For Better Schools

Two important issues involving schools have been in the news. In both cases, good ideas risk being lost in bureaucratic procedure.

First, we look at hub schools. The idea is that a local school’s impact goes well beyond the learning that happens within its walls. It is a vital part of community infrastructure. It can be used for other purposes in off hours and is crucial to the prospect of retaining young families. It is legally the property of the school board but, at an emotional level, it belongs to the community.

“We are only responsible for running schools. We are not in the business of saving communities.” This, from one member of the Chignecto-Central regional school board, succinctly explains why the hub school proposals from Wentworth, Maitland, and River John were turned down. They were bound to fail.

Closing schools can be both the result and the cause of rural decline. Not every school can be saved. But, we should be willing to stretch. The decision-making process created by the government points in the other direction.

A new school is paid for by the province. Maintaining aging buildings is a growing expense for school boards but, if they abandon them, the municipality inherits the problem of ongoing maintenance or demolition for schools built before 1982.

For administrators, it is much easier to manage a small number of newer, larger schools. They are, perhaps, not the ones being asked to put their five-year-old on a bus for an hour a day each way.

As requested, the hub school proponents put together proposals for maintaining their schools, including alternate uses for unused space, and some additional revenue. But these came nowhere close to the stringent demands of the school board administration. Accordingly, the board approved staff recommendations to reject all three proposals.

The problem is that it was the wrong group answering the wrong question. The right question is whether an alternate ownership model can work, under which the municipality takes ownership of the building and the school board becomes a tenant. It will involve some compromises (maybe that parking lot does not need to be paved) but these will not affect student safety or viability of the learning environment.

The decision on whether the proposal is viable should be made by an independent arbitrator. The community would have to show why their proposal can work for the children. If the need for a new amalgamated school is postponed, the province should be willing to put some money on the table for the savings realized. The school board can argue its case for why it is more costly than the alternative, but would be challenged to defend its numbers.

Education Minister Casey defended her inaction on the grounds that it would be inappropriate to interfere with school board decisions. On the surface she is right, but it was too late to become involved. The problem is where and how the government let the decision be made.

The second issue concerns the quality and vocational relevance of what is being taught. The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association represents most of Nova Scotia’s industrial employers. It complains that job applicants with high school diplomas lack the literacy and numeracy required for their jobs.

Some of their arguments have been overstated. Business leaders lamented the “no fail policy” when there is no such policy—the department advises that for 2014-2015, just under 90% of Grade 12 students received their diploma.

Regardless, many manufacturers do not trust school report cards as an indicator of student competence, so they do tests of their own. Given that each teacher for math or literacy sets and marks her or his own test, there is considerable scope for the same marks to mean different things for different students.

There are many places where the government’s direction responds to business concerns. The Action Plan for Education foresees a much more robust commitment to literacy and mathematics, especially in high school math. New standards are promised regarding student promotion, retention, and acceleration.

Yet, there is no plan to use a common examination in grade 12 for math or literacy. Employers will not have reliably consistent indicators of student achievement. So, they will continue using their own tests. Surely it should be possible for rural schools to more closely align their programming with local job opportunities.

There is a specific commitment to working more closely with employers. A Business-Education Council is to provide a forum where business can identify the skills and attributes students need to be successful in the workforce. The comments from the Manufacturers and Exporters Association and a defensive response from the Minister indicate that an effective collaborative dialogue has not yet been established.

The Liberals have had some bad experiences of policy initiatives starting well and badly—health care unions and the first effort at maintaining hub schools are two examples.

The Action Plan for Education is an excellent initiative and very important to the province’s future prospects. For it to succeed, government will have to work more cooperatively with communities and employers.

Postscript:  On Thursday, MP Robert Chisholm wrote disagreeing with my estimated cost of providing child care for $15 per day, and with my use of the NDP Policy Book as an indication of how they would govern if elected. Before writing the article, I emailed NDP headquarters—twice—asking whether they disagreed with my daycare estimate and seeking their view on how the Policy Book should be interpreted. The NDP chose not to respond.

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