Lib­er­als look to Zach Churchill for change

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL - Jim Vib­ert Jim Vib­ert spent 10 years as a po­lit­i­cal re­porter and ed­i­tor at the Hal­i­fax Her­ald and 14 years with the N.S. gov­ern­ment where he set up Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Nova Sco­tia

There is hope, and it springs from the minds and young hands tak­ing the reins of the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment as it moves into its sec­ond term.

The kid from Yar­mouth is a case in point. Zach Churchill was elected in 2013 with 80 per cent of the vote. In Yar­mouth, that means his op­po­nents got most, but not all, of the vote from close friends and fam­ily. Six weeks ago, his take of the pop­u­lar vote slipped to 68 per cent as Tory and NDP can­di­dates were able to coax back cousins and add some nearby neigh­bours.

The wise folk of Yar­mouth see some­thing spe­cial in this guy.

Now, as min­is­ter of ed­u­ca­tion he has, in one month, pried open win­dows in Hal­i­fax’s stuffy old Trade Mart — home to the ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment since be­fore his birth in 1984 — and let a wel­come breeze blow through.

Af­ter the op­pres­sive years presided over by Karen Casey, there is oxy­gen flow­ing back into the brains of ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment staffers. Trade Mart bu­reau­crats are per­mit­ted orig­i­nal thought again, and are be­ing asked to fo­cus on im­prov­ing the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem rather than wag­ing po­lit­i­cal war on teach­ers. Ms. Casey may be bet­ter suited to her new role as gov­ern­ment Grinch over at fi­nance. Time will tell.

Back to Zach. (The rhyme is pure co­in­ci­dence.)

He has re­mained com­pletely cool un­der some in­com­ing fire from a Hal­i­fax School Board com­mit­tee that re­viewed the school­house sit­u­a­tion out Cole Har­bour way.

That could be be­cause he read and un­der­stood the Lib­eral elec­tion plat­form.

Af­ter an an­nus hor­ri­bilis in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, the Lib­er­als wisely put a wide ed­u­ca­tion plank in the cen­tre of their re­elec­tion agenda, in­clud­ing a promised “com­plete re­view of the ad­min­is­tra­tive struc­tures of school boards.” Hal­lelu­jah.

The plat­form said, and the min­is­ter re­it­er­ated, that all school re­view pro­cesses will “pause” un­til af­ter the sys­tem re­view.

The re­view is to be com­pleted by the end of this year, so the pres­sure to per­form is on the min­is­ter, the bu­reau­cracy, and what­ever out­side ex­per­tise is called on for help.

Fend­ing off crit­i­cism for do­ing what his party promised is child’s play for an ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter who doesn’t have to strain to re­mem­ber his own child­hood. His big test comes later.

First, he has to take his re­fresh­ing style be­yond the bu­reau­cracy and give hope to teach­ers, par­ents and stu­dents that re­forms ini­ti­ated by the teacher-led Coun­cil to Im­prove Class­room Con­di­tions are real and mark a be­gin­ning.

If and when he reaches out­side the sys­tem for ad­vice, he needs to es­chew the usual sources — the big con­sult­ing firms, Lib­er­als who once drove by a school, and free­lance gu­rus.

Who, be­yond teach­ers, are the real ex­perts on ed­u­ca­tion and how to ef­fec­tively de­liver ed­u­ca­tion? Look to the fount of knowl­edge. Nova Sco­tia has a wealth of the stuff tucked away in more uni­ver­si­ties than the Ivy League. There are four univer­sity fac­ul­ties of ed­u­ca­tion in or within a cou­ple of hours of the cap­i­tal. Put an end to the bu­reau­crats’ dis­re­gard for and dis­re­spect of this ex­per­tise.

Next, Churchill needs to pre­pare the pub­lic for what­ever changes he will make. One of the most com­mon mis­takes of gov­ern­ment is fix­ing stuff peo­ple didn’t know was bro­ken. He needs to de­fine the prob­lem and sell the need for change be­fore mak­ing it.

And fi­nally, he wants to be ready for the vo­cif­er­ous op­po­si­tion to come from ev­ery in­ter­ested party that per­ceives a pin-prick to its sa­cred ox. Change draws re­sis­tance. The record of Stephen McNeil’s gov­ern­ment sug­gests this of­ten comes as a sur­prise, or worse, is re­ceived with an ar­ro­gant dis­re­gard for crit­ics.

If the new kid on the block is se­ri­ous about fun­da­men­tal, pro­gres­sive change in ed­u­ca­tion, he will en­gage in and even wel­come the in­evitable de­bate.

Nova Sco­tians are about to find out if “new” is more than skin deep in ed­u­ca­tion and maybe be­yond.

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