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Posts Tagged ‘CBCNews Nova Scotia’

Effective school councils, at their best, truly engage parents and give them a meaningful voice in shaping school-level policy affecting students. Far too many of them devolve into ‘window dressing’ and instead expose the limits of parent involvement. When schools shut down in March 2020, local parent consultation committees were rendered almost invisible and sidelined in many school districts. Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time to take stock of that impact with a provincial case study of the current state of local school-level parent engagement.

A recent CBC News Nova Scotia investigation by Brittany Wentzell provided penetrating insights into the state of School Advisory Councils (SACs) in Nova Scotia, a middling Canadian province often seen as typifying the national mean. If Nova Scotia is at all representative, the grassroots level of the P-12 education system has been reduced to either empty shells or gone missing during the pandemic. That unsettling CBC News investigation also suggests it’s time to look seriously at proposed governance reforms and sound, implementable policy alternatives to rectify the problem.


Functioning SACs are actually getting harder and harder to find in Nova Scotia. Out of 333 N. S. school websites examined by Wentzell between November 19 and 23, 2020, only one-out-of-four had posted online any recent meeting agendas, minutes, or meeting dates. A majority of school websites had blank or outdated sections on school councils.


Public and parent inquiries are routed to school principals. School administrators jealously guard the identities of SAC members, citing privacy concerns. It’s become next-to-impossible to find out who’s on your local SAC, let alone bring any local concerns forward. The same critical flaws exist at the provincial level with the nearly invisible Provincial Advisory Council on Education (PACE).


The promise of “enhanced school councils,” first articulated in Dr. Avis Glaze’s January 2018 report, Raise the Bar, has not materialized in any way, shape or form. If anything, school advisory councils are weaker and less effective now than before the province’s elected school boards were eliminated nearly three years ago. Vocal critics of the abolition of Nova Scotia’s elected English school boards three years ago were so absorbed in trying to save the existing system, that most failed to recognize a bigger threat to local democratic voice, the potential for even further weakening of local educational participation and input into decision-making.


School advisory councils first arose in the 1980s in response to two main public pressures: rising concerns about the responsiveness of larger and more complex school district bureaucracies and growing community demands for greater parental involvement in schools. The first Canadian school councils were established under a 1989 B.C. School Act reform which directed that province’s 75 school districts to form a parents’ advisory council in each school to advise “the local board of school trustees, the principal, and staff, on any matter relating to the school.” Most provincial school council initiatives, including that of Nova Scotia, originated between 1992 and 1995. Encouraging local school-level administration to consult with parents did not work, so, province-after-province, from Alberta to Nova Scotia, made school councils mandatory in every school.

The Nova Scotia model was an outgrowth of the proposed structural reforms initiated by Dr. John Savage’s Liberal government in the mid-1990s. Initial plans to decentralize educational decision-making with school-based management (SBM) and governance were abandoned. While the N.S. SBM pilot projects were judged a success, school-level administrators were cool to assuming expanded responsibilities with more accountability to local parents.

School governing councils were effectively neutered. With the exception of Quebec, such bodies across Canada were all consigned to an “advisory role” so as to contain and limit their influence on the shaping of school, board or provincial policy or practice.


School Advisory Councils in Nova Scotia remained almost unchanged from 1996 onwards. Although they were supposed to be mandatory, not every school had one and many were competing for parent loyalties with the longer-established holdover school branches of the N.S. Home and School Association. Like their Ontario counterparts, many SAC’s got into school fundraising and strayed from an explicit policy advisory role.


School boards consolidated and retrenched, and superintendents gradually expanded their authority over not only elected boards, but the whole P-12 school system. In the 2014 report, Disrupting the Status Quo, the Myra Freeman commission found half of Nova Scotians dissatisfied with school system performance and saw the potential for improved governance with “less duplication of services” and “more openness” to working across boundaries inside and outside the system. The Nova Scotia School Boards Association (NSSBA) and its member boards operated in a peculiar educational bubble. When the decision to dissolve all seven English school boards was announced, it hit the leading members of NSSBA and most regional board chairs like a bolt out of the blue.

The Stephen McNeil government, acting upon Glaze’s 2018 report, abolished the English boards and promised a “more coherent and responsive” school system with “enhanced school councils.” Three public accountability initiatives proposed by Glaze were shelved: an independent student assessment agency; a self-governing college of educators; and an education ombudsperson for students and parents.


Education Minister Zach Churchill brushed aside my March 2018 AIMS report, Re-Engineering Education, calling for “enhanced school councils” with a three-year development plan to establish effective and more meaningful a new model of school-community-based education governance. A comparison chart of school-level governance models was provided utilizing World Bank decentralized governance research which identified some 28 specific powers that could be delegated to establish newly-constituted “self-governing schools.”


Instead of enhancing school advisory councils, Churchill and his Education Department have actually weakened the grassroots education bodies. Eleven of the twenty-eight possible roles/responsibilities were enshrined in the 2017 Guide for School Advisory Councils, and the latest iteration, issued in 2019, actually removes some of the previous roles and responsibilities.


The new N.S. SAC guide provides a mandate that is much fuzzier and far more limited in its scope. Completely missing under the new mandate are: advise on the criteria for principal selection, school discipline, and needed school repairs; monitor and report on class sizes; review the annual School Calendar and the annual School Improvement Plan; serve on School Review (School Options) and Site Selection committees; and provide feedback on the School Annual Report to the community.


The cure for Nova Scotia’s democratic and accountability deficit is actually worse than the original disease diagnosed by Dr. Glaze– inflexible, muddled-up, increasingly distant, and unresponsive elected regional boards. It’s hard to see how enfeebling school councils serves the interests of local parents, teachers, employers, or the engaged public. Whether Nova Scotia is indicative of trends province-to-province is a matter requiring further study and investigation. What the case study does reveal is that allowing school councils to atrophy only brings us one step closer to ‘accountability-free’ education.

What impact has the great COVID-19 pandemic disruption had on local school-level democratic governance? How representative is the situation in Nova Scotia? Why did public engagement with parents fall by the wayside during the first phase of the pandemic? Would schools have been better prepared to weather the pandemic if they had stronger school-teacher-parent relations? Is the time ripe for establishing school-based governance and management?

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