VIBERT: NATURE INDEED ABHORS A VACUUM
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.