been the elected school boards and the teachers federations, both of whom see this declaration by Ford as putting politics ahead of common sense. Which brings me to my concern.

If a similar issue were to arise in Nova Scotia, who is left standing to mount a defense?

Obviously, that is not outside the realm of possibility, and with our school boards gone, the only entities able to challenge a similar edict here would be the opposition parties and the unions. Seeing how well that has gone for us Nova Scotians over the past few years, I am not sure I would like our chances. The outdated curriculum would be in the hands of our students before you could say STD, (the preferred term, by the way, is now STI) and even the individual school principals themselves would be powerless to stop it.

Now, this is not about left versus right, nor is it specifically about disparaging Premier Ford, who I personally believe deserves some pretty serious disparaging. My point is rather to consider where we are educationally as a society, and to ask some pretty serious questions about the ever-increasing role of politics in our classrooms. How comfortable are we with such basic educational tools as curriculum guides being changed at the whim of a governing party without at least some system of checks and balances? Perhaps even more concerning, where are these various and sundry whims coming from?

This is why I say my concern is long-term. It would be hard for anyone to argue that the Liberal’s Glaze report, and the accompanying legislation, has been anything but a full-fledged victory for the educational reformists. Certainly, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) has been pushing for the removal of principals from the NSTU for years, as well as for the abolition of school boards. That this decidedly right-wing, neo-liberal think tank has finally achieved those goals makes one wonder what is next on their wish list, considering their ultimate, publicly stated  goal of advancing the privatization of public education.

Nova Scotia is currently experiencing a centralization of power, a weakening of oppositional voices. and an increasingly powerful influence being granted to those who would privatize our system. We may not see much immediate difference in our schools come September, but public education is on the road to some significant, and I believe ultimately damaging, changes. If we have any interest in reversing these trends, the system is going to need some pretty serious advocacy.

And, quite obviously that advocacy will need to come from somewhere other than the elected school boards.

Here’s wishing everyone a safe start up the new school year.





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Filed under AIMS, charter schools, Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, Public education

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