Public School Shakeup

To some, it heralded a decisive victory for fiscal sensibility and grassroots democracy. To others, it was a crushing defeat. But when Ontario Education Minister John Snobelen announced his plans to reduce the number of SCHOOL BOARDS in the province to 66 from 168 within the year, to slash the salaries of trustees by up to 90 per cent, and to give the province - rather than boards - the power to collect and spend EDUCATION tax dollars, those on all sides agreed on one thing: Ontario, home to roughly one-third of the country's students, has cast its lot with a revolution that is transforming Canadian public education.

It is a revolution that is sharply curtailing the once sacrosanct authority of local school boards to shape EDUCATIONAL POLICY on everything from curriculum and schoolroom discipline to teachers' salaries and SPECIAL EDUCATION. "He who controls the money, controls education," says Clair Ross, general secretary of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Federation. "This is not just about downsizing the number of school boards. This is about a massive, unprecedented transfer of power out of local hands and into the hands of the provincial government."

Never one to mince words with the province's 130,000 teachers, Snobelen balked at such a notion. And at the same time as he announced his ministry's expanded role in collecting and spending education taxes, he promised enhanced powers - albeit ones he has yet to describe in detail - for so-called parent advisory councils at individual schools. Still, as the chalk dust settled, there were few who doubted that the innocuously named Fewer School Boards Act represents a critical first step in a far-reaching shakeup of a system the minister has routinely criticized as "mediocre." Said Snobelen: "Ontario will no longer be sitting on the sidelines as others move ahead."

That statement was a clear reference to the province's poor showing in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the results of which were released last November. Ontario students placed below the Canadian average in both subjects, and trailed students in all four provinces that were able to calculate individual scores: British Columbia, Alberta, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. The statement also appeared to indicate Snobelen's frustration with his own slow progress, relative to his peers in other provinces, in rearranging an educational system for which he plainly has little respect. Although he has cut $400 million from Ontario's $13-billion education budget since taking office in 1995, the minister has so far failed to translate those cuts into substantive changes.

In recent years, British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have all reduced the number of school boards, while Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland have announced plans to do the same. And in New Brunswick, which is currently replacing traditional boards with advisory parent councils, ministry officials are wrapping up public hearings on a variety of issues that Education Minister James Lockyer plans to address in a new Education Act. Among them: the introduction of mandatory kindergarten, the creation of a standardized, provincewide high-school diploma, and new requirements that all students remain in school an extra two years, to age 18.

Meanwhile in Alberta, where the Conservative government of Premier Ralph Klein wrested control of public school financing in 1995, Education Minister Gary Mar is training his focus on several day-to-day issues of curriculum and standards. In their most sweeping move so far, ministry officials have announced that they will issue comprehensive assessment materials to all teachers this spring, the purpose of which is to gauge students' annual performance, beginning in Grade 1.

Now, Snobelen, who has remained relatively vague in his recent announcements on specific issues of curriculum and standards, is beginning to outline a strategy for parlaying his new financial clout into a significantly greater role in Ontario classrooms. That will no doubt be welcome news to many parents in the province, who in recent years have expressed anger and frustration with an educational establishment they say is failing to give their children a solid grounding in the basics. "It is time for this ministry to take its responsibilities seriously," said Snobelen. "By that I mean having provincewide standards of achievement at every grade level and a detailed common curriculum." The minister also told Maclean's that he would like to see the end of the current practice of promoting students with failing grades through the system. "That," he said, "is unfair to students and unfair to teachers."

But while Snobelen insists that his ultimate goal is to improve educational standards, some critics fear that his real aim is to lower the cost of public education - all part of his government's promise to reduce personal income taxes by 30 per cent. To do so, they say he must first weaken the powerful teachers' unions. With Snobelen in control of education finance, local boards will no longer be able to simply raise taxes to keep labor peace.

More ominous, some fear that Snobelen wants to blunt the ability of boards to put local educational priorities ahead of fiscal concerns. Marcia Nimoy, co-chairman of the Hillcrest Home and School Council in Toronto, is alarmed by the new $5,000 cap on trustee salaries, as well as the immense size of some of the proposed new boards: in Toronto, for instance, 22 trustees will oversee the education of 300,000 students. "With boards this size, any accountability will go right out the window," says Nimoy. "And for $5,000, I can't see attracting anyone with the skills to effectively handle such a huge portfolio."

In fact, many educators say Snobelen is setting the system up for failure. Ross, of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Federation, insists that Snobelen's decision to take control of education financing is another indication of his determination to eliminate school boards altogether. "What will happen is what happened in New Brunswick," predicts the general secretary. "Once the boards had no meaningful role to play, the government was able to swoop in and close them down."

Certainly, there are parents in New Brunswick who already doubt they will be heard in the new boardless system. All schools in that province must now elect parent committees, which in turn elect representatives to sit on 18 district and two provincial councils - one English, one French. But critics point out that all of those bodies are strictly advisory, and that the government is under no obligation to heed their advice. Jolene Caverhill, chairwoman of the Woodstock High School Parent Committee, notes that her group received a copy of the government's new plans for education the very last day that minister Lockyer was accepting applications to appear before the standing committee debating the changes. "Even if we are to assume our input would be considered," notes Caverhill dryly, "that was a pretty short deadline."

But others caution that a greater government hand in directing public education does not necessarily spell an end to local autonomy. Roy Wilson, president of the Alberta School Boards Association, notes that when Klein announced his major overhaul of public education in 1995, his government ruled that no more than four per cent of education spending could be allocated to administrative expenses. Since then, however, minister Mar has empowered principals, working with parent advisory councils to decide whether they want to divert a portion of classroom dollars towards such board services as special education consultants and multimedia workshops for teachers. "I see lots of anger in Ontario now, and there was lots of anger here, too," says Wilson. "But if people can get beyond that, there are intelligent solutions to be found."

Of course, such creative approaches assume that governments will remain committed to giving parents a real voice - and that parents will have the resources, time and commitment to take an enlightened hand in the direction of public education. Not everyone is convinced that such a scenario is feasible. "What is going to happen in neighborhoods where most of the population does not have English as a first language, or where parents are too busy getting a roof over their heads to take part in their child's school?" asks Nimoy. "Will those parents even know how to begin demanding a good education for their children?"

But Snobelen, keenly aware that many parents share his desire to see a more rigorous and accountable system of public education, clearly feels that the coming changes represent a gamble worth taking. "There is currently too great a discrepancy between what taxpayers invest in our education system and what they get for their investment," says the minister. "At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the achievement of our students, and right now, that needs improvement."

Maclean's February 3, 1997