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JIM VIBERT: Group warns about erosion of public education

Teachers and supporters waved placards reading Negotiate Don't Dictate and Act For Education, It’s Our Future while waiting for Hants West MLA Chuck Porter to arrive back from Halifax Dec. 5.
Teachers and supporters waved placards reading Negotiate Don't Dictate and Act For Education, It’s Our Future while waiting for Hants West MLA Chuck Porter to arrive back from Halifax Dec. 5, 2016. - Colin Chisholm

The epicentre of public education lunacy in Canada is obviously Doug Ford’s Ontario, where a confidential report leaked this week alerting folks to the government’s plan to cut costs by replacing high school teachers with online courses.

The document, obtained by the Toronto Star, shows that the Ford government is contemplating to-the-bone cuts to public education. A suite of online courses Ontario hopes to sell to other jurisdictions — at a tidy profit— is part of a plan. Ontario high school students would be able to earn diplomas exclusively online by 2024.

Meanwhile in Nova Scotia, Educators for Social Justice (ESJ) teamed up with Parents for Public Education to sound the alarm about what they see as a similar, worrisome drift in public education down here.

Nova Scotia’s Liberal government isn’t musing about replacing high schools with server farms — at least not that we know of — but it has implemented a “not-so-hidden strategy of taking control of education away from citizens and placing it within the hands of the current government and its bureaucrats.”

Quotes from A Manifesto for Progressive Public Education, issued this week by ESJ and the parents’ group, coalesced on social media during the McNeil government’s assault on various elements of the public education system.

You may recall some of that history. The highlight was a ham-fisted lockdown of schools for a day and an aborted emergency session of the legislature to deal with a crisis in the schools that existed almost exclusively in the mind of then education minister Karen Casey.

The government eventually imposed a legislated contract on teachers, and kids endured half-a-year of teachers working-to-rule. Extra-curricular activities were curtailed, but the government’s panic over

the threat of work-to-rule — that precipitated the lockdown — turned out to be overblown.

The Nova Scotia agenda continued with the implementing of the Glaze report and its somewhat incongruous recommendation to do away with school boards, which the government cheerfully adopted.

The boards had to go, we were told, because Nova Scotian kids were underperforming on standardized tests. That turned out to depend on which tests and how you read them.

The ESJ/Parents manifesto identifies four major threats to progressive public education in Nova Scotia. They are the weakening of community engagement, the attack on the teachers’ union, austerity, and the influence of right-wing think tanks and their lackeys in the “hostile” media.

The McNeil government would dispute the allegation that public education has suffered from austerity measures given that it increased budget allocations for schools every year it’s been in office.

But the EJS/Parents coalition says the province’s inclusion policy suffers from insufficient funding and that’s causing long delays in assessments of kids with special needs, that classroom support for teachers remains inadequate, and that class sizes in some areas continue to grow beyond what’s manageable.

The end of elected school boards and no clear purpose for school advisory councils have weakened community and parent involvement in education, says the manifesto.

The group is worried about the influence of right-wing think tanks like AIMS, the Fraser Institute and others, which promote a neo-liberal agenda. Neo-liberalism is the largely discredited but still prevalent idea that market forces and competition are inherently superior to state intervention in many instances. It’s no accident that the philosophy finds most favour with those who have all the advantages.

High-quality, progressive public education is one of the most powerful tools to overcome socio-economic disparity, the manifesto notes.

“Progressive public education … helps every child attain the skills and knowledge they need to be lifelong learners and socially responsible citizens in an ever-changing world.”

The McNeil government has eroded collaboration among educators, parents, and communities that fosters progressive public education, says the ESJ/ Parents group.

When the government abolished school boards, Education Minister Zach Churchill said he’d be accountable, but that’s turned out to be a hit-or-miss proposition, with the department pointing to the centres of education – the old school boards less the elected members — to answer for many problems.

In Ontario, the Ford government has been unmasked. It had insisted its move to mandatory e-learning was exclusively designed to help students, not cut costs. This week’s leaked document refutes that claim.

And with no more school boards around in Nova Scotia there’s been a huge improvement in kids’ scores on those standardized tests. Right?

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