School governing councils could work on P.E.I.?

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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Missed opportunity to fix educational accountability gap between province, schools, local communities

Schoo governance

Premier Wade MacLauchlan’s recent decision to dissolve P.E.I.’s one remaining English school board looks like another reactive and ad hoc response to the challenges of ensuring effective, democratic school governance.

Much like the 2008 decision to dismiss the Eastern School Board, then subsequently appoint a 12-person province-wide board, it is shaping up to be a missed opportunity to fix the educational accountability gap between the province, schools and local communities.

Abolishing the province-wide English School board will be popular until reality sets in for parents, teachers and local taxpayers. Next year, they may come to realize that centralized administration has emerged triumphant in the education sector and the hasty change foreclosed on much better school-based options.

Twenty five years ago New Zealand faced a similar crisis of school system accountability. Then Prime Minister David Lange responded by introducing a “self-managed schools” system that turned the whole education world upside down.  

Instead of transferring all authority to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Premier MacLauchlan and  Education Minister Hal Perry would be wise to adopt the New Zealand model and re-engineer the existing system from the school-up rather than top-down.

The Tomorrow’s Schools reform plan of 1989 implemented nation-wide “self-governing schools,” eliminated school district bureaucracy, and transferred many of the decision-making responsibilities to the school-level closer to the point of implementation.

The Edmonton Public Schools were the trailblazers in the shift to school-based governance and Quebec introduced its School Governing Boards (SGBs) back in 1996. New Zealand’s model held out the promise of more immediate delivery of services and resources, more parental and community involvement, and greater teacher responsibility for managing local schools. Today New Zealand has a well-established “self-governing schools” system that has improved over time.  

Elected school boards are floundering across Canada because they have been eclipsed by expanding centralized administration far removed from students and parents.

Back in 2013, a Canadian School Boards Association study, conducted by Memorial University’s Gerald Galway and a respected research team, issued a stiff warning that elected boards were in serious jeopardy. Elected school boards were no longer perceived to be the “voice of the people,” feeding the growing public concern that boards had lost their “raison d’être.”

The only real policy options presented in a subsequent Journal of Canadian Education Administration and Policy article (September 2013) were crystal clear: “quiet acquiescence to centralization” or “take action to save the sinking ship.” The warning went largely ignored, especially in P.E.I.

The CSBA research report identified the crux of the problem facing elected school board members — the erosion of credibility and the growing public perception that elected representatives had become more interested in guarding their turf than looking out for the interests of students, parents and their constituents.  

Changes in board governance made matters worse. The former P.E.I. government appointed a dozen individuals and named them a “provincial board.” By adopting the corporate designation “board member” and adhering strictly to a “policy making role,” they become more distant from parents and communities.

Establishing District Education Councils is tantamount to resurrecting weakened elected school boards and that certainly has not worked very well in New Brunswick.

Just ask the hordes of parents now organizing to block the DECs from authorizing school closures.

School Governing Boards (SGBs), as instituted in New Zealand and in Quebec, provide a better model for P.E.I.

Under the Quebec Education Act, they have responsibility for overseeing the school’s “educational project,” developing and approving a school success plan, and reviewing the school discipline code, extra-curricular program changes, special education services, and the school budget.

New Zealand’s system of self-managing schools may not have lived-up to its initial aims, but we know why and can address the identified shortcomings. School councils populated by elected N.Z. trustees have succeeded in “bringing together school and community” and, at their best, allow local interests to be reflected in education-policy making.

The new P.E.I. model will only work if school administration is re-purposed for their “support circle” role. All SGBs, we know now, still need professional support in the appointment and appraisal of principals, the development of provincially-aligned school plans, the provision of school-by-school student performance and behaviour data, and in resolving periodic school-level disputes.

School Governing Councils have never really been given a fair chance. Instead of entrusting everything to the education bureaucracy, consider turning the whole system right-side up — for the sake of students, parents and local communities.

By Paul W. Bennett (guest opinion)

Paul W. Bennett is Director of Schoolhouse Consulting and Adjunct Professor of Education at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax.

Organizations: SGBs, English school board, Eastern School Board Department of Education and Early Childhood Edmonton Public Schools School Governing Boards Canadian School Boards Association Canadian Education Administration District Education Councils Schoolhouse Consulting

Geographic location: New Zealand, Quebec, Canada New Brunswick Saint Mary

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