Education has changed, administrative structure has not

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The malfunction at the Tri-County (Digby-Yarmouth-Shelburne) regional school board revealed by the auditor general is not just a bump in the road, nor is it just about education.

As the most recent of a string of similarly misfiring school boards, it's close to the heart of the general malaise in public administration that's been rising for a generation in this province and which governments, knee-deep in small politics, struggle fitfully and sometimes counterproductively to manage.

In fact, the McNeil government would have done better to have tackled the school boards than the health boards, the radical centralizing of which may or may not advance anything.

Getting the administration of education straight on the other hand would, in my view, untie one of the most twisted knots in our governance and would boost that elusive sense of things-going-right that we're desperately looking for.

It takes the auditor general -- one of the few of our institutions in which the public has unreserved confidence -- to ignite some of these low-visibility bureaucratic issues, but in fact problematic school boards have been on a slow boil for some time.

The most recent uptake before the auditor-general's report was a mere two months ago in the Minister's Panel on Education -- the Myra Freeman report. As with most other recent blockbuster inquiries that evoked keen public interest, the panel was staggered by the participation -- 19,000 responses from every community in the province -- indicating an increasingly aroused population on education as on our various other troubled issues.

The report was mostly about curriculum, teaching quality, learning climate, etc., but all these school issues led back to the way education is administered, a point that got scant attention in the media. It invited government to make an "explicit comitment to disrupting the status quo" and it and its partners in the game to have "courageous conversations" about what a well-designed system would look like.

It pointed out that education has changed, but the administrative structure has not. Schools are "expected to do more and do it differently" -- to take on obligations that were previously carried by the community or other department and agencies of government like Health, Justice or Community Services.

There have been "incremental reforms" over the decades, but without coherent goals in mind, and that didn't do the job. One of them was the amalgamation of 22 school boards into seven in the mid-1990s, underlining the fact that consolidation alone is not "reform" and may advance nothing.

It affirms that the shift in the role and expectations of schools makes not only school boards but the Department of Education itself, plus other government agencies dealing with schools, unsuited to their task. It wants all of this restructured, with "departmental, resource and other structural barriers" broken down, with the aim of serving schools and students, adding that "how the province approaches the change process is also critical."

So the pressure is on, and government needs to act, and presumably it will. But -- and this is the sticking point -- how?

First, a large direction has to be chosen. I'm no expert on this, but the community school governance model espoused by education professor Paul W. Bennett in Thursday's paper, which apparently actually works elsewhere, seems to be the proper direction. Let us avoid simplistic solutions like simply snuffing the school boards before an alternative has been thought out.

Then the minister and her departmental advisers should NOT be the ones to elaborate a plan of action, at least not alone. Nor should the cabinet or the caucus. This would simply ensure its politicization. The process should be the polar opposite of the health boards reform -- which was scratched together for electoral purposes, raised electoral expectations, and will be grumbled about even if it more or less succeeds.

Bring in some outsiders and keep in touch with the base, getting feedback. The Freeman report's surveys showed that about half of school board staff, teachers and parents who responded were dissatisfied with the education system, and 30 per cent of administrators. It would be interesting to know what the dissatisfied are dissatisfied about. After weeding out the mere grumblers or those who just don't like the boss or whatever, there would be some real wisdom to be had under the leaves.

In other words, now that the case has been made -- by Freeman and earlier reports, the auditor general and a considerable segment of public opinion -- another process needs to take place to design a plan and implement it.

To Education Minister Karen Casey, who's been around and should be up to the job, I say, go to it. Don't rush, and do it right. "The future of Nova Scotia depends on it," is the way the Freeman panel puts it.

Ralph Surette is a freelance journalist in Yarmouth County. This column was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: frankjuarez/flickr

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