VIBERT: NA­TURE IN­DEED ABHORS A VAC­UUM

Truro Daily News - - FRONT PAGE - Jim Vibert Jim Vibert, a jour­nal­ist and writer for longer than he cares to ad­mit, con­sulted or worked for five Nova Sco­tia gov­ern­ments. He now keeps a close and crit­i­cal eye on pro­vin­cial and re­gional pow­ers.

Na­ture does in­deed ab­hor a vac­uum.

A year has passed since the Nova Sco­tia gov­ern­ment killed off the English-lan­guage school boards on the some­what in­con­gru­ous rec­om­men­da­tion of ed­u­ca­tion con­sul­tant Avis Glaze. It’s also been about a year since the prov­ince ac­cepted most of the rec­om­men­da­tions in an­other re­port, this one from the Com­mis­sion on In­clu­sive Ed­u­ca­tion.

But the gov­ern­ment sidesteppe­d the com­mis­sion’s crit­i­cal rec­om­men­da­tion that called for in­de­pen­dent over­sight “to en­sure that the new model of in­clu­sive ed­u­ca­tion is fully and suc­cess­fully im­ple­mented in our schools.”

While change, or pos­si­bly churn, has been con­stant in the prov­ince’s pub­lic schools in re­cent years, par­ents and ed­u­ca­tors who gath­ered in Hal­i­fax Satur­day for a town hall-style meet­ing were at a loss to iden­tify many – or any – ben­e­fits for stu­dents to come from those changes.

All author­ity for pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion has been ef­fec­tively con­sol­i­dated in the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment’s Hal­i­fax en­clave, an im­pen­e­tra­ble mono­lith that ex­er­cises its power with an oc­ca­sional, per­func­tory nod to the old-fash­ioned con­cept of “gov­ern­ment for the peo­ple” and its in­con­ve­nient, at­ten­dant de­mand for ac­count­abil­ity.

The depart­ment, for ex­am­ple, has de­cided to pass off a bit of aca­demic re­search as a suitable sub­sti­tute for the arms-length body rec­om­mended by the com­mis­sion “to pro­vide the lead­er­ship and over­sight nec­es­sary” for the suc­cess­ful im­ple­men­ta­tion of the new model.

In fact, the com­mis­sion said cre­at­ing that lead­er­ship and over­sight func­tion should be the first step. The depart­ment as­sumed the lead­er­ship and shrugged off the over­sight.

En­ter Nova Sco­tia Par­ents for Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion, a true grass­roots move­ment that un­til Satur­day lived ex­clu­sively on Face­book. The group, which claims 17,000 on­line mem­bers, emerged from the dig­i­tal and into the ac­tual world to host the town hall, the first of a num­ber planned across the prov­ince.

As noted on its Face­book page after Satur­day’s meet­ing, Par­ents for Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion is step­ping up to dig deeper, lis­ten and ask ques­tions in an ef­fort to find out more about the changes hap­pen­ing in pub­lic schools and how they mea­sure up to the gov­ern­ment’s prom­ises.

One of the group’s ad­min­is­tra­tors, Tr­ish Keep­ing, said it can’t fill the void left by the demise of school boards, nor would it as­pire to do so. It can and will pro­vide a fo­rum for par­ents, teach­ers and oth­ers to share ex­pe­ri­ences and bet­ter un­der­stand the im­pact that the in­clu­sion model and other changes are hav­ing in Nova Sco­tia schools.

The afore­men­tioned vac­uum is the prod­uct of a lit­tle two-step the prov­ince pulled off last spring. Step one ter­mi­nated school boards and step two avoided the rig­or­ous over­sight rec­om­mended by the com­mis­sion.

With school boards gone, so too is the feed­back loop many par­ents de­pended on to help them un­der­stand how big changes in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion af­fect their kids. And, with­out in­de­pen­dent over­sight, in­for­ma­tion about the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the in­clu­sion model has been lim­ited to the gov­ern­ment’s own tally.

The prov­ince bud­geted $15 mil­lion this year to sup­port the im­ple­men­ta­tion, and when school started last Septem­ber, the gov­ern­ment said it had hired 190 specialist­s and ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram as­sis­tants – re­sources iden­ti­fied by the com­mis­sion as es­sen­tial.

But to hear the par­ents, grand­par­ents, teach­ers and specialist­s at Satur­day’s meet­ing tell it, the money the prov­ince is throw­ing at the sys­tem doesn’t seem to be hav­ing the de­sired ef­fect.

Par­ents of kids with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties reported that the sup­ports for their kids are no bet­ter now than they were be­fore. Specialist­s reported that, where they once cov­ered three to five schools, they are now ex­pected to serve a dozen or more to sup­port the claim that ev­ery school has their spe­cialty. Even­tu­ally, the aca­demic re­search the gov­ern­ment is commission­ing may pro­vide some of the qual­i­ta­tive anal­y­sis that’s lack­ing in the gov­ern­ment-pro­vided facts and fig­ures.

When the prov­ince elim­i­nated school boards, Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Zach Churchill claimed he and his depart­ment would fill what­ever void was cre­ated. Par­ents would have a di­rect line to the depart­ment’s de­ci­sion-mak­ers.

It didn’t turn out that way, and when par­ents have nowhere else to turn, they look to teach­ers for an­swers to ques­tions on pol­icy and other stuff that comes down from the prov­ince with­out much ex­pla­na­tion.

The vac­uum is where ac­count­abil­ity should be, and while Par­ents for Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion can’t fill that va­cant space, they might just push the bu­reau­crats and politi­cians back in there. It’s where they be­long.

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