A funny thing happened on the way to Round Two of the ugly brawl between the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) and the provincial Department of Education: Somebody blinked.
Well, perhaps there was blinking on all sides. I suspect neither Premier Stephen McNeil nor NSTU president Liette Doucet were particularly enamoured with re-mounting their ideological steeds and charging into the amphitheatre of public opinion to wage battle in front of a bloodthirsty crowd for the second consecutive winter.
It’s arguable that Zach Churchill, who assumed the Education and Early Childhood Development portfolio from embattled predecessor Karen Casey following last spring’s re-election of the Liberals, had more gas in his tank and was ready to take on the challenge of implementing the grand majority – or even the entirety – of the recommendations proposed by Avis Glaze in her independent report “Raising The Bar.”
Even on the off chance that Churchill relished this responsibility – and even saw it as a litmus test for a future Liberal leadership run – I can’t imagine McNeil, Doucet, and even their legions of supporters were willing to put themselves, their schools, their teachers or their students through all of this again.
And so, late last week, the ringmasters of this lengthy political circus shocked their audience by raising the curtain on an unexpected compromise.
To recap: English-language school boards are still toast at the end of the month. Principals and vice-principals will still be asked to leave the NSTU but can join a new organization which will have an “affiliation” with the NSTU. The province’s proposed self-regulated College of Educators is out the window, and the education department will instead work with the NSTU to develop new teaching and leadership standards.
The detail that arguably affects you and your children the most, at least in the short-term: No teachers’ strike. Doucet told a press conference held at NSTU headquarters last week that, while the union executive still won’t support the revised Education Reform Act, it’s willing to work with the province on areas of shared concern and won’t proceed with the illegal job action supported by 82 per cent of NSTU members who voted on the issue in February.
I’m writing this column the morning after this rather stunning turn of events. My social media feeds, typically boiling over with angry support-the-teachers and/or overthrow-the-Liberals rhetoric, are surprisingly quiet. It’s almost as if those who were spoiling for the fight of their lives are so shocked by the idea of a compromise that they have no earthly idea what to do now.
From where I sit, it looks like there’s credit (or blame, depending on your viewpoint or your political affiliation) to go around on all sides. But I can’t help but wonder if the Liberals deliberately overplayed their hand in the early aftermath of the Glaze report in anticipation that there were some items they were willing to forego to achieve their singular goal of removing what McNeil and his inner circle saw as another costly layer of government bureaucracy.
In a bizarre coincidence, I need look no further than the early years of the soon-to-be-disbanded Strait regional school board (SRSB) for another example of this strategy.
Only four months after the board took shape in the early days of 1996, it released a wide-ranging document proposing closure of several schools and amalgamation of a handful of others within its four-county coverage area. Titled “The Future Is Now,” the controversial strategy resulted in a firestorm of criticism, particularly for such concepts as the replacement of high schools in Guysborough and Canso with a new building in Queensport, and the diversion of Grades 9-12 students attending Monastery’s former Antigonish East High School to Port Hawkesbury and Antigonish.
The following year, after several months’ worth of community protests, legal challenges and torch-and-pitchfork public meetings, board members approved a revised version of “The Future Is Now,” which scrapped the original plans for eastern Guysborough County and the Monastery area. I was among the cynics who wondered whether the board had introduced a code-red, ultimate-disaster scenario in its original planning document to make the resulting changes more palatable to a wider majority of Strait area residents.
Today, as a surprised Nova Scotia population picks up the tattered pieces from the biggest game of political chicken to never actually happen, I’m wondering if that was the provincial government’s strategy all along.
At any rate, it’s not particularly appropriate to try to pick winners and losers here. Ultimately, I’m hoping the DEECD and the NSTU can build on this surprising – and downright refreshing – compromise, and turn their focus squarely on the real issues facing our classrooms, students and teachers every day.