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Two Canadian provinces, New Brunswick and Ontario, are on the front lines in the ongoing battle over school closures, mostly concentrated in small rural communities. With school consolidation on pause in Nova Scotia the wake of the 2013 School Closure Moratorium, it has returned with a vengeance in both N.B. and Ontario. The renewed threat in New Brunswick has now sparked a feisty province-wide Rural Schools Coalition.

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A dozen small New Brunswick communities are currently in a state of upheaval with local schools facing possible closure, sparking growing popular resistance from Dorchester to Pennfield and north to Dalhousie, affecting Anglophone and Acadian communities alike. In Ontario, Education Minister Liz Sandals has not only identified some 600 schools as “half full” and ripe for review, but now introduced legislative changes to “speed-up” that province’s “School Accommodation Review” process.

Armed with the dreaded New Brunswick Policy 409, and aided by that province’s District Education Councils (DECs), the Education Department is imposing an arbitrary, cost-driven “school sustainability” process upon supporters of the threatened schools. It looks, sounds, and feels distinctly like a runaway “Express Train 409” bearing down on their rural communities. After blowing through the first dozen, forty-two more schools, 27 anglophone and 15 francophone, are next in line.

Ontario’s new School Review process, unveiled in late March 2015, reflects the so-called “speed-up” agenda. Faced with a deficit reduction challenge, Minister Sandals has enacted changes shortening the timelines from seven months to five, cutting the number of public consultation meeting from 4 to 2, and limiting the criteria to “impact on student achievement.” Eliminating the criterion “value to the community” has upset municipal mayors and re-ignited the Community School Alliance, led by London-Middlesex small school advocate, Doug Reycraft. 

Hundreds of Save Our School Signs have appeared all over rural N.B. and the whole exercise threatens to kill the “community spirit” that still animates much of rural New Brunswick. In the case of two Anglophone East School District communities, Dorchester and Riverside-Albert, local public school supporters were given less than two months to a react to weighty facilities cost reports and documents stacking the deck in favour of closure.

The New Brunswick School Closure process is not only top-down and draconian, but also completely at odds with best policy and practice elsewhere. Compared with School Review for closure rules in Ontario and Nova Scotia, for example, the current practice violates every principle of fairness, legitimacy, and civic engagement.

“Procedural fairness” is so narrowly circumscribed under N.B. Policy 409 that it amounts to little more than a commitment to carry out prescribed, pre-scheduled public hearings designed simply to validate the closure recommendation. It’s top-down decision making in the extreme, driven entirely by the provincial government’s cost reduction targets and based upon the unproven assumption that moving students to bigger schools is more cost-effective.

Estimated cost savings accruing from closure, in the case of both the Dorchester and Riverside schools, running to $1.8 million, are grossly inflated, based upon projected staff reductions and compounded costs accumulated after years of deferred maintenance. Additional busing costs, at $50,000 per vehicle annually, are not acknowledged and community school cost reduction plans are simply not being considered.

Schools listed for closure are excluded completely from the information gathering process and presented with “infrastructure planning” reports that put facilities ahead of students, parents and communities. Under the policy, closure proceedings can be sprung on schools at any time, with insufficient time to formulate a response let alone generate viable, community-based alternatives.

The standard model of School Accommodation Reviews, utilized in Ontario gives school communities ample time (5 to 7 months), builds-in more school-level engagement, and provides for a provincial mediator. It’s far from perfect, but respects the right of aggrieved communities to proper representation and legitimate opportunities to be heard before school boards make their final decision. No school would ever be closed on the tight timeline currently being implemented in N.B.

Just across the border, in Nova Scotia, the whole School Review process is radically different and aimed at achieving cost efficiencies through a brand new school-centred community planning model, supporting the gradual re-purposing of school buildings. Schools are viewed as community assets and not simply liabilities to be abandoned and off-loaded to local towns and villages.

Under the newly established October 2014 N.S. model, school boards are required to engage municipalities, school communities, local groups and business organizations in a Long Range Planning process. Schools with declining enrollments are encouraged to develop Community Hub plans aimed at re-purposing surplus school space and generating revenue to assist in ongoing operational and maintenance costs. Once the initial spadework has been done, the School Review process goes forward guided by a “School Options Committee” mandated to find local solutions. Only when such efforts flounder, do the schools close.

New Brunswick’s School Closure policy was already grossly unfair, and Education Minister Serge Rousselle has just made it even worse. His latest revisions, announced in mid-stream, adding two “triggers” for closure – under 100 students or 30 per cent or less occupancy — merely confirm the suspicions of rural New Brunswickers. Appropriating the concept of a “trigger” mechanism, borrowed from the world of firearms, may have been a Freudian slip. If Express Train 409 does not run you over, then the DECs can pull the trigger to kill the vitality and resilience of rural communities, leaving them school-less and eventually childless.

New Brunswick can do much better — and Ontario should know better than to deny the critical role schools play in smaller communities. It’s time to re-think the current move to “Hurry Up” school closure process, to take stock of what happened in Nova Scotia, and to build local communities into a more school-centred rural revitalization process.

What’s “fair” about imposing School Consolidation and springing closures on struggling rural communities? What’s driving the “speed-up” in provincial School Review process time-frames for closure?  Where’s the hard evidence to support the purported cost savings and operational efficiencies? An how can such bitter, divisive and arbitrary public processes be transformed into community-building, cost-efficiency-generating  exercises?

A British grassroots, teacher-led movement, known as researchED, is emerging as a new player in the rather closely-knit, education school-centred, internally-referenced world of education policy research.  It originated, almost by accident in 2013, when Tom Bennett (no relation) with assistance from  Helene O’Shea, came up with the idea of holding a conference exploring school-level and system-wide research into “what works in education.” What a revolutionary idea!

ResearchEdlogoOn the first Saturday after school opened in September 2013, over 500 British educators, policy wonks, and researchers came to Dulwich College simply to “talk, listen and learn.” With the support of former UK policy advisor Sam Freedman and The Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre, the incipient movement took-off and spread across Britain. The movement founder, Tom Bennett, who ran Soho night clubs before entering teaching, became its passionate emissary and pied piper, sponsoring follow-up events in York and Birmingham. When both were sell-outs, researchED began to develop even more expanding throughout 2014 , far beyond the wildest dreams of its pioneers.

Tom Bennett and ResearchEd have tapped into the creativity, energy and ideas of regular teachers and “ideas people’ from outside the normal cloistered world of academe and the “fad-prone” educational bureaucracy. While accepting the critical value of “educational experience,” Tom and his supporters see “huge areas” that are “amenable to scientific investigation” utilizing insights from other subject disciplines, not just psychology. “It’s time teachers started insisting upon evidence,” Tom declares, “before being expected to accept every claim and magic bullet sent their way. It’s time for a quiet revolution.”

The ResearchEd movement has not only expanded, but amassed considerable brainpower — mostly from outside the established OECD Education circles.  Surveying the ResarchEd contributors, now numbering well over 60 individuals, it’s a very eclectic, diverse group of thinkers ranging from Founder and Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust David Weston and Times Education Supplement editor Ann Mroz to Science Education specialist Mary Whitehouse and well-known Head Teacher Tom Sherrington.

The UK’s Teacher Conference success story of 2014 comes to the USA in early May of 2015.  The first North American ResearchEd conference will be on Saturday May 2, 2015 at the Riverside School in the Bronx area of New York City. One look at the line-up of speakers and you can see that it will be a ground-breaking day for teachers, academics, and anyone interested in finding out what the latest research really says about how to improve classrooms and schools. Some of America’s and the UK’s most prominent thought leaders, academics and educators will be there, very few of whom were invited to the recent ISTP2015 Conference in Banff, Alberta, dominated by education ministers, union leaders, and hand-picked ‘friendlies.’

One example of ResearchED’s iconoclastic spirit appeared in the April Issue of its online magazine.  “Only one in ten education reforms,” Gemma Ware of The Conversation reported, is ever “analyzed for their impact.” Based upon an OECD study covering 34 member countries from 2008 to 2013, that was worth reporting. So was OECD education director Andreas Schleicher’s comment that the education world needs a “more systematic and evidence-based approach to reforms.” Most significantly, Finnish education guru Pasi Sahlberg is quoted as conceding that education authorities have little appetite for spending more studying “failure.”

In today’s education world, ResearchED is a breath of fresh air with a commitment to bringing the UnConference to the neglected field of education policy research. Inspired partly by the progressive EdCamp movement. it may pose a threat to the ‘usual suspects’ like education experts Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, and Pasi Sahlberg who tend to identify trends, feed-off one another,  and tap into the educational treasure chest of  OECD Education and state education authorities. Not to mention plowing those resources into the very traditional pedantic, OISE-centred graduate student KMb (Knowledge Mobilization) research movement.  What’s appealing about Tom Bennett’s grassroots insurgency is it’s cheekiness and willingness to tilt at the windmills propelling the modern education state.

Does the ResearchED movement have the potential to challenge popular ‘fads and fetishes’ that constantly wash over public education?  Can regular teachers be engaged in assisting to develop research-based, workable solutions to the system’s chronic problems? Will Tom Bennett’s little ‘quiet revolution’ move beyond simply stirring the pot? Will the North American education establishment even notice the little disturbance in the Bronx?

A funny thing has happened to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Education Office on its way to the fifth annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP 2015). An ambitious international movement, initiated in March 2011 in New York City and dedicated to “Improving Teacher Quality Around the World” now sounds ‘warm and fuzzy’ on those professional issues that really matter – building better teachers, improving classroom instruction, and ensuring teaching effectiveness.

ISTP2015LogoWhen the world’s Education Ministers and over 400 invited delegates from 17 countries arrive at the Banff Springs Hotel on March 29 and 30, the word “test” and the acronym “PISA” will scarcely be heard. Instead of focusing on raising student achievement levels, the OECD Education Bureau has “gone soft” with an ISTP theme and policy paper that soft-pedals raising standards in favour of supporting teachers and building their confidence to prepare students for a rather nebulous “rapidly changing world.”

Mounting criticism of International Test Mania, dubbed “PISAfication,” the rise of a vocal American-led anti-standardized testing movement, and a partnership with Big Teacher, the Education International union federation, have all caused the mastermind of the International Teaching Summits, Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, OECD, to change his tune. In place of weighty policy briefs stuffed with OECD student and teacher performance data, we now have a mighty thin 59-page brief spouting rather mundane banalities about supporting teachers in producing “21st-century learners.”

The ISTP 2015 agenda is clearly the work of three influential education experts, the formidable Schleicher, Ontario’s ageless education change wizard Michael Fullan, and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, passed over in 2008 by President Barack Obama in his choice for U.S. Secretary of Education. Two of the three in that troika have spent their careers urging governments to invest in teachers and enhance professional support programs rather than to focus on student and teacher accountability.

Since Canada has no federal Department of Education, alone among the leading OECD countries, the titular head of our national delegation and host of ISTP 2015 will be Alberta Education Minister Gordon Dirks, currently serving as Chair of the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada (CMEC). Dianne Woloschuk, President, Canadian Teachers’ Federation, will be at his side, modelling the collegial partnership model so common in the higher echelons of Canada’s provincial and territorial school systems.

The Alberta Teacher Summit is particularly focused on promoting the so-called “learning partnership” between “education ministers and teacher’s union leaders” and that is obvious from the media releases and invitation lists. While Mike Cooper of the Toronto-based Learning Partnership is on the planning team, the only visible partnerships with business are with the leading “learning corporations” like Pearson International and SMART Technologies who tend to underwrite most of the sessions promoting their systems, products, and curricula.

The Great Powers will be represented by Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education, and Hao Ping, Vice Minister of Education, Peoples’ Republic of China, although much of the agenda runs counter to their current ‘higher standards’ educational reform priorities.

Judging from the laudatory treatment of Finland in the ISTP 2015 policy brief, Krista Kiuru, Minister of Education and Science, will be there to provide fresh evidence of the superiority of Finnish teachers and their extraordinary professionalism. Even though Finnish students have slipped on recent PISA tests, that system continues to be the “holy grail” for teachers opposed to regular student testing and school choice of any kind.

Anyone looking for specific policy measures to improve the quality of teaching will be disappointed with the official menu. The ISTP2015 brief and the results of TALIS 2013, the 2013 OECD study of teacher competencies and perspectives, which included 20 teachers in each of 200 schools in Canada, focuses on ways of strengthening teachers’ confidence levels and helping them to overcome “risk-aversion” to innovation.

After five consecutive years of Summitry, it is high time to get into the real nitty-gritty and build actual classroom teachers into the process. From the outside looking in, the Summit resembles a gathering of education ministers and system insiders who purport to know what’s best for teachers as well as students in today’s classrooms. In other words, a high altitude “risk-free” summit.

Two fundamental questions arise: Whatever happened to all the recent independent research calling for major reforms to teacher education, professional standards, and classroom accountability? And most importantly, where are the exemplary classroom teachers on that star-studded international guest list?

Safe School initiatives and “No Tolerance” policies have been around since the mid-1990s, but school boards and provincial education authorities across Canada are now collecting and beginning to publicly report on acts of school violence.  It’s also headline news because of startling figures, inaccurate reports, and hair-raising tales of violence against teachers.

SchoolViolencePhotoNova Scotia Teacher’s Union president Shelley Morse topped them all in February 16, 2015 in a CBCNews Nova Scotia report. “I’ve been kicked, punched, bitten. Had chairs and desks and rocks thrown at me, ” she said. “I’ve had students spit on me. Have been verbally abusive to me. They have destroyed my office, because I’m a vice principal as well.” Teachers, Morse claimed, call the NSTU in fear of their students it gets so bad at times.

Cracking down on school violence is not new. It goes back to 1994, when American President Bill Clinton passed the Gun Free Schools Act banning guns from public schools and cracking down on school violence. After the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, the majority of U.S. schools adopted “No Tolerance” policies for violence, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, firearms, and weapons other than guns.  Since then, Canada’s provincial school systems have adopted their own versions of such policies aimed at combating bullying, managing youth violence, and controlling unwanted aggression.

Twelve years ago, when British Columbia Premier Christy Clark was Education Minister, a government task force called for province-wide policies for dealing with bullying, harassment and intimidation in schools, including annual reports from school boards on how they handled violent incidents. Since then, safe school policies in many urban schools in Ontario have featured security guards, electronic surveillance, student identification tags, discipline, and zero tolerance.

Implementing simple “No Tolerance” policies ran into unexpected difficulties. In 2000, the Ontario Ministry of Education passed the Safe Schools Act, which set out a list of offences that could trigger expulsion, suspension, and other disciplinary responses. Interestingly, it did not define safety. In a parallel move, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) adopted The Equity Foundation Statement in 1999 – a comprehensive commitment to equity and a rally against racism, homophobia, sexism, and oppression based on class. Those two initiatives have, in effect, exposed differences in students’ and teachers’ perceptions of safety and equity, and how they experience bulling and harassment on a day-to-day basis.

Public disclosure of violence and bullying is now far more common. In 2011, Ontario’s Ministry of Education responded  to public concerns by amending the Education Act and requiring the 73 school boards to report the numbers for incidents like weapon possession, serious assaults and sexual assaults in its schools With the passage of the Nova Scotia 2012 Respectful Schools Act, reporting acts of violence became mandatory in public schools.

The official figures for acts of violence in school can be alarming. Last year teachers, principals and school staff in Nova Scotia recorded 4,730 acts of physical violence in a provincial system with only 400 schools, 122,000 students and 9,300 teachers.  So shocking, in fact, that Minister of Education Karen Casey attempted to downplay the figures. “I think it’s misleading to suggest that 4,700 of those are truly violent acts,” she told CBC News. She thinks there’s a distinction to be made between students with emotional or mental difficulties acting out and students who are intentionally violent or aggressive.

Winnipeg public schools have their share of violence and bullying, directed against students and teachers. Over the past two years, CBC News revealed that 931 physical assaults took place, 797 attacks against students and 137 on staff. Affter learning that 15 per cent of the assualts were on teachers, Winnipeg School Division trustee Mike Babinsky replied, “Wow. That’s high.” The Manitoba Teachers Society claims that the numbers are even higher. “You are discouraged from reporting,” says MTS president Paul Olson, “for fear it’ll blight the reputation of the child or the student.”

The posted data from the Ontario school boards has generated much controversy. In 2011-2012, 2,659 violent incidents were reported from almost 5,000 different schools. In 2012-2013, 2,188 incidents are listed. Judging from the Nova Scotia disclosures, those figures look to be remarkably low.

The Ontario school boards were later found to be under-reporting or inaccurately reporting their incidents of violence. The Peel District School Board, appears to lead the pack with 641 total incidents in 2011-2012 and then again in 2012-2013 with 478. The largest board in the province, the Toronto District School Board reported only 177 incidents in the first year and 178 in the second year of tracking the incidents. York Region, which is around the same size as Peel, reported 30 incidents and 38 incidents. In all, 10 of Ontario’s 73 school boards reported no incidents in 2011-2012, and 11 reported no incidents in 2012-2013. Twenty boards reported less than 10 incidents in 2011-2012 and 22 boards report less than 10 incidents in 2012-2013.

After Stu Auty, founding president of the Canadian Safe Schools Network, raised concerns about the accuracy of the reporting, and the Ministry of Education eventually conceded that the numbers were problematic for comparative purposes. Trafficking drugs the Peel public schools, for example, was reported to the province as a violent incident, even though it lay outside the reporting guidelines. A quick look at the figures highlighted a number of other irregularities. In 2011-2012, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board reported 191 violent incidents. The next year, it reported zero.

Educational experts from Pedro Noguera (1995) and J.A. Baker (1998) to Stephen Jull (2000) tend to dispute claims made by school officials and teacher unions about the incidence of, and motivations behind, acts of school violence. Declining enrollments and recent crime statistics suggest that violent conduct and behaviour may not be as prevalent as reported, and that the student interactions are inseparably connected to the “learning climate” and rigidity of school discipline policies. Scare stories about student violence, experts claim, tell only part of the story and may reveal more about the level of coercion in schools and the effectiveness of school policy in promoting social and cultural acceptance and inclusion of those who are severely challenged or marginalized

A series of school disciplinary policy changes have been implemented over the past 20 years in an attempt to curb violence in schools and to stamp out bullying in hallways and playgrounds. Whatever happened to the Zero Tolerance and Safe Schools policy initiatives? Are acts of school violence and bullying escalating as much as is being reported? If one out of ten acts of violence are directed toward teachers, is that a worrisome trend? How reliable are the current school violence reports as a basis for framing school discipline policy?

School days lost to winter storms and other calamities is back on the public agenda, particularly in Atlantic Canada and the northeastern United States. It broke into the open only when the numbers of lost days were approaching two full weeks of school. After shrugging off the issue for years, a couple of Canadian Ministers of Education suddenly went into a panicky, reactive mode. All of a sudden, recovering “lost learning time” became a priority.

SchoolClosureLogoCCRSBA succession of severe snow and ice storms in late February 2015 finally spurred that intervention.  After New Brunswick’s Education Minister  Serge Rousselle  announced he was looking at adding “make-up” days, his Nova Scotia counterpart, Karen Casey, shocked everyone by sounding a public alarm bell.  In a media scrum, Casey drew what sounded like “a line in the ice” and openly mused about sending students and teachers to school on Saturdays and during March break to make up for lost days. It caused such a furor that Premier Stephen McNeil was forced to intervene, assuring worried parents that the province was not going to commandeer their upcoming holidays.

Since a Nova Scotia Snow Days report by Dr. Jim Gunn in November 2009, five years ago, many concerned parents and citizens were asking –what’s really changed? Aside from minor policy adjustments and clearer communications, very little had happened to address the fundamental issue – the erosion of learning time and its impact on both student engagement and achievement.

Compared to Nova Scotia and the neighbouring Maritime provinces, American state governments and school districts have done much better. Transforming School Snow Days into E-Learning Days opened the door to what are known as “Blizzard Bags.” With a storm approaching, teachers are prepared with class-based homework assignments, inserted in special bags, to ensure continuity in teaching and learning.

Last winter, one of the most severe ever, Nova Scotia school boards cancelled between 5 and 15 full days, the highest numbers since 2008-09. So far this season, the number of “lost days” totals from 5 in Halifax to 11 in Cape Breton, with a month of winter still ahead of us.

Connecting the dots leads to one inescapable conclusion: Students in Nova Scotia, as well as New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, would be doing better if they actually spent more time in school and were expected to complete work now being “written-off” in our public schools. Cancelling whole school days for real or threatened severe weather, then allowing between 12 and 16 days to be consumed by “Teacher Days” for professional activities was only compounding the student performance challenges.

No school system anywhere can be competitive when students are only in school for 165 to 175 of the scheduled 180 to 182 instructional days. Over the past five years, students outside of Halifax have actually missed 40 to 55 full days of school as a direct result of storm closures, double that of those in the HRSB, putting them at a real disadvantage compared to city kids.  The pattern was similar in both New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Raising such critical matters is no longer about finding fault, but rather about appealing for constructive policy changes to alleviate or minimize student learning loss in relation to other provinces and states. If “E-Learning Days” cannot be implemented because of the uneven state of Internet and home computer access, simply shrugging it off is no longer tenable.

The American ‘Snow-Belt’ states are way ahead of Maritimers in tackling the problem of repeated school day cancellations. Confronted with the problem, good old “Yankee ingenuity” sprouted up in Ohio, Minnesota and New Hampshire. Creative solutions are now appearing in the Greater Boston area, where school superintendents have stepped up to meet the challenge.

The state of Ohio was first out of the gate. Five school days a year were designated “Calamity Days” to accommodate storms, power outages, tornadoes, and local events, including fires, roof leaks, and boiler problems. Lost days, above 3 days, then later 5, were re-claimed by alternative means, including E-Days, replacing PD days or adding ‘make-up’ days at the end of term.

E-Learning Days emerged over the past five years as a popular alternative, employed in some 200 Ohio schools, mostly in rural and remote school districts. Given the choice between providing E-Learning activities during Snow Days and giving up PD or holiday time, teachers warmed to the concept and it was incorporated into the school’s curricular program.

The wintry blast of 2014 wreaked havoc in the state school system and ultimately claimed the Calamity Days model. When school day cancellations exceeded nine days, Ohio schools were unable to guarantee the mandated minimum of 180 days without pushing the school year into the final exam period. In September 2014, Ohio shifted from mandating school days to setting minimum annual hours of instruction, specifying 910 hours of instruction for K-6 and 1,001 hours for 7-12, and permitting more flexibility in implementing replacement days.

BlizzardBagsOhio’s Calamity Days were ahead of the curve and states like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine have taken different approaches. In the Greater Boston area, Burlington City Schools, are now leading the way – providing students with Blizzard Bags and the option of completing work online or in traditional fashion.

Building and developing an effective Snow Days Alternative program is not easy, but Burlington Public Schools are proving that it can be done. Assistant Superintendent Patrick M. Larkin was “underwhelmed” with Blizzard Bags from a cross-section of Ohio schools that were stuffed with worksheets and rather mundane homework assignments. Working with teachers, Larkin has ensured that Blizzard Bags are now being filled with more challenging assignments requiring independent thinking, collaboration, digital learning, peer feedback and teacher guidance.

Whether schools are open or not, student learning should not be suspended for days on end. Let’s at least bring back those homework pouches. Giving them a fancy name like “Blizzard Bag” might even help schools to get started on the task of weaning today’s kids off Netflix and video games

What’s standing in the way of re-claiming lost School Snow Days?  Should provincial and state education authorities establish a minimum number of days when students will actually be in the classroom?  If so, what type of  a school calendar and schedule would be best for conserving and protecting instructional time? Where have school districts actually succeeded in limiting the erosion of student learning time?

Smaller communities in Ontario are accustomed to receiving the Queen’s Park ‘shock treatment.’ It happened again on January 28, 2015 when Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals stated that $1 billion out of the $22.5 billion education budget could be saved by “closing about 600 half-empty schools.” A day later the Minister backtracked, saying that her primary concern was underutilized Toronto schools, not those in rural or remote communities.

SavingSchoolsParrySound The whole Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) process, as school closure exercises are now called, has been under fire in central Ontario ever since Toronto consultant Margaret Wilson released her September 2013 independent report rapping the knuckles of the Near North District School Board (NNDSB) for its “lack of public transparency” in the forced consolidation of three North Bay elementary schools.

A more recent provincial proposal to shorten the ARC process also aroused concerns for local school board trustees in North Bay and elsewhere. It proposed to give municipal governments a bigger role, suggesting “a shift away from consideration (of the) impact of school closures” on “community well-being and the local economy” toward “a more exclusive focus on student achievement.”

Veteran NNDSB trustee, Al Bottomley, sees the ARC reform proposal as a “dangerous” initiative. “It seems that the government wants to close schools at all cost,” he said. “Kids do better in small schools,” Bottomley added. “Putting them in one school is not going to benefit the kids. They’ll be so tired, they won’t be able to do anything. The buses might be going 15 to 20 or 30 kilometres more. That’s ridiculous. Student achievement is something they won’t get.”

The bigger question is whether closing small schools and moving students to regional education centres saves any education dollars at all. School planners continue to base closure recommendations on predicted “economies of scale.” Such claims are highly suspect, according to American researcher Barbara Kent Lawrence, if and when you factor-in the operating costs per square foot, the actual cost per graduate, the added cost of busing students, and the often inflated costs of new school construction.

School capital funding decisions can also leave smaller towns and villages out in the cold. In the case of Mattawa, a town of 2,100 near North Bay, North Bay Nipissing News Editor Rob Learn recently laid bare what can happen. In mid-December, he made public the contents of a Ministry of Education – NNDSB communications trail showing how between 2010 and 2013 that small town lost out on its promised school funding, not just now but into the future.

Without any public disclosure, and ignoring public pleas from Mattawa Mayor Dean Backer, a 2010 $1 million grant commitment earmarked for F.J. McElligott Secondary School was quietly diverted from the town and shifted to fund a North Bay school re-build to turn it from an intermediate school to a K to 6 facility.

The Mattawa school controversy brought into sharp relief what NNDSB Chair David Thompson recently conceded was a “shell game.” Capital grants for Mattawa were diverted to North Bay, then topped-up with unspent money from Full Day Kindergarten capital grants, allocating a total of $1.5 million to Silver Birches Elementary School which opened in September of 2014.

The nub of the whole matter is the spectre of school closures shifting even more students out of their home communities, down the highway to larger regional population centres. Proposed changes to the ARC school closure process will only worsen that problem.

SaveRuralSchoolSignSmall school advocates have countered Sandals and the education officials at Queen’s Park with a “community building” solution. Instead of closing the remaining rural and remote schools, the proposed plan is to transform underutilized schools into what Dr. David Clandfield terms “community hub schools.”

The Hub School model, now authorized in Nova Scotia regulations, opens the door to the potential for school and community revitalization. Under such a model, the adversarial, divisive closure processes become community planning exercises designed forge community partnerships and re-purpose the underutilized space without displacing the students and teachers.

Closing schools is a losing proposition for much of small town and rural Ontario. It’s time to explore a third option with better prospects. Stop the closures and consider more innovative solutions, starting with “hubification” and the sharing of school space.

Provincial and district education authorities must commit in a big way to school renovation rather than current ‘tear down’ and relocate approaches. Then let’s empower school boards to hire local business development officers to initiate community partnerships, tap into alternative funding sources, and rent out school space to local organizations from child care and seniors groups to social enterprises and performing arts organizations.

Rebuilding struggling communities with emptying schools sure beats tearing them down and “community hub schools” could well give them a new lease on life.  The fundamental question is: What’s standing in the way of proceeding with such community-based, “dollars & sense” alternatives to closing schools and abandoning smaller communities?

An earlier version of this Commentary produced for the Northern Policy Institute appeared in the Parry Sound North Star.

The Fraser Institute’s Centre for Improvement in Education is stirring it up again in the normally tranquil world of Canadian K-12 education. The latest report, Education Spending in Canada: What’s Actually Happening? , released in mid-February 2015, returns to one of the Vancouver think tank’s familiar themes. While the popular news media outlets in Canada’s provinces are quick to report on every “education cut” or proposed “cutback,” public spending in the sector continues to rise as predictably as sun in the morning.

EdSpendingGraphicThe newest report, produced by Deani Neven Van Pelt and Joel Emes, was delivered with a rather provocative media release and an eye-popping infographic. Seizing upon the most glaringly sensational statistic, the Fraser Institute graphic artists depict the rise in “nominal spending” from 2001-2 to 2011-12. Seeing that “public school spending” rose from $39.9 to $59.6 billion or 53.1% while enrollment dropped across all provinces by 6.2% is hardly news. Learning that per pupil spending over that decade also rose from $7,250 to $11,835 or 63.5 % is enough to raise your temperature.

The Fraser Institute, for the uninitiated, is to Canadian education what Greenpeace is to the environmental movement. Setting-off emergency flares is the West Coast think tank’s stock-and-trade.  Like most of their reports, it’s important to cut through the sheen of pure free market analysis to get at the real meat of the matter.  In this case, it’s the valuable work done in reconstructing the growth in spending per pupil, province-by-province, adjusted for inflation and enrollment. Those figures are less “sexy” but far more relevant for education observers and policy-makers. It is also what that national education ‘paper tiger’ CMEC, the Council of Ministers of Education, should be producing for public accountability purposes.

The overall growth in education spending in “nominal dollars” is hardly earth-shaking and it pales in comparison with rising costs in health care, not really properly acknowledged in the report. When compared with enrollment declines in every province except Alberta (up 5.4%), the provincial spending levels are worth noting. The reported Ontario spending level of $24.7 billion is staggering, especially when compared with 2001-2, when it was $15.2 billion, or about $9 billion less. It’s hard, however, to get worked up over PEI spending 51.3% more, bringing the total spending to a mere $236 million.

EdSpendingPerPupil2011Comparing provincial student enrollments with per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, produces some significant insights. Alberta’s student enrollment rose by 5.4%, and so did its K-12 education spending (up $1.5 billion or 37.0%). Declining enrollments from 2001-2011, hit a few provinces particularly hard without impacting much on their overall spending levels. Newfoundland and Labrador absorbed a 22% enrollment drop, and spending per pupil after inflation/enrollment adjustment declined by 3.1 %. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, like two peas in a Maritime pod, spent 3.4% and 3.6% more to educate 18.2% and 16.5% fewer students. Without the absorption of Kindergarten into the public system, PEI would likely have demonstrated a similar pattern.

The Fraser Institute’s most potentially valuable findings are the estimates for provincial overspending on K-12 education in so-called “government schools.” Overall, Canada’s provincial enrollments declined from 5.36 million to 5.o3 million students, but spending still rose 15% after adjusting for inflation and enrollment.  All together, they also spent some $15 billion more than if they had contained costs to the adjusted levels, allowing for inflation and enrollment. In the case of Ontario, enrollment dropped by 5.5%, but the Ministry of Education spent 15.8% ($2.4 billion) more ( in real terms) to educate 120,000 fewer students.  The Ontario overspending figure is double the total cost of educating Nova Scotia’s 125,500 students.

British Columbia teachers will be intrigued by the Fraser Institute study’s findings.  Comparing the new figures with the BCTF’s “Fair Deal” graphs shows how data can be manipulated to prove almost anything in education.  The new Statistics Canada figures for 2011-12 tend to show that the BC government has taken a “tougher line” and made gains in closing the gap between declining enrollment and spending levels. While BC student numbers plummeted 11% from 622,800 to 550,700, spending was contained to a 19.3% increase (or a 5.4% increase after inflation and enrollment adjustment). Salary and wage restraints affecting teachers explain how BC was able to break the cycle of escalating education costs so evident in Alberta and Ontario.

What the Fraser Institute study does not do is answer the big question – why do education expenditures (nominal, per pupil, and adjusted) continue to rise while enrollments decline? It is possible, however, based upon provincial research studies, to isolate three of the leading cost increase components.

First and foremost, salary and wage settlements for teachers and support staff, representing at least 75% of all recurrent education expenses and guaranteeing step increments to teachers in their first 10-12 years of service.  Second, provincial class size policies, particularly class enrollment caps, which — if poorly administered — result in overall much lower PTRs and smaller classes over time.  And finally, the growth of Special Education expenditures (once 15% of the budget, now as much as 20%) driven by the “student supports” philosophy and the trend to providing EAs in many more regular classes.

The key K-12 education cost inflators are much easier to identify than to analyze and assess, especially in the absence of a national education accountability office charged with such a public responsibility. Nor is there much definitive evidence that any of these relatively costly policy measures correlate positively with improvements in student engagement and achievement or preparedness for a productive, fulfilling life.

Why do Education Spending levels continue to rise in the face of overall declines in student enrollment? How credible are the Fraser Institute findings that compare “nominal spending”, province by province, over a ten year period? What is the real utility of the comparative figures for spending per pupil adjusted for inflation and enrollment?  To what extent are the main spending escalators “fixed costs” and, if so, is it possible to develop a spending model more closely aligned with improvements in student engagement and performance?

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