BY PAUL W. BENNETT
Small schools on the Island got a temporary reprieve in the spring of 2017 when the P.E.I. government’s latest reorganization scheme fell apart. Once the cheering died down, this much was clear: it was a small victory in a much larger battle to reclaim public accountability and local democracy in education.
Centralization of educational policy-making since the 1990s has, according to Memorial University professor Gerald Galway, gradually eroded the governance role and significance of school districts in relation to provincial education authorities. The Island is now a prime example of what can go wrong with ‘peak’ educational centralization. Top-down decision-making rules, and local school district governance is virtually extinct.
The latest wave of educational restructuring in P.E.I. originated during the 2008-2009 school year with hotly-disputed school closures in the Eastern District School Board. The stage had actually been set in August 2008 with the release of an Ascent Strategy Group consultant’s report, Schools for Tomorrow. It alerted Islanders to the demographic challenge of student enrolment declines of two per cent per year over the next 10 years and recommended a new “framework for change” to prepare schools for the future.
Small rural schools, Superintendent Sandy MacDonald said, “cannot offer comprehensive training in specialty areas” and closing them would ensure that students had “the opportunity to access quality programming in well-resourced facilities.” That declaration not only set the rural heather on fire, it set in motion a cycle of educational restructuring that lasted for seven years and completely eroded local education governance on the Island.
A critical turning point was the appointment, in January 2010, of Doug Currie as the province’s Minister of Education, and, shortly thereafter, the elevation of MacDonald to Deputy Minister of Education. Elected regional school boards were eliminated in two stages, starting with the firing of the Eastern School Board in 2011, and leading to the establishment of a single province-wide English school board.
Wade MacLauchlan’s new Liberal government elected in May of 2015 came into office looking for more educational changes. The English Language Board and the government went to war over staffing cuts, totaling 28 teaching positions, and the decision to transfer curriculum delivery from the board to the department. When the board went $3-million over budget in October 2015, the government resolved the matter by sweeping away the one remaining English Language School Board.
The new education governance model, announced in November 2015, completed the centralization agenda. It transferred authority to the Public Schools Branch, dissolved the remaining board, and replaced it with three new provincial advisory bodies, a Learning Partners’ Advisory Council, a P.E. I. Principals’ Council and network of District Advisory Councils.
Centralization became official P.E.I education policy. The MacLauchlan government simply absorbed the school board into the Department of Education, Early Learning and Culture and the three new advisory bodies reported directly to the department.
A new “made-in- P.E.I.” model of education governance, proclaimed in February 2016, eliminated the role of school board superintendent. In place of elected boards, the province set out to establish what was termed a “learning partnership” with the Learning Partners Advisory Council and the other two provincial advisory bodies.
In September 2016, the Public Schools Branch assumed control of the whole system and issued Policy 14, Board Governance Policy. It confirmed that English Language school governance was now vested in a three-person Public Schools Branch Board, chaired by the Deputy Minister of Education, Susan Willis.
When the P.E.I. government resumed its school closure process in October 2016, the whole plan, Better Learning For All, aroused a firestorm of rural school protest and put the whole governance structure to the test.
Former senior civil servant Allan Rankin of Hunter River, P.E.I., directly challenged Willis in February 2016 on whether the Island would be better off with elected school boards. In response, Willis simply toed the official line, explaining the education pecking order.
Confronted with a barrage of public resistance, spearheaded by a Rural Strong movement, MacLauchlan and Currie finally relented on April 4, 2017. A mere 15-hours after the Public Schools Branch voted to close two schools in Georgetown and Charlottetown’s St. Jean district, they pulled the plug on the whole exercise.
“Islanders had spoken loudly and clearly,” the Premier stated, as he overturned the work of the Deputy Minister and his own Public Schools Branch. Clearly, the new governance model had utterly failed its first critical test.
Top-down decision-making buttressed by province-wide advisory groups will never work on the Island. The plan was never intended to save education tax dollars and it’s proven to be a total bust when it comes to ensuring public accountability and upholding local democracy in education.
In the year ahead, Premier MacLauchlan and his new Minister of Education have a chance to reverse the pattern, building from the schools up, and to set it right, once and for all.
- Paul W. Bennett, EdD, is Director of Schoolhouse Institute, a co-founder of the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative, and an education researcher specializing in public sector governance.