Education minister defends reforms

HALIFAX: Education Minister Zach Churchill has been meeting with school administrators, teachers, and parents throughout the province to discuss the government’s upcoming changes to Nova Scotia’s education system.

On February 7, the minister stopped in the Strait area to speak with school advisory council representatives about the reforms and gather feedback.

“These have been very frank, tough conversations thus far. I’ve experienced a lot of excitement for the changes and obviously some reservations about what the changes might mean,” Churchill told The Reporter prior to Wednesday’s meeting.

The reforms come out of a recent report by education consultant Dr. Avis Glaze, and have drawn criticism from many groups, including the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union (NSTU).

“This report will bring division to our schools. It will create a shortage of teachers in rural communities. It will create more unnecessary bureaucracy, and it will bring turmoil to the entire system,” said NSTU president Liette Doucet in a February 15 media release.

In response to the concern that increased teacher mobility across the province could lead to shortages in some communities, Churchill said safeguards would be put in place.

“We don’t know that it will be a large problem at this point, but of course there would have to be protections built in to protect our communities from that,” said Churchill.

One contentious issue has been the government’s plan to dissolve the province’s elected English school boards. In January, Strait regional school board (SRSB) Chair Jamie Sampson voiced his concern that the move will jeopardize the local voice of communities in the education system.

“I think part of the report is enhancing that local voice through school advisory councils, connecting those councils through broader networks, giving them dollars that they can actually spend in their school communities or family of schools,” said Churchill.

Churchill said the new structure will allow teachers to choose classroom materials, and will give more authority to school administrators. He said the government is developing a plan to organize the network of school advisory councils on a provincial level.

“We’re going to work with our regional offices which will still be in place and we’re looking at having permanent resources in place to actually assist with this network,” said Churchill.

Churchill said many of the changes, such as the establishment of a provincial College of Teachers, are intended to put more control in the hands of teachers. The independent body will regulate, license, govern, and discipline teachers in the province.

“We want all of our teachers to succeed, and we think that no one has a greater stake in upholding the integrity of the profession than teachers themselves,” said Churchill.

The government’s plan to remove principals and vice-principals from the NSTU has also drawn criticism from union officials, who say the move will create division in schools.

However, Churchill said the intention is to give administrators autonomy.

“Not to say that every principal is in agreement with this, but we’ve heard from them that they have felt that there have been times when they are in conflict,” said Churchill. “This was experienced directly during the work-to-rule situation last year when they were getting directives from the union that they had to comply with, that they believed jeopardized their ability to fulfill their responsibilities to kids and to the Education Act.”

Last Thursday, after speaking with school leaders, the minister announced that school administrators will have one year to decide whether they want to remain in their current role, or return to the classroom and remain in the NSTU. After speaking with the minister last Friday, Doucet released a statement that although it is positive that the minister is keeping lines of communication open, the union’s opposition to the reforms has not changed.

The NSTU plans to hold a strike vote on February 20 unless the government backs down from the changes. As of press time Tuesday morning, the results of the vote were unavailable.

While Churchill maintained that any job action by teachers would be illegal, he did not want to speculate further.

“What I can say is that at the end of the day, while we might disagree on government direction, we all have an obligation to our kids to do our very best for them and I don’t believe that disruption the education of our kids is in their best interest,” said Churchill

Churchill added that all of the changes are designed to benefit Nova Scotian students.

“At their heart, these changes are about unifying our system to better meet the needs of our kids, they’re about empowering our front lines, our teachers and principals, to give them more decision-making ability, and they’re about putting more resources into the classroom so that our kids can get the supports they need,” he added.