Nova Scotia, like most Canadian provinces, is grappling with a looming financial crisis and public education is facing a serious crunch. And when the NDP government of Darrell Dexter recently announced its upcoming round of Budget Consultations, the leaders of the province’s main education lobby groups were first off the mark. On January 21,2010, the voices of education officialdom issued a “pre-emptive strike” with a fancy website and a catchy slogan “Save Grade 2.” Sifting through the rhetoric and posturing, the educators were really asking for the province to increase edu-spending by 3.6 % or some $36 million.
What’s the crisis all about? The Nova Scotia government has identified the essential problem – the province is “spending far more than it is taking in” when it comes to revenues. The provincial debt is astronomical and annual deficits are projected to rise from $525 million in 2009 to $1.4 billion in 2012-13. If nothing is done, Health expenditures will continue to consume half the provincial budget and education spending will rise from $1.4 billion to $2 billion dollars per year. More alarming, debt servicing now consumes more than Nova Scotia spends on Community Services. With the province’s population aging, it is also forecast that the school-age population will decline (by 11.5 %) from some 130,000 students to 114,500 by 2014-15.
What’s the threat? The education lobby groups now claim that the public system will soon be presented with “impossible choices.” If funding for education decreases, they fear that cruel “cuts” will have to be made, such as releasing 800 teachers, cutting literacy improvement, reducing education assistants/bus drivers, trimming the textbook budget, closing additional schools, chopping special programs, or increasing class sizes. How “Saving Grade 2” relates to all this is unclear, but presumably the total projected reductions total the cost of operating that program. ( See http://www.savegrade2.com)
The initial questions were: What are the real choices facing the Nova Scotia government in the field of education? What’s your response to the “Save Grade 2” initiative? Is Grade 2 really at risk or is it an example of political gamesmanship? Does anyone in Nova Scotia really believe that the NDP government poses a threat to public education?
Flash forward nine moths to October 2010. Darryl Dexter’s NDP government seizes the initiative, claiming that reductions are imperative because the provincial school system was losing 3,000 students a year. Without warning, school boards in Nova Scotia are told to prepare for budget cuts that could total $196 million over three years. In full panic mode, the Nova Scotia School Boards Association claims that the province’s cuts amount to 22% and threaten to “devastate” the whole system.
Going into the second round, new and more fundamental questions arise cutting to the root of the problem. What is really accomplished by simply adjusting grant levels and postponing structural changes? Has the time come to depart from the grant-driven cycle? Without downsizing, can Nova Scotia deliver education at an affordable cost to taxpayers? And should the province be looking at innovative options, such as e-learning and distance education?