HALIFAX, FRIDAY, MAY 6, 2005
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE HOUSE ON SUPPLY
Mr. James DeWolfe
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. RONALD RUSSELL: Mr. Chairman, we will now resume the estimates of the Department of Education.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Education.
HON. JAMES MUIR: Mr. Chairman, just in advance of the questioning, there were some questions that were asked the other day that I had taken under advisement. One involved the amount of money in 2004 under Markers Fees in the Supplement to the Public Accounts, $211,742, and in the previous year they were $105,000. The major explanation for that is that last year they were counted in a different way. This came from the member for Timberlea-Prospect. What it basically is is that the markers go wherever they go to mark and substitute teachers are required. These are basically substitute teachers' fees, although in a few cases there are actually fees being paid to those who are marking, mainly substitute teacher costs. I'll table that.
The second one was how many substitute teachers do we have listed in the province, and if it's possible to give that information on a board-by-board basis. This came from the member for Cape Breton West. The answer to that, Mr. Chairman, is this is on the list. Now I have to clarify, this is the list of substitute teachers, which shows Cape Breton-Victoria with 420 on their list; the Strait board, 249; Chignecto-Central, 594; Halifax, 1,217; Annapolis Valley, 446; South Shore, 193; Tri-County, 150; CSAP, 149 for a total of 3,418.
However, in the interpretation of these lists, as honourable members would know, some names would appear on a list in more than one board, and the other thing is that in many cases principals have the names of substitutes in the school who don't appear on the list because the person who is willing to do the substituting is willing to do it in only one school; therefore, they don't wish to be called for any others. So this is the list; however, the usefulness of this list is somewhat limited.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Kings West.
MR. LEO GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, I'm certainly pleased today to have an opportunity to ask a few questions to the Minister of Education. This time last year, I think we were into about day four of my questioning, but I do have just a few this particular year. There's $53 million more in the budget for education. Certainly, this has been given all the billing of being an education budget. I am not sure how much of that $53 million is actually going to truly filter down to the classroom.
I would like the minister to give some indication of how much of that $53 million will actually be there for additional teachers in the system, educational assistants, resources, special ed, that particular area? Certainly my calculations indicate a very large percentage of that will go towards contracts signed for support staff, a new contract coming up for teachers that will go eight months into this fiscal year, and I'm just wondering what real dollars will be seen in the schools, in the classrooms of Nova Scotia come this next school year, 2005-06?
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, the honourable member has raised a good question. As he would know, certainly from his background, it is occasionally difficult to give a precise number, but I can tell the honourable member that there is an additional $21.4 million as a result of the new initiatives in Learning for Life. That is new money.
MR. GLAVINE: An article put in a regional magazine in the Valley by Agar Adamson, a former political science teacher at Acadia, now retired, called Falling Through Cracks in Schools, says: Section 7 of the Charter states everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of their person, and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. If an individual is being denied by the State the special education they require, are they not being denied their future security? Is this fundamental justice?
Now we know that there are many children with learning disabilities in our system who are certainly not having their needs addressed. I certainly compliment the minister and the department on bringing in the tuition agreements. In fact, I recently visited a home in my riding where a child will be able to at least start the process of having sufficient money to go
to Landmark East, a school where the tuition is $25,000. So the $5,800 comes with great gratitude to that family, a very low-income family with a child with dyslexia who needs to get to Landmark East. So the community is trying to raise about $20,000 to get that child to Landmark East.
We know that there are many other children across the province with one type of learning disability or another and our schools no longer work to take them from a to b. I have the highest regard for our resource departments and teachers who work in resource, but many of them are not special ed teachers. I'd like to hear the minister give a little bit of a vision statement, a vision piece of how we can restore true special education to the school system of Nova Scotia. I see that as one of our biggest challenges in the decades ahead. Take, for example, in Cape Breton, they have no schools like Churchill Academy or Bridgeway Academy or Landmark East, and we know that there are many children who are not getting the kind of special education that they truly do require.
We know that if we can insert that kind of special education in the early years, and as a teacher I saw children who exited the public school system for a couple of years, and that's why I supported the tuition agreement, take them out for a year, two years, whatever is required. In fact, I recently had a call from a student who left West Kings in Grade 8, came back for his high school, and today is a lieutenant in the Canadian Navy. Now, if he hadn't received the special education to overcome his dyslexia, I truly wonder where he would be. We have many children who fall through the cracks, Mr. Minister, and I'm just wondering, what kind of a vision piece do you see in restoring special ed to our schools?
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, the honourable member has raised a topic. Now, I might not agree with some of the language that he has used, because he is using the term "restoring" special education to the schools. I can tell you that right now the amount of money and the amount of resource that is invested in special education in the public schools in Nova Scotia has never been greater. I think the honourable member will recognize that.
The old system that we had in schools, and the honourable member has been around education long enough to have probably participated in that debate about whether there should be integration or segregation or all of these things. The way that the school system operates today sees students stay in the regular classroom for as long as they can and would receive special assistance either within the classroom or would be pulled out to receive it.
One of the broader questions with this thing is one that came up the other day from the Liberal caucus, it had to do with the school-entering age. There are a number of people in here, the honourable member for Timberlea-Prospect and others, who would know that if a child does not get off to a particularly good start in school, then it's very difficult to catch up. Thus, when one gets into the debate about what is the most appropriate time for a child to enter school, where clearly the most appropriate time for a child to enter school is when they're ready to go to school. But that isn't the way it works.
We now say the most appropriate time is when they are five years old, and in our case they have to be five years old by September 30th. The proposal is that they would have to be five years old by the end of December. That's the way it works. Now whether that is the most appropriate way or we should be getting into a screening process for school entry is a debate which has gone on for years and years, and I really don't think I'm going to be able to resolve that debate on the floor during this estimate process.
But what I'm trying to point out is that the discussion over what is the best type of resource to help students who need special help has been going on for some time. Certainly if one takes a look at the principles articulated to guide our new plan for education, one of these is to have success for all students. That's something we all want. What this meant, primarily, is that the special education services belong to the school boards, but there has been considerably more money flowed through to the school boards for the hiring of specialist personnel.
Indeed this year, as recommended in the Special Education Implementation Review Committee report, which was in 2001, they're looking for more resource teachers, speech language pathologists and school psychologists. In the first two years, following the release of that report, an additional $2 million was provided to school systems, and an additional $1.2 million will be added as part of that plan in 2005-06.
Another component of the special education, the extra support for education - special education, I'm sometimes a little queasy about that term, because the honourable member talked about people who are dyslexic and he gave a very good example of somebody who was able to overcome that. Indeed, as some of you may know, we have a colleague in this caucus who was diagnosed as being dyslexic and has certainly worked beyond that. Another one whom I know who used to go around the province, actually worked in the Premier's Office in a former administration, was diagnosed as being dyslexic. He rose to be the president of the student council at St. Francis Xavier University. I had the privilege of actually being a member of the committee that saw him speak at workshops about what could be done.
So a lot of it depends. There's no question, the parental support is very important, the inclination of an individual to work beyond, recognizing that there is a difficulty and being willing to work at it, and of course the ability of the school system to put resources in place that will help these students who need special help. For example, the Reading Recovery program is now available to all students across the province. That is a program, and with its track record, there's no question of its ability to help.
Mr. Chairman, I can remember back some number of years ago, when I was associated with an institute called the Atlantic Institute of Education - it was the Atlantic Institute of Education that really started the post-secondary field of special education in this province. There was a program there called Precision Teaching. That Precision Teaching
program - and actually there are still a couple of people in the Halifax school system who would have participated in that program - had tremendous power. I see one person in the Opposition nodding their head, who knows a little bit about that.
For students who were struggling, that program could literally move them about three, three and a half grades a year ahead in their reading, tremendous power, and also in mathematics. The problem with it was it was behaviourally based, and behaviourally-based things were really not in vogue at that time. It was really a lot of repetition, very precise objectives, and the students moved towards that. It's not something that's out there and widely used now, because the prevailing philosophy was that making people go through this process was not the best way to teach young people. Now, it worked. Unfortunately, as somebody said, well, you shouldn't be doing all of these rote and behavioural things, because that's not the way the world works. But it worked for those students.
What I'm saying is there's really no straight answer to that. What we are trying to do is put in place enough financial resources so the school boards can provide those needs for the students. We are also providing leadership at the department to work with school boards, the personnel and special education personnel and the classroom teachers to make resources and strategies available to them so they can use them with their students.
Of course the honourable member has acknowledged the Tuition Support Program that is available this year, and while I mention that, Mr. Chairman, and perhaps with the honourable member's agreement, your colleague asked about the Tuition Support Program the other day and I do have that information. I'll give it now. The honourable member for Halifax Clayton Park had asked how many people actually applied and were given the tuition support this year, the total budget that had been allocated for that, and if the whole budget had been absorbed or used.
In answer to the question, the number of students approved for tuition support in the expenditure for 2004-05, the number of applicants was 108. There were 77 approved, there were 19 people who requested appeals. Up to this point, there were five appeals approved, and number pending is one. To date, the number of students being funded through the Tuition Support Program is 81, that was 76 initially and then five through the appeal process. The expenditure on tuition support through March 31, 2005 was $249,000 and change. The amount budgeted was $200,000, so we were about 20 to 25 per cent over budget. The other question that was associated with that was, what was the per diem for the appeal board, and the per diem rate is $350 per appeal.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, I'm certainly very pleased to hear that kind of information regarding the tuition agreements. It's one that I spoke with the deputy minister about and certainly advocated very strongly. I do commend the minister and the government
for the initiation of that program. I know its value to complement and work with the school system is going to be a very strong mechanism for dealing with our most severely learning disabled students.
However, I would still like perhaps one more little try at this area. I know in the teacher programs now of our three colleges around Nova Scotia, there really is not the training of special education teachers per se. They may take a course, a half-credit or a credit in special education. I'm still wondering whether or not it would in fact be a very strong investment to have at least more special ed teachers available in our schools on a full-time basis, who could deal with some of the more serious learning disabilities. I'm talking about ones where we can implement a plan, a program to take students through those difficulties to help them become greater self-learners.
I'm very interested in this area. I know not very many of the recommendations of the SEIRC Report have been implemented, and I just want to know a little bit more about the direction of special education.
MR. MUIR: Let me just begin to answer that question by talking about the SEIRC Report. I want to inform the honourable member that there were 34 recommendations that came from that SEIRC Report. We are acting on all 34 of them. The major recommendation of the SEIRC Report, you can boil it down any way you want, they wanted a massive infusion of money, and we are working our way towards that. Take away everything else, and they said, if you give us multitudes of money, then we'll solve the problem.
However, we give school boards targeted funding of about $48 million for special education, and of course if the student really falls into an exclusive special education category, then clearly the other money which would flow on a per student basis then counts for special education, too. In addition there are other services that are provided, they share other services so the actual money would be greater. Of course through the Learning for Life, there was an additional investment of $2.5 million this past year, as I mentioned earlier, to increase professional support services. That's the resource teachers.
You talked about teacher training. I mentioned the Atlantic Institute of Education. I see the honourable member for Dartmouth South remembers that institution. I believe that was the first time I met you, there. Yes, probably it was, back there. (Interruptions) That's for the special education, it went from there and it went to Acadia University. At the same time, the need for teachers to be better prepared in special education - I guess when I did my teacher education, we didn't have courses called that. In recent years, every pre-service teacher who was studying had to take courses in special education. Probably the leading institution in Atlantic Canada was Memorial University in Newfoundland. They had a very well-established and very able group of special educators over there.
Mount Saint Vincent, of course, does the master's in reading and the master's in school psychology. The master's in reading, to be quite frank - I suppose if you were to characterize it, the intent really, would be to help students who have difficulty reading. You're the reading specialist, when a student has some difficulty reading. The Mount has those programs.
St. Francis Xavier University has the regular special education courses, and I believe students are required, mandatorily, if they're in a 10-credit program - we call it 10 credits, I don't know what they call it now - they would probably have to have two. I know when the Nova Scotia Teachers College operated, the Teachers College concentrated on elementary and junior high students, as well as it provided the technical education programs. Clearly, a major focus of that elementary and primary programming was on teaching young people to read and write, and therefore the emphasis on special education strategies or alternative strategies for teaching young people was very pronounced. Unfortunately in a fit of poor judgment, there was a government that decided to shut that institution down.
The other thing that I will tell the honourable member is that we have committed this year, and you're hearing of it first here this morning, $50,000 to review the teacher education programs in Nova Scotia, licensing things, and clearly that will be one of the items that we'll be looking at.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, I'd like to thank the minister for that further elaboration on the special education situation. One of the things that I have heard in the post-budget period, and especially with the infusion of money that has been given the system, and realizing, of course, and putting in perspective the fact that we know of declining enrolment, we get out the statistical profile of the last five years, and we know that probably the total number enrolled in the schools will be down by about 2,500 to 3,000 students next September. I think the projection is somewhere along that line.
However, I am very distressed to hear, and I have heard from two boards, of course the board that I used to teach in and the South Shore, and I actually haven't asked the Education Critic whether or not she has heard from any boards, but I know that the two I have spoken with will have teacher cutbacks next year. I find that very distressing, that when we have high school classes in AVRSB, on the South Shore, that have over 35 students, to hear that we're actually cutting back in that area. I know we can say it may be a decision of the school board, but I'm sure it has something to do with targeted funding. I would like for the minister to comment on that situation.
MR. MUIR: The honourable member does raise another very good point. I want to perhaps begin my answer to this question by saying that despite the fact that there has been a very big decline in student enrolment right across our province, and indeed I believe I heard the member for Cape Breton Centre say they are expecting to lose another 4,000 up in the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board in very short order. I know that Kings is
experiencing an enrolment decline, indeed every board is experiencing enrolment decline, including the CSAP. Not much there, obviously, because people are picking that one up.
However, the reason I mention that, and this has been going on for some years, but the amount of money in the Education budget for public schools has been going up every year. So, technically, if we were tying the Education budget to the number of students rather than seeing the amount of money go up, we should see the amount of money go down, and it hasn't.
However, having said that, the position of the department is that we should not be paying for teachers who are not teaching. Thus, when a school board loses population, the number of teachers who are funded are reduced, and it had been on the basis that for every 25 students, effectively a board would lose one teaching position. The reason for that was, and also looking at when teachers retired, and you have to bring in the teacher who retired - the average teaching salary in Nova Scotia is around $55,000 (Interruptions) That's right, you left too soon. (Interruptions) A lot of people say that.
Mr. Chairman, when a new teacher replaces a retiring teacher, then there is also a significant salary gap. It's roughly around $15,000, so there is some adjustment made for retirements, too. Anyway, the average pupil/teacher ratio in the province is about 16.4 to 1. Before, as the honourable member for Kings West, mentioned, the adjustment from the department, in terms of the money per student, was adjusted on the basis of 25 to 1. This year the adjustment will be on the basis of 38 to 1. By the way, when I went around the province and met with all the school boards, this was something that they all mentioned. I had given them my assurance that during the budget process, I would do what I could to increase that ratio, and we did that. So we actually increased it by a little bit more than 50 per cent, which I thought was a good thing. To be quite frank, if that federal government had gotten its budget passed, it would have been even better than that. So if you want to go beat on your federal colleagues and tell them (Interruptions)
Mr. Chairman, quite seriously - I'm making light of this - the fact is that when I went around the province, the school boards, to a board, all mentioned this. I gave them my commitment we would try to make an adjustment. We were able to make an adjustment of a little bit more than 50 per cent. I would have actually preferred to go more than that, or actually even do away with it. However, the honourable member knows, and some honourable members won't know, that the 2005-06 budget will be based on enrolment figures as of September 30, 2004. So there is really a catch-up year built in there. They are being funded for students they don't have in the system, because the count is always a year behind. There were more students the previous year than there are in the succeeding years. I think most people understand that.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, certainly that provides part of the answer. However, is it possible that we have now designed a system where we have a formula, until some correction takes place, that we'll actually have boards that will lose front-line teachers and create more administrative positions at the same time?
MR. MUIR: Certainly, I hope not.
MR. GLAVINE: Well, we'll work on that one, perhaps for next week. I do want to move a little bit into evaluation, still, of course, a big concern in the global picture of the school system. One of the areas, again, and I was pleased to hear the minister talk about a review - maybe I'll just ask a quick question - is it teacher education or teacher certification? If I could just have a little explanation first, before my next question?
MR. MUIR: A review of teacher education and, to be quite candid, there may be some changes that would flow into teacher certification. There are some aspects of teacher certification that I'm not particularly happy with personally, but I'm one person who has had experience in the system and some things have changed since I was involved in it. We get a number of inquiries about people questioning whether the teacher education programming that we have now is the best that we can provide.
I'll just give you a couple of examples of this, it's, indeed, even in the structuring of the program. Here in Nova Scotia, we require pre-service teachers to take two years of teacher training. There are other jurisdictions where that is not required. One of the things that I raised in my department and I also raised at the national level is that, personally, I think we should have a single standard for teacher education in the country, actually it is 10 jurisdictions because the territories go on the Alberta model, I believe. If we had one standard for teacher certification in the country, I think the whole thing would function much better.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Minister, I was wanting to know about teacher education, because certainly in the past year in regard to evaluation of students, I know you were visibly upset and spoke about the concern around the Grade 8 math results, which in that assessment showed enormous weakness. Certainly one of my observations is that we do have many elementary school teachers who have no courses in math beyond their high school in our system - we have elementary teachers who have never taken a math course beyond high school. That's the reality that we now have.
Again, for the teaching of math, I feel that we need to have some more in-depth background, I think, to be doing the kind of quality teaching and education of our students. So I'm hoping to see some changes in that regard for our teachers. We can certainly have a math methods course in teacher education, but without solid backgrounds - and I'm just, again, wondering if we haven't been going down that slide of perhaps not having the best requirements for people coming into education.
So I am glad to see that a review will be going on. I'm just wondering if the minister could comment on how he feels about our teachers, especially from P to 8, in terms of their background in relation to mathematics?
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, I'm trying to get focused. I do know that at the Teachers College, when I was there, and that began in 1988, and when I then moved on to St. Francis Xavier University, a university-level math course was required for entry into the teacher education program. So that is going back 17 years now. I would expect that a good many of the teachers who are out there now may indeed have that extra course level.
In terms of the mathematics - and the honourable member is absolutely correct, I was not happy with those Grade 8 math results, nor was I happy with the Grade 12 math results. The department recognized that more work had to be done to help young people and their instructors in mathematics. In 2004-05, the department is providing $500,000 for math mentors, and also for in-service for mathematics teachers.
Indeed, it was interesting, I happened to be down at a celebration of learning at the Lunenburg Junior-Senior High School on Wednesday night. I had the occasion to meet the math mentor for that particular school, and I assume other schools as well. It's a concept which has not only been adopted in Nova Scotia, but in other jurisdictions. It is new, but I do believe the - obviously the department felt that it was an initiative that could make a difference. I believe it will. It will take a little bit of time.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, certainly it's an area that I could probably comment more on, but I do want to move on. I want to ask a question around semestering that has perhaps some bigger implications here. I was teaching in a school where we were able to structurally arrange the ideal model for semestering. That was offering four semestered classes per term. Teachers would teach three out of four. We all know that that's certainly far below the guidelines of what the department requires for teachers on task.
However, where teachers made up a percentage of teaching time was through tutorials. We would help, as this letter submitted by the PTSA to the school board said, in the school year 2001-02, nearly 100 additional students, above and beyond those receiving help from the resource department, were assisted by teachers during those periods when they were not scheduled to teach a class. The impact of the changes imposed by central office on this large group of students was immediate and has been felt throughout the school in the ensuing three years.
One of the things that was stated at that time is that academics would suffer, stress level of staff will increase, substitute costs will rise, extracurricular activities will be greatly affected. Well, all of those four areas have come to negative fruition. I'm wondering if the department is going to take a look at semestering as the only model in terms of having year-long courses and having semestering implemented in what I would call the ideal situation.
We now have teachers, for example, who will split a class, from September to December, and therefore we have two teachers, and so on. There are problems around that. Just a general comment, to finish off my time, about semestering, I would much appreciate.
MR. MUIR: The issue of semestering - I was interested to hear the honourable member report on how his school situation had dealt with it two or three years ago. I was asked the question about semestering the other day by the member for Timberlea-Prospect, and I want to go back to the answer I gave then. Semestering was, to be quite frank, one of the things that was a little bit perplexing to me when I became Minister of Education. I wanted to find out how students reacted to it. There is a group of students that meet, and it's called the Provincial Education Council, which includes students who are in high school or who have just finished high school. The group with whom I met, I wanted the student feedback. I asked them about semestering, because they would have had the opportunity to be in both semestered and non-semestered schools. To a person, the students preferred semestering. That was an interesting observation for me.
As you know, Mr. Chairman, the recommendation of the department, with regard to Grade 10 mathematics and Grade 10 English, is that they may wish to run those two courses on a year-long basis. The honourable member for Kings West has probably just given the answer of how you would do that. I think that's not a bad idea. To be quite frank, I guess there's really no reason why another class couldn't be arranged that way, too. The courses are now designed for 110 hours, and they used to be designed for 120, 130 or 140 hours. So they are designed to fit into the amount of time the semester allows.
The honourable member for Timberlea-Prospect asked if there's a difference, and I said, well, the department never did look at these objective results that sort of came from AIMS and places like that, because we didn't believe in ranking the schools. When I looked at the results of the mathematics test last year, it was the schools that were semestered - I'm not saying that the results were great, but relatively speaking - were better than the others. Similarly, if you looked at that other ranking, which we don't recognize, you would see the semestered schools as working out okay.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Needham.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, I want to welcome staff from the Department of Education here today with the minister, and I want to thank my colleague for an opportunity to share in a bit of time in examining the Education estimates. I want to start by saying that I guess we all know that the job of being an MLA has its occasional frustrations and maybe even sorrows, but I have to say, in the seven years that I've been here in this place, one of the real joys that I've experienced is access to all of those opportunities in the public education system, to meet students and staff and participate in their events.
I was at St. Stephen's school, an elementary school in my riding, last week, that did the production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When the Primary students came in, the entire auditorium was ready to burst with pride and laughter. These kinds of events really bring a community together. The teachers, the amount of time they put into working with the students and parents, and the students themselves, what they got out of it, it's a real joy to behold.
I know that, unfortunately, some people certainly feel vulnerable when they're dealing with the public education system and entrusting their kids into the system. I think that the continuous attention to poor score results and bullying and these kinds of issues has contributed to some real concerns about the quality of our public education system. I can only imagine how vulnerable parents, who have children with special needs, whose child or youth is deaf or hard of hearing, deaf/blind or blind or visually impaired, how they must feel.
In particular, I want to take some time to talk about APSEA, the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority, which is currently under review, and the kind of concerns that parents and staff have been expressing to me with respect to the nature of this review and where it may be going.
Mr. Chairman, I don't know, there hasn't been any public attention, that I'm aware, to this point with respect to this review, but I would like to put on the record that there was a review, an independent review of APSEA, with consultants. The review document was received by the APSEA board of directors in February 2005 at a board meeting. After some pressure and agitation by staff and families, the review was released to them in April 2005. This review, unfortunately, wasn't all that positive. It is my understanding that the directors from the four Atlantic Provinces have responded to the review, and they have taken up some of their concerns about the accuracy of aspects of this review and the manner in which the review was conducted, yet, their response to the review has not been made available to anybody, to the public, to parents, to staff.
I want to ask the Minister of Education, when will the directors' response to the consultant's review of APSEA be made available to the public? And not just when, I want to ask the minister if he will make that response public here in this House to the Opposition, so that we can have a full understanding of what is occurring with respect to the future, really, of this very important service for vulnerable children in our province.
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, APSEA does provide a valuable service. I want to assure the member that it is the intent of the provinces to continue the high quality and the accessibility of APSEA's services to those students who are either visually impaired or hearing impaired. Clearly you've had some correspondence. I think you began your question by indicating that you had been talking to staff and parents and a number of people who have some interest in the APSEA organization and how it functions.
In the Spring of 2004, the board of APSEA commissioned an administrative review of the organization, and the organization, to be quite frank, has been around long enough to have that type of review. That should not have been deemed as a negative thing, but indeed a positive thing. Let's see how the organization is responding to the needs of those children for whom it is intended to serve. If there are changes which could improve that service, let's see if they can be made.
What the review board actually found, Mr. Chairman, was that APSEA does deliver a high level of service, but it did also identify some areas which they felt should be studied in a little bit more depth, particularly the governance, finance, how short-term residential programs are being used, and how some of the services are being delivered. The board then struck a committee which included APSEA administration and the student services directors of each of the Atlantic Provinces to develop a careful and a measured response to the review. That committee has actually delivered an interim report to the board and the board will soon announce the next steps in the review process. Mr. Chairman, that particular report does belong to the board. The board at this time, for its own reasons, has opted not to make that response public. That is the decision of the board. If the board wishes to make it public, then we'd be quite happy to help them do so.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, I believe that the Deputy Minister of Education for our province chairs that board and perhaps could take back to the board the request to have various documents released. The minister did not respond to my question about whether or not the response from the APSEA directors to the report would be provided to the Opposition. So I want to go back to the minister and ask him if he is prepared to have the APSEA directors' report in response to the initial review document released, and if not, why not?
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, I apologize, I wasn't clear enough, but that information and that decision will be made by the APSEA board. I have no problem going back and asking the APSEA board to do that, but the honourable member well knows that this is a four-province venture and it would not really be appropriate for the Minister of Education to make some unilateral decisions regarding a matter that is a concern of the four provinces.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, well I would very much appreciate if the minister would, in fact, make that request to the board, that there be a release of the response of the directors, because I think that it is important to have openness and transparency and accountability in this process. We know what the record of this government has been with respect to some of those issues.
I am prepared to table a letter that is signed by the Deputy Minister of Education here dated April 1, 2005, to the clients and staff of APSEA and I'd like to read a bit from this letter because it does lay out certain things that I think signal some potential concern: The initial review document was received by the APSEA Board of Directors at its February 1,
2005 meeting. It contains recommendations on program delivery, the centre, collaboration, governance and finance. The board also received a response prepared by the four APSEA Directors who documented their concerns about the review process and some of the opinions expressed. The board decided to use the review as a departure point for a careful re-examination of the way we deliver our services and how we support them. It is not and was never intended to be the last word on the future of APSEA.
Now, I think this, in conjunction with one of the recommendations in this report with respect to assessing the soundness of eliminating all centralized services, is of real concern to families who have been accessing the centralized services, and too certainly the staff who for many years have been working here in the centralized services and providing support to families in the on-site residential programs that occur over certain periods of time. I want to ask the minister if, in fact, there is any intention to eliminate centralized services here in Halifax, on the APSEA site?
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, no. Obviously the service delivery is being reviewed as part of the review, but there is no intention to eliminate centralized services; but on the other hand, it would not make any sense to continue to deliver services that aren't needed.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, I think if anything, we all know that we require a beefing up of our services for special needs children. Certainly, inclusion hasn't been comprehensive enough and with respect to this population, APSEA is well recognized and respected as an expert body that has been able to carry out very good programs and interventions for children and youth from this particular group with needs around deafness and hard of hearing, and what have you.
I want to ask the minister. He made reference to an interim report. I understand that that was delivered earlier this week, I guess, maybe on Wednesday, May 4th, so I want to ask the minister if he also would communicate to his deputy minister his desire to see this interim report released to the public so that we can have an appreciation of the additional analysis that is referred to in the deputy's letter and the process that will be used to assess the delivery of services for this group?
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, I want to begin my response to that question by indicating that our province has a financial commitment to APSEA of $8.7 million in this upcoming fiscal year, or in this fiscal year 2005-06, which is a $200,000 increase from last year, so in terms of our province starting to gear it down, if you want to just look at the numbers, it doesn't do it. However, the honourable member is absolutely right, that report, I believe, was received in my department on Wednesday. The decision has been made and indeed our staff has been informed that the report will be made public within two weeks. Now the thing that has to be done is that there has to be a couple of changes; a couple of
things in that report are not accurate and they have to be fixed up before it can be released. But once that is done, it will go out.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, well that wasn't so hard after all, was it? I want to then move to another topic and before I do that I'm looking forward to seeing this report and to working with the families and staff who have expressed their concerns, certainly, to me. I want to say that as the Health Critic in our Party, issues with respect to the delivery of health care services often take a good deal of my time and leave me little time to look at education matters, but this certainly is one that I'm more than happy to spend some time on. I have known many families with children who are either deaf or blind/deaf, hard of hearing, visually impaired, et cetera, and I totally admire these parents and the amount of time that they spend dealing with various government departments and services in an attempt to give their children the best start in life and the opportunities that are available to other kids. So I appreciate having an opportunity to talk to the minister about a matter that is very important not only to me but to certainly these families.
I want to spend some time now talking to the minister about a couple of other concerns that I have. I've noticed that, I believe in this year's Education budget, there is a commitment of funding to boards to implement some kind of a vocational program in the school system. I probably should have paid a little more attention to what the government plans are than I've been able to, but this is my concern. We did have an opportunity, our caucus, to meet with the Nova Scotia School Boards Association. At that time I asked the Chair of the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, who was promoting this idea, to elaborate a bit further on what their plans were. One of the things that I was concerned about what I was hearing was the gender dimension of what was being proposed. This idea that these programs would have women, in particular, being prepared for hospitality service and retail, and men being prepared for trades is, I think, a fairly old way of looking at a segregated labour force that leaves women at a distinct disadvantage financially and, therefore, in other ways.
I would have thought that we would have moved beyond this kind of gender understanding of how you do training for men and women, young girls and young boys, and I'm wondering to what extent the Department of Education has examined the plans of various boards to address what I think is a very serious matter and one that we should ensure that we do not see our institutions perpetuating sexual inequality in our province?
MR. MUIR: With all respect, Mr. Chairman, I don't know where that question came from. I come from a family where I have a nephew who works in the hospitality industry. He's a chef or a cook, or whatever you want to call it. I also have a daughter who happens to be a doctor and, you know, I thought we had moved beyond that and I'm really shocked that the honourable member would be talking to people who think that way.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Well, you know, I was a little shocked myself when the idea was advanced that too many young men in our school system are being lost because these opportunities weren't being provided - plumbing, mechanics, whatever. I have no difficulty with the idea that we need to promote trades for men, but I think we also need to be really looking at the idea of promoting trades for women as well and not perpetuating a gender division of labour.
I make no apology for standing here and speaking directly to the minister about this because these were the examples that were given to me at a meeting I was at by the Chairman of the Nova Scotia School Boards Association out of his particular board. I sometimes don't hear things perhaps accurately, but I'm quite sure on that occasion I heard things fairly accurately. So what I'm saying to the minister is that I think it's great if the government is devoting some resources to providing some career-based or vocational-based, skills-based educational opportunity into our Primary to Grade 12 system through the school boards, but let's be very clear that the manner in which those programs are developed need to be examined through a gender lens to ensure that they are not developed in a way that perpetrates a sexual division of labour which leaves women at a distinct disadvantage. I know that the minister's background is in education and maybe not in labour market policy, but I would say to the minister there is huge literature on the double ghetto, if you will, of a segregated labour market and the disadvantage this places women at.
This is not a new idea. It is not a new problem and it is not a problem that we have overcome just because the minister has somebody in his family who is a female and who is a doctor and somebody in his family who's a male in retail. An anecdotal sample of two people does not take away the reality of a segregated labour force that continues in our province today to see the lowest waged workers being primarily women, to see people who are doing part-time and seasonal work being overwhelmingly women, to see the salaries that they earn being overwhelmingly below the low-income cut-offs in our province, and I think we really need to think about addressing that in a much more holistic way and our education system is part of that.
So if we're going to do something to eliminate the sexual division of labour in a way that inequality is so structured into our labour market, then we need to think about training and education as a piece of that. It's not rocket science. It has been an idea that has been around for a long time and many governments attempt to address it. All I'm saying to the minister - and apparently he doesn't think it's an issue anymore, but it is an issue - with your investment in this particular program you need to consider that and I would say that certainly my commitment is to examine what it is that happens at the boards very closely given that the minister doesn't seem to be all that concerned about what may occur there.
I know that I have colleagues who are looking for an opportunity to speak to the minister so I'm just going to ask one more question. This is around suspension policy in the Department of Education. For more than two years, probably for three years, I have been
attempting to get from the Halifax Regional School Board information around the rate of suspension out of various schools - elementary schools, junior high schools and high schools. It has been - well, I have not received the information. So I'm wondering what the Department of Education is prepared to do to require that boards keep very good information on the rates of suspension because communities are unable to work with schools to try to minimize and address these problems if they do not have good data to start from.
I will use my own constituency. There are organizations like the North Branch Library, the Inner City Education Advisory Committee, the community Y, any number of organizations, Black educators, who are all wanting to work collaboratively and to put our efforts into the areas where they're most needed, but without the information of where our efforts are most needed, we're unable to decide. We have three inner city schools in our community - is it Joseph Howe that has the highest suspension rates, is it St. Pat's-Alexandra, is it St. Joseph's-Alexander McKay, is it Oxford? You know we don't have this information and I cannot understand why that information isn't compiled or if it's compiled, why it won't be provided to the public.
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, with the honourable member's permission, I would make an introduction before I get to her question. In the east gallery, we've been joined by a Cape Breton native and Halifax lawyer, Jamie Campbell. I would like the House to give him a warm welcome. (Applause)
MR. CHAIRMAN: Welcome to all our visitors in the gallery this morning.
MR. MUIR: The issue that the honourable member raises about releasing suspension statistics is one which I know we've raised in the House last year. The position that the department has taken on that, and I guess really on legal advice, was that this would be a matter between the member and the school boards. We don't collect that information, although I think I had suggested last year - and the honourable member would probably know - that that information might be part of monthly reports from school boards, which are public. Now, whether that is attached to those reports, I really don't know.
I can tell the honourable member though, we are moving ahead with a new student information system and once it's fully implemented we will in the department have access to that information. It has also been suggested to me - and I hate to use the word - that the information might be available through the freedom of information and I don't know whether you've gone that avenue or not.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou West.
MR. CHARLES PARKER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and good morning, Mr. Minister and staff. I, too, have a few questions I want to ask of the minister. I'm going to follow up maybe, first of all, on my colleague's thoughts on pre-vocational training or opportunities for young people in our school system, especially junior high students. As my colleague had indicated, there are some challenges around gender opportunities, but overall there are certainly challenges for our young people as they face which way to go in the future and which direction in life they should take, whether it's to university or to trades training, or to the workforce, or whatever, but it's generally conceded that we do need training if we're going to succeed in life.
I notice in your government business plan there is a mention there of an initiative at the Grade 7 level. I believe it's called Options and Opportunities and is a student life-work portfolio beginning at Grade 7. Now, Grade 7 children are usually around 13 or 14 years of age and certainly it's a very vulnerable age for many. They're just trying to figure out who they are and what's happening to them and perhaps where they're going in life but, anyway, that seems like an interesting initiative and it seems like an opportunity for young people. I'm wondering if you could give us a little bit of the details on that program and how it may help our adolescents at that stage?
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, I welcome the member for Pictou West who undoubtedly will be drawing on his own background a little bit on some of the questions that he formulates.
Mr. Chairman, the portfolio is indeed a Grade 7 program, but the Options and Opportunities, or the O2 Program, will not begin until Grade 10. So those two things are a bit different. The expanded Options and Opportunities for students' success is intended to provide comprehensive educational programs that bridge between high school and post-secondary education and work destinations for the students. It's going to build on successful programs developed by boards in partnership with the community college.
I would also like to indicate I had a very interesting experience, I guess about a month ago at the annual meeting of the Truro and District Chamber of Commerce, where the person who was either the president or the vice-president, or very highly ranked in the Home Depot, was the guest speaker. The honourable member for Halifax Needham had also mentioned the word retail and the gentleman who spoke that evening, actually I believe he is from Cape Breton, I think, by birth, talked about a shortage of retail workers - I noticed that both the member for Pictou West and the member for Halifax Needham had mentioned that - and simply to say that there are a lot of opportunities in retail now and we used to think that there weren't. Anyway, what he was basically saying is there is a shortage of good retail people.
They did some research to come up with this program, Mr. Chairman, and what they found was that of the students who drop out of school by the age of 17, 39 per cent were not academically engaged in school and, worse, 49 per cent felt that the school environment was
not a positive experience. The main reason students gave for dropping out of school were school related. They were either bored, no interest, or problems with school work or teachers, or kicked out, or needed only a few credits, or something.
The fact is that in our society well over 70 per cent of our families want their children to pursue some type of post-secondary education, whether it's in a university setting, or a private trade school setting, or a community college setting, but the fact is we all know the numbers, that if you do have skills, the chances of landing a better job are increased significantly. Students who are at risk of not completing high school at all, you know, you can either just leave them there to either founder, or perhaps graduate, or to try to set up an environment where they will take a more positive attitude towards school.
One of the things that happened, and both honourable members would know, is when they made the decision to do away with the vocational school back I think about 1993 or something like that when they brought in the community college, the unfortunate thing is - not that the community college isn't a good institution - there was no bridge to cross. They just turfed out the vocational schools in one of their other great decisions and so we have been somewhat, albeit slowly, trying to make up for that decision.
So the Options and Opportunities Program is going to involve the school system as well as the community college and also members of the community, to set up a community, and what we can do in school, supplemented by community experiences, sort of the old distributive education model, I guess we would call that, and the students will do courses which will relate to work experience in addition to other academic courses. The good thing about this, if it works the way that we intend, and we have every confidence that it will, is that students who go through this option and take this opportunity will be able to go to a community college at the end of it.
MR. PARKER: Mr. Chairman, I thank the minister for those comments. Certainly it's good to see an initiative for our junior high school kids. It's vital that they get some guidance and training and direction in life, because not all of them are going to go to university. There's no question about that. I will comment on the minister's comments about the lack of retail workers. It may well be related to the wages they're paid. It might be an idea to look at the need to increase our minimum wage considerably to attract more qualified people to the industry.
I want to move on to another initiative I've also seen in the government business plan, on Page 12. It mentions a pilot project for preschool children. This is four-year olds. Very vital, again, in the whole lifelong learning process. I've been trying to get a little bit of information on this, and I have some. It seems, again, like a good initiative. Preschoolers, if they have a chance to get some opportunities before they start Primary, it makes a tremendous difference when they actually do start their first year of school. It mentions here there are going to be 20 pilot projects across the province. I'm interested in knowing what
the criteria are for a community to get involved. Is there an application process? How is it that a community group might get enrolled in such a program? Just what is the process?
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, the voluntary Pre-Primary Program for four-year olds is being developed with the Department of Community Services, and it's intended that it will be a program run by early childhood educators. We had intended 20 pilots in the 2005-06 year, and we expect we will reach that during the year. They won't all be up and running in September 2005. The school boards will make the decision as to where those pilots will be placed.
A couple of the principles that we're operating on are, one, it's wanted; and secondly, it will not be situated in a location where there are existing quality programs. We're not really interested in a competitive mode, we're trying to fill a gap. Thirdly, as the honourable member will appreciate, and I talked about the other day, there are some practical things that have to be worked out. We were advised by school boards, in working with them, they used the suggestion to make hay slowly, and indeed we are doing that.
Now I will tell the honourable member, when this was first announced I happened to be someplace out in Pictou County. I believe the councillor from the River John area, Ronnie Baillie approached me at that time, and had suggested that River John would be an ideal site for that. Subsequently I had a letter from, I believe, the county - it may have been the county. I'm sure if I got a letter, you probably got a copy of it - suggesting that as well.
What the school board's intention is, I don't know. The way they will be distributed is there will be four in Halifax; four in Chignecto, which would include your area; and two in the other boards. There will be no site decisions made by the department, that will be determined by the boards.
MR. PARKER: Mr. Chairman, I'm glad you brought up the River John community, because I was going to. I will put a plug in for the program out there. They have an excellent program out there now, it's under the early childhood educator, Tanya Allen-Rodgers. She has done a wonderful job there with the children of the community. It's certainly very well supported by the parents and by the teaching staff and the principal, Frank McNeill, in the River John Elementary School, and also very strongly supported by the community.
But the struggle has been, as the Minister of Community Services will know, that it has been difficult to get funding for that SCORE project, as it has been called. I think it was originally a federal initiative, and that's what it was called. I forget what the acronym stands for. An excellent program, but wow, has it ever been a struggle to get money for that program. I hear from parents quite often that it has made a tremendous difference for their children who have attended, and they're so much more prepared for Primary.
Last year, as I indicated to the Department of Community Services, we went through a struggle to try to get some dollars, some funding for that program. While there's a little bit available, there was not much available from other sources. So, Mr. Minister, I'm going to put a plug in for the River John community and for that program to be continued. It's in the school now, which I understand is one of the criterion, it has to be within the school building, it's in a community where there's no other competition, which I think is another criterion, and I think it would make sense to have that as a pilot project. River John is sort of an isolated community, it's a long way from Pictou, it's a long way from Truro, and it doesn't have any other daycare, early childhood education. It's close to the beautiful Village of Toney River and other scenic communities in that neighbourhood.
Anyway, I think it meets the criteria. I know letters have been written, and I would hope that the department would be able to consider the SCORE project or the Pre-Primary Program that's there, to continue it on I think would be a great choice for one of the 20 pilot projects in the province.
I just have one final question before I turn it over to my colleague, because time is running short. I wanted to ask a little bit about the Hogg report and how it related to the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board. I understand the report has said that some funding will be provided to some school boards, but Chignecto-Central is not one of them, unfortunately. I'd like to know how that decision was made, because, as you know, Mr. Minister, you're from the same board as I am, the Chignecto-Central is the largest, geographically, board in the province. It covers an area twice the size of Prince Edward Island. It has extra costs for busing, it has a lot of square footage, a lot of geography for sure.
It doesn't make sense to me that this board is being told - not this year, but I think it's next year - that other boards are going to get more money. In other words, stand pat for Chignecto-Central. Why, Mr. Minister, did Mr. Hogg make that recommendation, that Chignecto-Central not be considered for extra funding, considering the huge area that it serves and the busing requirements that that board would have?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Before I recognize the honourable Minister of Education, member, in your time, I would ask if you would permit an introduction from the member for Dartmouth North?
MR. PARKER: Yes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The member for Dartmouth North, you have the floor.
MR. JERRY PYE: Mr. Chairman, I want to thank the honourable member for Pictou West for allowing me to take this opportunity for an introduction. To the members of the Legislature, I would like to bring your attention to the west gallery. In the west gallery are some French immersion students from Dartmouth High School, the school I talked about yesterday with respect to you, Mr. Minister, on the need for repair. There are Grade 10, 11 and 12 students, who are accompanied by Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Martel.
I would like to have this House extend a warm welcome to these individuals, but first I want to let them know that what's going on in this Legislative Assembly is the budget estimates of the Minister of Education. Now, I know that you can't speak up, because I'm sure you would have a lot to say about the budget. I can tell you that as a representative to your Model Parliament, and watching the interests of the students of Dartmouth High School and how actively they were involved in politics, I can tell you, Mr. Minister and this Legislative Assembly, that we are in good stead in the future. I would ask the House to give them a warm welcome. (Applause)
MR. CHAIRMAN: I would like to thank the member for his introduction. We welcome you here today, and hope you enjoy this morning's proceedings.
The honourable Minister of Education. Mr. Minister, I hope you remember the question from the member for Pictou West.
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, I, too, would like to extend a very warm welcome to the students of Dartmouth High School. I've been in your building on a number of occasions and met a number of your teachers. It's a fine school. I agree with the honourable member, my colleague, the member for Dartmouth North, I think the future is in pretty good hands, politically. (Interruptions)
I also want to tell you, and you may not have heard this yesterday because you might have been doing something, the issue of Dartmouth High School was raised. I explained to the members on the other side of the House that, as I understand it, what would be looked for at Dartmouth High School is a rather major construction project, which would not fall under the regular renovations and repairs, like fixing windows or something like that. The major project, therefore, has to go to the school board, which makes up a list of capital construction projects. They would be reviewing the situation in Dartmouth High School, and then submitting it to a committee at the Department of Education. That report is in there now. The Capital Construction Committee has put together a report inside government. It has not yet reached me.
So I was not really able to give the honourable member the full answer to his question that he would have liked and, to be quite frank, I would have liked to have been able to give it to you this morning, as well. Anyway, welcome.
The honourable member talked about the Hogg report, and if I remember correctly he also reminded me that my constituency lies within Chignecto-Central, and yes, indeed, I do know that. I want to say, you talked about the allocation of funds. The honourable member for Pictou West knows, as I do, that the amount of funding that is given on a per-student basis to Chignecto-Central is above the provincial average. Notwithstanding that, Mr. Hogg, for a variety of reasons, I know that in the, I suppose it would have been 12 months in which I'd occupied this particular office, every time I went out and met with school board partners, the issue of how money was distributed to school boards was always a question.
If you were to ask somebody how the money was allocated to school boards, as I've said in this House before, when I worked in Inspection Services I could have told you down to the nickel how much money Chignecto-Central would have gotten and for what reason, but it wasn't Chignecto-Central then. Anyway, in the course of time there were changes in how money flowed to the school boards and for what reasons they flowed.
The school boards felt it was time to review how money was distributed. I think, quite frankly, the department felt it was appropriate to review how money was distributed. So they asked Mr. Bill Hogg, at one time a Deputy Minister of Finance in this province, to go out and meet with school boards, examine situations right across the province, and propose a funding formula that would be transparent and equitable. Now the school boards have contributed to Mr. Hogg's proposal, and will contribute.
The report did come in. There were some questions about it. The government has received the report, it has not accepted it. The decision of government was that Mr. Hogg will go out, and he will be meeting with the individual school boards, so they can review with him, first-hand, the work that he did and why the recommendations that he made were made. Pending that review and the acceptance by government of a final report, the decision was made this year that no board would receive less funding this year than it did last year. Indeed, every board has received an increase.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Atlantic.
MS. MICHELE RAYMOND: Mr. Chairman, I realize my time is fairly brief but I do have questions in several areas. I'm glad that the students from the French Immersion Program in Dartmouth were able to join us, because one of the most important issues I think we're facing at the moment is that of education in both the official languages of this country. I believe the minister is aware that there is a federal goal which has been set, that by the year 2013, 50 per cent of high school graduates shall be at least functionally competent in both of these official languages. There are significant federal monies flowing to that end.
What I am wondering about - first of all, I believe there is additional funding available for the start-up of any new programs, and there has been a recent initiative to move programs into neighbourhood schools, families of schools and so on. I'm wondering if the
minister could tell me whether in fact the start-up funds have accompanied the beginnings of the new programs at the new schools with the apparent intent of strengthening the French Immersion Program and meeting that federal goal?
MR. MUIR: I thank the honourable member for the question and welcome her to the debate on the estimates of the Department of Education. The goal to have 50 per cent of our graduates functionally bilingual by 2013 is certainly laudable. To be quite frank, is it practical? As much as I'd like to see it done, I'm not so sure that we will reach that. We're making strides, as the honourable member has quite correctly mentioned. I know that in our department, and in my going out across the province, for example, the young people who are here this morning, either early immersion or late immersion or extended core or core French, it's a big thing. Indeed, it is now a compulsory subject within the public school program.
There is additional resource money which does flow from the federal government for the promotion of the French language. Indeed, I signed an agreement, I think as early as this week. I've signed three or four of them recently, which flow money to the province through the Office of Acadian Affairs or directly into the Department of Education for the promotion of the French language.
MS. RAYMOND: So I guess we're not really aware then, whether or not the start-up funding does accompany all start-ups?
MR. MUIR: I apologize, Mr. Chairman, I meant to indicate, before I resumed my seat, that this year, for the first time, the Department of Education has committed start-up funding, and the amount committed is $120,000. That's the first time that has been in the budget.
MS. RAYMOND: Related to that, I think, is one of the issues. I don't know how many of the boards at the moment are offering French Immersion Programs, either early or late. I know that some of the boards which are in fact offering that program do not have a French language supervisor of any kind in place. It seems to me that that may be a reflection of a relatively low priority placed on the attempt to reach that goal. Could you tell me, will the department be committing to have at least a French language supervisor in place to oversee the provision of the French programming in every school board which is doing immersion programming?
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, the intent of the department is, hopefully the school boards will, before too long, have a structure that would prevent that from happening. Now, the programs with which I am personally familiar, in boards, there is a supervisor in place. I would be interested in knowing the specifics of a board that doesn't have a French supervisor.
MS. RAYMOND: I guess the answer appeared to be yes, Halifax, at the moment. Beginning with that, one of the things that is also of concern in referring to the need for both of the official languages and this attempt to get people functionally competent in both official languages, it's possible to refer to this as well as vocational training. I would like to encourage the department to follow through with this, because when we are concerned with the ultimate job prospects of our graduates, we do need to look at that very important vocational skill.
Something which I've been very curious about, the Nova Scotia Community College is a very strong system with a very distinguished history, but one thing that I have been wondering about is the fact that it would appear that in some of the boards at least, the flow of students is perhaps constricted by the fact that we don't necessarily have vocational programming or shop programming available in very many of the schools which were in fact built with shops. I've been told that in the Halifax Regional School Board there may be as few as two functioning wood shops left. How are we going to strengthen the interest in entering the community college system without cultivating that interest at school level?
MR. MUIR: Thank you for that question. Obviously this is one of the gaps that the 02 Program was intended to fill. I guess the thing behind your question is, is there going to be money to put shops back in every school? It's very expensive. I had said earlier this morning I was disappointed when they were taken out with no substitute put in. I'm not so sure that was really the best type of decision. But we will be working with partners both in the community and at the community college for shop space where it is needed.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Clayton Park.
MS. DIANA WHALEN: Mr. Chairman, I'm sure we have many questions to go over again today. I hope you can hear me well, because my voice is a little off today, I've had a cold. I wanted to pick up a little bit from some of the themes we had the other day, and I know I've been listening carefully to the questions that are coming up from my colleagues in the Opposition, and listening to their themes. Certainly we'll be going over some of the same ground, and maybe uncovering some further answers.
One of the things I wanted to begin with was the actual increase in spending in this budget. The minister has said on a number of occasions, he likes to quote the press release, I believe, that came out from the Nova Scotia School Boards Association in which the President of NSSBA, Ronald Marks said that he was quite delighted - I haven't got the exact quote - with the extra money you provided this year. But what the press release also says is that NSSBA had been asking the Department of Education to increase education funding by $30 million each year for five years. This increase would bring the per-pupil funding in Nova Scotia up to the level of New Brunswick, which is the highest in Atlantic Canada.
In the press release, they say they're hopeful that the government will deliver on this need. I'd like to know your opinion, please, or whether there is a commitment with the Nova Scotia School Boards Association and with the children and parents of Nova Scotia to continue that as an annual event for five years, so that we can reach that same per pupil funding as New Brunswick?
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, I thank the honourable member for that question. I believe the words used by the Chairman of the Nova Scotia School Boards Association in the release was it was tremendous news for public education, the increase in funding. I think in the release he had gone on to say that as an organization, the Nova Scotia School Boards Association had requested a $30 million increase, and that we had met it this year. He was quite happy with that.
To be quite frank, Mr. Chairman, I hope that we would be able to continue that increase for the next four years. It certainly would be my goal. Of course, as we all know, it depends on the financial resources of the province and the other competing interests.
MS. WHALEN: I'd just like to have the minister confirm, again, there has been no commitment to continue this spending. As you said, it's dependent on many factors, so there is no commitment.
MR. MUIR: I think the way to answer that question, Mr. Chairman, is that three years ago we introduced Learning for Life, which had financial commitments in it, and we have met all of those commitments. I think on May 12th, we will be releasing a Learning for Life II: Brighter Futures Together. There will be financial commitments in that, and it is our intention to honour those commitments that will be in there, as we did in Learning for Life I.
MS. WHALEN: Mr. Minister, I have a few questions about Learning for Life, which is already on your Web site and we've had it for many years to look at. There were some promises made in that document. One of them was better information for parents from the government in the form of a standard report card, an annual Minister's Report to Parents, and an interactive Web site, and also parent brochures.
I don't think that we've seen some of those things happen, in terms of better information for parents. I certainly haven't experienced that, and I don't think there are any standardized report cards yet across the province. I wonder if you could talk to those issues that I just mentioned there. We're talking about detailed information on your child's learning, that was what was promised. As an example of maybe something that fell short of what was promised in that document, Learning for Life, we talked about by 2005 - I think it said 2004 - there would be these standardized tests that would be done and parents would be given the exact information or given some good feedback on that.
Well, the tests were done in October 2004, and the results were released in March 2005. What I understand, the information given to parents was either they met the outcomes or they had not met the outcomes. Again, that's not very detailed information. I've received report cards like that, on my children, even in junior high school, which would just tick off that they met the requirements, which is not very instructive to a parent who's trying to assess where their child is and help them as much as possible to improve. If you could just relate that to the Learning for Life document for me, please.
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, indeed, the Learning for Life document did make some commitments, and we did follow up on them. First of all, let's talk about the report to parents. This year's report to parents, I know that I've signed off on it. It will be released very shortly. This is the fourth of those reports to parents, and I expect that the honourable member has seen those. What it does is it talks about the performance of Nova Scotian students internally and comparatively.
We are still developing the student information system. We moved to a standardized report card, it began in 2003-04. I think this year the software, which is going to make that possible, will be installed across the district. The difficulty with that standardization was a problem with the software as opposed to determining what information should be made available. I think that we've gotten those glitches worked out, and you will have your answer, you will see that before the end of this fiscal year. Of course the Web site for parents was developed and expanded.
The parent brochures, $50,000 is allocated in this year's budget for those parent brochures. The other thing was you talked about the Grade 6 literacy results, and going to parents as either met objectives or didn't meet the objectives, or whatever the other term was. The detailed information on each child is available from sitting down and meeting with the teacher. Although the paper and pencil, or the computer, can provide very good information, having a relationship with your child's teacher is really a very key part of the information system.
MS. WHALEN: Mr. Minister, thank you very much for that answer. In terms of having a good relationship with your teacher, I can't agree more. But I think there are many parents who have a lot of hurdles, in terms of having that rapport with the teacher, and information coming home might be helpful.
One of the hurdles that I recognized recently has to do with our immigrant community, where they often feel somewhat - I guess intimidated would be the right word or unsure of themselves when it comes to going into the schools, perhaps because of their own language ability and so on, that they don't get into the schools and get a good rapport with the teachers. Even when you go to the student-teacher interviews, they're very short. I think it has been as small as five minutes between visits, so you hardly get to say hello before it's time to leave. That becomes more difficult as the kids get higher in school. When they're
in elementary school, you might have time to go in and volunteer and spend some time there, and that's not possible for all parents.
Another issue, too, is the literacy of the parents and the level of education that they may have. I know I have a sister-in-law who's a teacher and who has taught in schools that have the 4+ Program, and here in Halifax that means areas designated as special needs. Sometimes the parents can't read the report cards either that come out. So they certainly need to speak to the teachers, but we need to find avenues so that they will come in and get that information. In terms of your report card to the parents, I haven't seen it as yet, so I'm curious how it's supposed to be distributed, if it does go home in every school bag, or what happens to it. That doesn't mean it hasn't been in my son's school bag, but I think it's a good question. (Interruptions) I'm sure there are a lot of parents who feel the same way, that they don't see things coming home from school.
I do think you have to recognize that it's not as simple as parents having access to get into the schools and getting to know the principal and teachers. Sometimes there are a lot of reasons why they can't; sometimes they're working many jobs, just in order to make ends meet. There are a lot of problems on that end. So just to touch on those, you could answer that in a minute.
I'd also like to know, in terms of those Grade 6 results that we talked about, where the test was taken in October and the results were available in March, how would you respond to the question about how a teacher or the school can respond in terms of helping the children who have done poorly? It's already late in the year by the time you get the results in March. You've taken the test early on, but there isn't a chance for a timely intervention.
MR. MUIR: I'm trying to remember whether the honourable member had the opportunity to participate in the session out on Kempt Road when we did the announcement of this year's test results. I think probably she wasn't. In that particular instance we had three practitioners, one of whom addressed very specifically, as a parent, the follow-up that her child had received from the school. If you remember last year, because of this testing program and our commitment to allow money to follow students who needed remediation, we budgeted $1 million for that last year, and of course it's going to be more than that this year, because the money now has to follow a new group of students. So now it's $1.9 million, and the school was charged when a child did not meet the standard, then there had to be an individual plan developed for that student.
I can also tell the honourable member, and she certainly knows this, that there are cases where probably the test really didn't accurately measure what the student knew, or the teacher's assessment of the student's literacy skills exceeded that which showed on the test. Not every child got detailed or intensive intervention. This was a case of marrying the opinion of the teacher with the opinion of the external test and going forward. Also, all
parents were brought into that consultation - let me rephrase that, all parents had the opportunity to be brought into that consultation.
MS. WHALEN: Mr. Chairman, that does help to some degree. I'm sorry I wasn't at your launch, I will be at the next one when you bring the next results out. I'm sure I'll have something to say at that time, again. I'd like to go to your Pre-Primary Program for a little while, because I think that it has been touched on by a number of members, but there's an awful lot to look at in this, in terms of how we've planned it, how it's going to roll out, who benefits and whether or not it has a negative impact on daycares.
I think I'll start by framing it around the difference between early childhood education and the kind of education training that teachers get, that they are very different programs. I think the minister would recognize that. I'm sure he has had representation from both groups. The moment you announced that it would be a classroom in a school, it seemed that teachers immediately said it should be staffed by a teacher. Then, because it's pre-Primary, the daycare specialists who are trained in early childhood education and, again, are university graduates, say there is special training needed to deal with pre-Primary, and it may not be appropriate to put them into a public school.
So I think we've got a bit of a debate going there. I haven't heard in your answers about where it might go and who will get it, how we've addressed that debate, and things like the class size and so on that's appropriate for a child aged four might be different from children who are five and up, as we get into the public school system. Perhaps you could just start with the debate between those two different professions, really.
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, the honourable member is right, there's not really a whole lot of debate but certainly the fact that the sites are going to be in public schools and they are going to be under the overall supervision of the school principal. Not unexpectedly the position of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union was that clearly these classrooms ought to be staffed by teachers. The position of the department and actually the one which is going to be followed is that these Pre-Primary Programs will be staffed by early childhood educators.
We, like you, recognize the difference between early childhood education and public school education. Also, these programs are really going to be school readiness programs, although clearly there are activities which will take place which are intended to strengthen a student's academic readiness for going into the public school system. A lot of it is going to sort of be the old kindergarten model, where there were a lot of social readiness skills and social skills, listening skills and things like that.
If you perhaps remember, one of the ways that Nova Scotia differed from every other jurisdiction in Canada a number of years ago was that we had the only academic first year of school in the country. Every other province and territory had sort of the old kindergarten model, but we actually had an academic program designed for our five-year olds. We were the only ones. This, obviously, was one of the things that influenced that debate about when a child should go to school. It was one thing to go to school in the kindergarten program, it was another thing to go to school and get into an academic program.
MS. WHALEN: A couple of further questions, if I could, on how we're going to roll out this Pre-Primary Program. I've heard you say there are 20 sites, and it's up to the individual school boards and so on, but I'd like to know whether the plan is to really target at-risk communities, like communities where the children need that extra, which would be similar to what we've done in the Halifax Regional School Board with the 4+ Program. That, again, is paid for by supplementary funding and has been very successful. Or are we looking at some kind of universal program, because this is a pilot, obviously. Are we aiming for universal?
The other question around that is busing. In the rural areas, busing will be an issue for this grade level or this extra class that you're going to be putting in. I wonder how that's being addressed, because I understand from a number of school boards that they have real concerns if busing is not included. Perhaps you've already addressed that, but it's a question that has been raised with me.
MR. MUIR: Madam Chairman, let me welcome you to the Chair. We're going through them at a rapid rate this morning, it must be Friday. You've raised some very good points. First of all, the school board will pick those sites. I fully expect that need will be a major criterion used. As I said in response to the member from the Opposition Party earlier, the intent is not to have those programs in direct competition to successful programs that already exist. We're trying to pick areas where there is need and there is not really competition. I know, for example, the member for Halifax Fairview, the other day, sort of made a request for programs in his community, but that is something the school board is charged with, making that decision.
You mentioned busing, clearly an issue. It's an issue for a couple of reasons. This is one of the reasons it was said to make haste slowly. The issue even of what type of bus transportation is appropriate is something that has to be taken into consideration if we're going down a year. Clearly, we know that the transportation issue is something that has to be addressed, the school boards know that it has to be addressed, and it will be addressed. The programs obviously can't operate until such time as they are.
MS. WHALEN: In terms of busing, I would like to share with you some of my views on that. If busing is not included, particularly in these rural boards, I don't think the program is serving its purpose. The children who would have to be brought by their parents to school
are the ones who are probably already getting enrichment or are probably already going to daycare or play groups or nursery schools. I think they'd have fun at it and enjoy it, but I don't think they'd be the group that we need to spend public money on. What we want to do is provide the public money to go to the students who don't have the background and the vocabulary and the reading, just the interaction and so on with adults that they maybe should have had by the time they get to the age of five.
I know that any school board can pinpoint the schools and the areas where the need is greatest. I know, from having attended an event at the Dartmouth Boys and Girls Club in north end Dartmouth recently, they referred to that community as having an average educational level of Grade 9, the parents in that community have an average education of Grade 9, which really shocked me, that there would be a community with that demographic or that criteria.
What I think is very clear is that those children - and by the way, 25 per cent of the children in Dartmouth live in that riding, and that's pretty significant. So, obviously, providing Primary and daycare and special preparation for school in that area is very important. In fact it was a nursery school program that we were there to see, that is free to the public, and at $70,000 a year they were in fact struggling for money. I don't know if they're going to be able to offer that next year or not. I haven't heard an update in the last month.
However, those kinds of programs are serving a tremendous need. It's outside of the school, but it's serving that same need, that preparation for school. So your point about not wanting to conflict with existing programs, it might be good to also - I don't know if it's possible to use those monies to bolster some programs like that that might be at risk. All of these programs like that that are provided in the community tend to go from one grant or one grant application to the next. The people who offer the program are always struggling to keep ahead of that. Literacy was the primary goal of that program, providing them with words and skills and reading, and just preparation for vocabulary building and so on which they would never get unless they had this extra enrichment. I am concerned about that. The busing will be critical, because if you're relying on parents to bring the children to the schools, that might be fine in the city but it won't be outside.
The second thing is, are we talking about a full-day program or a part-day program? That also has a lot to do with accessibility for parents. Again, if you're changing to a full-day program, your staffing ratio should be changing; if you're following the same guidelines you use for daycares right now, I don't see why you would use a different criterion than you currently have set up for daycares. So could you relate to some of those questions, particularly the staffing needed, full-day or part-day?
MR. MUIR: I'm going to have to refer your direct questions about the current conditions in daycare to my colleague, the Minister of Community Services. But it is our intention to run those programs full-day, staffed by early childhood educators. We are certainly aware of the busing issue. The point that you've raised, that if parents had to bring their children to school, we may be drawing largely from the population of children who are not those for whom the program was first intended. Anyway, they are pilots and there will be adjustments made in terms of feedback, in terms of everything.
I want to say you talked about the community in Dartmouth, where the average literacy level of the community is Grade 9. There are other communities in the province where that is the case . . .
AN HON. MEMBER: Or lower.
MR. MUIR: Or lower, absolutely, yes. Through the Nova Scotia School for Adult Learning, we're helping about 5,000 Nova Scotians, just about every year. This Adult Learning Program, we have about $6.3 million invested in that, committed to that this year. If you have not had the opportunity or have not taken the opportunity to attend one of these adult high school graduation ceremonies, I encourage you to do it, just to really see first-hand how important this adult education that is offered with the support of the department, some through the federal government, really is. What a difference it can make in the lives of a number of people.
MS. WHALEN: My last point on this early childhood program is, and this comes from a discussion with the Halifax Regional School Board, that they're concerned that it appears there's about $12,000 per class to modify the classrooms that are in the schools today for that younger child, and that that might not be enough. Have you looked carefully at the budget to see whether there is sufficient money there to fund the educators and the modification of the schools, and perhaps the busing as well that might be required?
MR. MUIR: Madam Chairman, we haven't received a lot of requests for modification. We would be prepared to give some help. Most schools, with the declining population, there are very few schools these days that would not have a space that was designed for young children. There may be some things that have to be done, to shrink the size, but it's not something that we have heard a whole lot about. Of course, it's a pilot project; again, we're prepared to receive feedback.
MS. WHALEN: I'd like to move on to the subject of school libraries, if I could. I'm sure the minister took note of the fact that today I tabled a Private Member's Bill, which is entitled an Act Respecting the Enhancement of School Libraries; its subtitle is the Right to Read Act. I think the evidence is very clear from all of the research that has been done on literacy that there's a close link between having professionally-staffed school libraries and having children and young people who are able to access information and improve not only
their reading and writing skills but also their ability to find answers and research things for themselves.
I'd like to know a little bit about our approach to the libraries. I'm pretty well aware that there has been a lot of atrophy over the years. I'd like to know what kind of commitments we do have on school libraries from a departmental point of view.
MR. MUIR: I want to tell the honourable member starting off that this government sees - I'm going to go beyond the school library, I'm going to go to the public library, because I want to start there. We've really made very good commitments to the public library, particularly the last couple of years. I think the public libraries in this province provide an extremely valuable service and it's really a centre that belongs to the community because I don't think of any other centre, including a school library, by the way, where everybody can go and get some sort of service. We have committed $1 million to public libraries this year and more money last year when we had some additional money that we could invest. That, I guess, shows the commitment of this government to the library system in Nova Scotia.
Now let's get back to school libraries. At one time, most school libraries were staffed by a teacher/librarian. Back in the good old days of 1993 and 1994 and things like that, where there were severe cutbacks in education, one of the positions that didn't fare as well actually was the teacher/librarian. The decision was made where they were able to have a special person assigned to libraries. It was somebody who we will perhaps call a librarian/technician, so the actual number of teacher/librarians that exist in the Nova Scotia school system today is - I think you may be able to count them on one hand. That is a teacher who is in a library.
Now having said that, I have just been in some schools where there are exceptional libraries because the classroom teachers, perhaps some of the new training that they are getting in teacher education, they used to get it at the Nova Scotia Teachers College and some of the others have tried to pick up the slack. They use the libraries as regular instruction so when we think the loss of the teacher/librarian was catastrophic - I'm not saying it was a good thing - we have been fortunate because many teachers have gone in and they've seen that the library remained a vital place in school and particularly with the elementary schools.
I can remember when I first moved back to Truro, I guess in 1977, and we have an elementary school in the neighbourhood which was kind of dated and another person and myself, one whom the honourable member for Timberlea-Prospect probably knows, a Mr. John Wheelock . . .
MR. WILLIAM ESTABROOKS: I know him.
MR. MUIR: Yes, you would know him maybe from Mount Allison days. You might have even played football for him, I don't know.
MR. ESTABROOKS: Against him.
MR. MUIR: Against him, did you? Okay. Anyway, he kind of led a work party and we took a classroom in that school and turned it into a library and it still functions, but that was parental volunteers. My carpentry skills being rather limited, I was not the lead hand, I can tell you that, but it did work. What we see now, again, is a lot of parent volunteers in libraries. I have been blessed in this role of going around to schools where they have active school community committees and there are many first-rate libraries. Also our commitment to that type of thing, if the honourable member perhaps remembers that we have put an additional $1 million for books into the schools over the last three or four years, the issue of getting literacy material and appreciation for literacy and the ability to do research.
The honourable member will also know that a lot of the federal initiatives on information technology had to do with providing money for computer hardware and software. One of the big things in public schools is providing computers for students to access information. Very few classrooms that you go in now don't have computer technology and I use that simply to jump off at something else, a battle we have been fighting here in Nova Scotia is about access to information. I have been fighting it as the Chairman of the Copyright Consortium for the Council of Ministers of Education in Canada but also fighting it as the minister who is responsible for public school education in our province. There were amendments proposed to the Copyright Act that would see a collective fee having to be paid for information on the Internet which is free and public, accessible to anybody. So we have been fighting that amendment.
The honourable member would also know that every public school student in the province pays a fee to collectives now, or at least we pay the collectives on behalf of the public school so that teachers will have the right to copy the odd piece of information from textbooks or from other things, or students might have the opportunity to do that too. One of the other things we are battling is if the proposed change goes through, the change in that collective fee in this province would go from somewhere around $3.40 - and don't hold me to that number - to more than $12. So you can see why I have been trying, as my colleagues in other provinces and territories, to ensure that our teachers and students have the same access to information, free of charge, as any member in this Legislature would have.
MS. WHALEN: I will just wrap up on that point but I think you are right. We had more teacher/librarians in the past and the numbers were cut drastically and I would challenge the minister that we need to rebuild our school libraries. I'm glad you brought up public libraries. Certainly in my area of the Halifax Clayton Park riding, there is a fantastic library, the Keshen Goodman Library. (Interruption) I am and that came as a bequest from the Keshen Goodman family. I think that should be mentioned. The collection was moved
from another public library, the former Thomas Raddall Library, but the building and the facility was provided as a gift from a family. So we are very blessed and we love it and it provides programs for new Canadians, literacy programs, children's reading and play programs and it has been wonderful and I do appreciate that. I'm also a former board member of the Halifax Regional Library Board.
So I appreciate that more money is going in there and I know that they desperately need it but in our school libraries where children get a first-hand opportunity, even if their parents aren't taking them to the public library, they get a chance in their schools to be exposed to learning and I think that we should be doing all we can to keep those libraries open and professionally staffed at all times. Although you make the point that teachers have taken up the slack and are using the school resources, I think it is really important to make the point that the teacher/librarian in the school was a tremendous resource for teachers and a help to them, in guiding them and providing a lot of information as they develop themes and programs for children of all ages.
So I think that although the past may be gone and bad things happened, we should be looking forward now, in a time when you are heralding a budget that you claim is an education budget, that we look at rebuilding. That is, I think, very important.
On the actual budget again, to look at our figures, I would like to know, within the $53 million that you have there for public education, how much of that will actually be going for just keeping pace with contracts? That was much of what went in last year, almost a $20 million increase last year was really just keeping pace. I think there were only about $1 million new dollars in last year's budget. So can I assume that it's $20 million now?
MR. MUIR: The easiest way for me to answer that question, Madam Chairman, is to say that there are $21.4 million of new initiatives from Learning for Life. That's new money. That's not money that is being used for something else. That's this year, yes. In addition, of course, is the money which is going to flow from Health Promotion to the Department of Education as well.
MS. WHALEN: I wonder if the minister could provide a figure, though, for how much is going to strictly, as a provision for the increase in contracts? Your Teachers Union contract comes up this year and there must be money set aside. There will be provisions in your other contracts for annual increases and I would just like to know what, of that $53 million, is already called for, for those purposes, what percentage?
MR. MUIR: Madam Chairman, I've been informed that about $26 million will cover off the costs of salary increases, increase in transportation and fuel costs, basically increases in the operational costs, and that leaves $24 million for the new initiatives plus the initiatives for Learning for Life, the third year.
MS. WHALEN: I would like to go on a little bit more with our numbers, as well, in this budget. I guess it was two days ago when we spoke in estimates on Tuesday, you had indicated to me that the figure that was quoted in the release and with the budget excluded the money that comes from the mandatory education funding from the municipalities. At the same time, the municipality's contribution has increased this year because assessments are up across the province. So where is that money gone if that's not in the $53 million that you are announcing for public education or the $72 million that covers all education?
MR. MUIR: I will go back to that question. My statement originated, if you remember perhaps the day the budget was tabled or shortly after, we had made the statement we thought it was one of the largest increases in public education and you had challenged that. My staff went back and looked it up and what I had said in the House was that I understood the reason for the difference in your figure and your statement and the one that I had made was that when you were talking about increases, the total amount of difference from one year to the next, the figures that you used included the residential tax contribution. The figure that we had used was exclusive of that and if you compared just the straight government contribution, then this indeed was the largest increase. So we were talking about the same thing. I understand, when I went back and looked at the numbers, why there would be that disagreement because staff clarified it for me.
The mandatory education tax, yes. The amounts that are tabled in the budget, Madam Chairman, are the government contributions. Each municipality - I shouldn't say each municipality because it isn't the municipalities that are doing this. It's property tax that flows through to the Department of Education. There is an assessment based on property tax. What happens is that that money, the way it works, is collected by the municipalities and goes to the municipalities. In other words, Halifax collects x, Chignecto-Central collects y and the amount of additional dollars that would flow to the independent school boards would be net of that amount. Does that make sense?
MS. WHALEN: Through you, Madam Chairman, that doesn't really make sense to me because the municipalities don't want to collect it. They don't want to have it charged on there. They believe it should come from income tax and from other sources and it goes directly to you. It goes directly to the Department of Education. In HRM they definitely collect more in this mandatory education tax than is put toward the Halifax Regional School Board. It goes into a big pot and the Department of Education allocates it based on need across the province. So there is a feeling that property taxpayers in HRM would be providing a subsidy. It's not directly allocated to our school board so that's the part that doesn't make sense, because you said it goes directly to the municipality and then to school boards. There is another part there. It goes to your department and you determine the allocation of that.
My question originally was quite simple. If you disagree with me, I'll let you interrupt now. Go ahead.
MR. MUIR: It's a rather complex thing but what I was trying to say is - and I'm going to look to these two gentlemen for advice in this thing and I'm going to refer you to Page 5.3 - that the residential property taxes are paid to the municipality. A certain portion of those taxes are for education. We know how much that is for each municipality.
So let's say that in Chignecto-Central, they had a budget for education of $1 million. That was their total budget. I had been worked out and that is the amount of money that the government was going to give them to spend on education, $1 million. They collected $140,000 in property taxes because it's about 14 per cent and that's about what the percentage (Interruption) Okay, 14.5 per cent, it's around that. So they would keep that money and the Department of Education would then write them cheques in the amount of $860,000. (Interruption) It's just subtracted.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Could you direct the questions through the Chair, please?
MR. MUIR: I apologize for this but look, I would be happy to have staff meet with you and clarify but it's just how the money goes. Now if you want to turn to Page 5.3 in the Supplementary Detail, that details Public Schools Education Funding but anyway, I would be happy to have staff meet with you and to explain that to you more fully.
MS. WHALEN: Madam Chairman, I think that it does deserve a better airing and I don't think my time allows it today to go into this but the big thing, I think, that stands out is we seem to have a disagreement. My understanding was clearly, and actually on our HRM tax bills, our property tax bills, it is separated out. It's not part and parcel. The HRM has taken the step of showing that that portion of money is going to the provincial government for education and it's an amount outside of the councillors' control.
Another question I would like to leave with you on that, before we get bogged down in the technicalities of how you do it is that the UNSM has asked repeatedly for you to freeze that amount and not to have this bump every year because of increased assessments benefiting the Department of Education at the expense - I'm happy to see more money go to education - of property owners who, again, we have to remind you that property tax doesn't take any account of your ability to pay. It means that people on fixed incomes and seniors and people with low incomes who may own homes are being taxed more heavily each year because their property is rising in value; whereas, income tax and some of the other methods that are at the control of the provincial government do better reflect people's ability to either
consume products, or HST, or to pay because of their income tax. So could you address the UNSM's concern asking for a freeze, please?
MR. MUIR: Madam Chairman, I guess effectively the province has frozen it. Now it's not the freeze that the UNSM wants but for four years in a row, the mandatory education tax rate has been 35 cents per 100 so there has been a freeze. What the UNSM is asking . . .
MS. WHALEN: That's not a freeze.
MR. MUIR: That's not a freeze? No? (Interruption) The rate has been frozen for four years at 35 cents. I know, as the honourable member does, that when the assessment goes up, obviously the amount of the education tax goes up but I want to tell the honourable member, there is not a jurisdiction basically in Canada where property owners don't contribute. The amount that we contribute here in Nova Scotia as residential property owners - and to be quite frank, I don't have any children in public school and I pay for it twice. I'm no different and I'm happy to do that, by the way. As a matter of fact, I look along here, a number of people don't have children in public school who are probably doing the same thing. Mr. Morse, I think, has about four in public school so we have to exclude him. We are all subsidizing him. (Interruption)
The mandatory education tax is a tax levied by the province and property owners and is collected by municipalities. The average contribution in Canada (Interruption) Oh, do you really? Most provinces support education with a property tax. Everybody would like to have their taxes capped. I know we have seen on the floor of this Legislature, in a number of cases, where people would like to see assessments capped but the fact is that the revenue from property assessments pays for municipal services and it pays for education. Clearly, if we could freeze the cost of education, which I know the honourable member doesn't want because she has just suggested - I should have the adding machine to keep track of your suggestions but the costs do keep going up, is the point.
MS. WHALEN: Just for the record officially, I have to counter what the minister said and say that in fact keeping the same percentage rate on a rising assessment base is not a freeze because you haven't kept the same dollar amount.
MR. MUIR: I said we had frozen the rate.
MS. WHALEN: You said in essence we have a freeze but, as I say, that's a bogus argument that councillors often use to take extra lifts in assessment, so I think it is important to mention that.
I only have a short time left and I would like to touch on post-secondary education for a minute. One of the things that is of concern to me at the moment is the discussion around Dalhousie's increase in tuition for the international students and the three professional schools. In so doing, they have agreed with you, in the MOU that was all agreed to. I disagree that these increases should have been left outside of the 3.9 per cent cap but what I would like to ask you about the MOU is whether or not you are monitoring the compliance of the universities to your MOU and whether or not you have looked into the assumption or the position that the Dalhousie Student Union has taken that says that Dalhousie has not made the 1 per cent decrease in spending that they were supposed to.
According to the MOU, there was originally a discussion about a 1 per cent efficiency saving and I think that was translated into the request that all the universities would cut 1 per cent of their spending and my understanding is that they have not done that, they have reduced it by about 0.8 per cent or something like that. It's less than 1 per cent for Dalhousie. That would not be in keeping with the MOU so could I have your take on that, please?
MR. MUIR: We, too, are interested to see that the conditions of the MOU are being followed to the letter. In that regard, we have written to each of the institutions covered by the MOU and asked them to demonstrate how they have met the conditions of the MOU. I can tell you in the case of Dalhousie that we had a letter from the president who, in advance of our letter going out by the way, said that he would clearly be most happy on behalf of his university to show how they had met the conditions of the MOU and if they had not, they would clearly be quite happy to make the necessary adjustment.
MS. WHALEN: Thank you very much. I'm glad to hear that you are pursuing it anyway and will look into that. On the issue of the increasing fees for dentistry, medicine and law, the increases have been quite steep this year for those three programs. I think 8 per cent and 9 per cent, something like that. I think the premise is that these professional schools are going to have students who graduate and earn a lot of money but I think that could be a fallacy and, again, I think we could be harming ourselves by allowing the tuition rates to rise so rapidly in those areas. Can you explain why you exempted those three professional schools and the international students in the MOU?
MR. MUIR: You have to understand, Madam Chairman, that this memorandum of understanding included 11 universities and we were interested in protecting and getting a more stable funding to our universities to enable them to plan better, to get the university that I believe has about 40 per cent of the student population of Nova Scotia to become a party to that agreement. By the way, certainly as far as international students go, I would think with the support of all the others - because all universities use international students, not only to enhance and enrich their student body but clearly there is some revenue associated with international students because it doesn't matter where they come from, I think we still fund them.
Quite frankly, your question of why the university was not willing to cap the professional schools and the international student increase at 3.9 per cent is something that would be best directed to them. Clearly, I can tell you that at the board of governors at Dalhousie, when the vote on the tuition fees was made, I think the vote actually was 11 to 10, so I would look at that result as being a positive thing for the future.
MS. WHALEN: Madam Chairman, on the international students tuition increase, it was about 15 per cent almost at Dalhousie, $810 I think on their amounts, and I think it is worth noting that the one university in the province with the highest percentage of international students is Acadia and they kept their increase at 3.9 per cent for international students. So they did not take advantage or exploit the fact that they had so many international students and had an opportunity, perhaps, to charge them even more.
Again, I just refer you to the Immigration Strategy in which we talk about wanting more university students here and more immigrants. The young people, as I said in one of my talks recently in the House, I think in relation to the changes to the Public Service Commission, which would introduce the Immigration Office, I made the point that often new families coming to Canada will do so, not as they did before by sending the breadwinner first but by sending a student first. That student comes in and gets a feel for the country and decides if this is a welcoming place. We don't want to shoot ourselves in the foot while we are trying to expand our immigration and really look at a very serious economic problem that we have, so I just urge you to look at that.
I'd like to go back to the ESL that we talked about the other day. When the Hogg Report was introduced - and I was at that press conference and briefing - the commitment was clear that ESL was a significant cost for the Halifax Regional School Board but not significant in the others, and it was therefore not in the funding formula and it would be addressed separately by the Department of Education. What you told me the other day is that the Department of Education has only budgeted $100,000 for that cost. Now you indicated as well that the Office of Immigration is going to kick in $250,000 to Halifax Regional School Board so that gives us $350,000 but when I called the Halifax Regional School Board to find out what they are currently spending from supplementary funding dollars, again a double tax on our property taxpayers here in Halifax, they are paying $750,000. So again it's an extremely important service that is provided if we are going to have our schools function properly and have these newcomers properly welcomed in it and adapt.
Although there is not a great deal in the strategy, it certainly says that language training is a priority for newcomers and a key to successful integration and ultimately retention. So if we are not, as a province, committed to paying for the ESL in our schools, we haven't gone very far in our commitment to immigration. So I just want you to talk to the shortfall where $350,000 is identified through two departments and the cost to HRSB is
$750,000 this year and I mention again the school board superintendent had told me that with 11.5 teachers, it is still inadequate. So could you go back to that? I think it is a serious shortcoming.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Order. The time allotted for the honourable member has ended. If you want to answer, go ahead.
MR. MUIR: ESL shortcomings, I just want to address this in a couple of ways. First of all, we had talked about this the other day and clearly, Mr. Hogg, in his report, we see ESL as being something we had to take place of. To be quite frank, ESL was not in the public school program of studies and therefore there was no obligation, really, on the part of the province. However, the immigration strategy, the number for example out in your constituency, you have, I think, somebody told me the number of language groups in one of the schools out there was 71 or 72, a fair bit. We are investing more dollars in ESL. However, the Halifax Regional School Board had committed about $700,000 which is a good commitment. We have a commitment somewhere around five annualized this year.
The other thing I want to remind the member of is that although they are spending that, they are also drawing a per pupil allowance for those students and I suppose you could address it like special education. It would be an add-on. I don't know how many people are in those classes, but you can take the number and multiply it by whatever the per pupil allowance is and you will find that it goes up significantly more.
The other thing that we do in Nova Scotia, which is a strong point that I think has to be recognized - and I just put this on the table for information, I'm not really making any point of it - is that like many schools, particularly the high school and junior high school level, they do go out and recruit international students and the international students pay a significant tuition fee which goes to the board and a lot of that flows back into the schools, which not only enriches the student body but it's also a source of revenue for schools. In some schools it's a rather significant revenue. If you look in the ESL classes, you may find that some of those exchange students - we will call them exchange students - are enrolled in the ESL classes, yet none of the tuition fees that they pay are allocated to the ESL budget. I don't know whether it is significant or not, I'm just simply saying that I do know that that is not the case.
Madam Chairman, with your permission, I would be happy to table a copy of the Minister's Report to Parents.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: We will now go to the Official Opposition.
The honourable member for Halifax Atlantic.
MS. RAYMOND: Thank you, Mr. Minister, for allowing me to continue with something related to the thread of questioning I was pursuing earlier. Talking about vocational schools and the loss of some of the physical facilities, and in some cases the actual instructional staff who are using those facilities, one of the things that I believe has been a factor in cost has actually been that of liability insurance. I am wondering if the Department of Education has, in fact, developed a department-wide policy about insurance costs. I know, for instance, that most municipalities are, in fact, using a self-insurance scheme, and I don't know whether the school boards are doing this but not all are. Does the department have a policy for a way of helping the boards to obtain the insurance they need which is appropriate for schools, including their vocational and their field trip components, both appropriate and cost effective?
MR. MUIR: I'm advised, Madam Chairman, that the school insurance process has not changed in the past number of years. They do it collectively. They collect it through the Nova Scotia School Boards Association. By the way, I'm told that that has been rather a good saving. If I remember correctly, the person who was the one who worked on that little project was a gentleman by the name of Mickey Woodford, who some of you may remember from years ago. I think he was instrumental, was employed to set it up and it still goes on.
Now individual students - and I would have to look to my colleagues for some help on this - particularly those who do have students going to school, they were given the option to purchase individual insurance which would cover accidents. You can buy it for 24 hours a day during the school year or just for school activities, and I assume that that still goes on. I know that some of the extracurricular activities such as contact sports, some of these things where there may be a chance of people getting hurt a little bit more, in some cases there were special riders on the insurance to cover those situations or else they took out their own.
MS. RAYMOND: So I guess it is not really something that the department involves itself in directly. This is a question, though, because I think that a number of educational opportunities are limited for students and it seems to be somewhat open to interpretation by administrative staff at the particular board as to whether or not something is liable to fall under the available coverage, even if it is not required to have an additional rider. So this is one thing, I think, in some cases, that's contributing to certain inequities in programming across the province so I would just like to flag that.
As you can see, I do have certain concerns around the basic issues of safety and so on and I know that there have been difficulties with school emergency dismissal procedures and there are times when it would seem that perhaps the boards should be drawing up guidelines for these to be vetted for the individual schools, because there have been occasions when they just plain fall down. Is there any discussion about having board-wide dismissal procedures?
MR. MUIR: To my knowledge, we have not had conversations with the boards about that, but my direct experience was that boards and schools all had their individual exit plans of that type. I've not heard that there has been any difficulty with those. There is the odd case where somebody who was supposed to be available was not available. I mean we run into glitches, but in general they have their plans.
MS. RAYMOND: I would like to flag that because there have been at least a couple of cases where emergency dismissal procedures have failed and it would seem that perhaps it's too much to be requiring each individual school to draw up a functioning plan. So this may be a place at which the board, at least, should be required to show some leadership, but being well aware, obviously, the physical circumstances are different for every school but perhaps the communication lines are going to be similar.
The other question which I do have is about the relationship which the department has with the Department of Community Services around the ECDI, the Early Childhood Development Initiative. Do you have any kind of discussions going on at the moment with the department about the delivery of programming which will be done through the ECDI?
One particular concern is that around the Department of Community Services current policy of eliminating allocated subsidized seats and if we are going to be looking at early childhood learning as opposed to simply child care or daycare, it is important that the centres which are providing that child care or early childhood education, as you may choose to call it, in fact have some stability of funding, stability of personnel and stability of student population. It would seem to me that the provision of child care across the province is not only the responsibility of the Department of Community Services but also that of the Department of Education. Can you tell me about the status of the current co-operation between the two departments around ECDI?
MR. MUIR: Madam Chairman, the honourable member may wish to direct questions to the Minister of Community Services when he is up on his estimates, but I can tell you that the Department of Education and the Department of Community Services are in regular communication on a number of issues. Of course, it goes broader than that with CAYAC, which involves the Departments of Community Services, Health, Justice and our own department. So yes, indeed, there are constant conversations among the departments and dialogue between the two departments.
In terms of the Early Childhood Development Initiative or the Pre-Primary Program, which is coming in, the person who has been employed to head up that initiative is seconded from the Department of Community Services. It's a person by the name of Nancy Taylor and she is an early childhood educator by training. You, indeed, may know her.
MS. RAYMOND: Okay, well I'm glad to hear that. The answer, I guess, is that there is not a formal structure at the moment for shared delivery of programming and the
responsibility for the - what shall I say? - perhaps not the care but the education of children before the age of four years old really does remain entirely, at least administratively and outside the home, with the Department of Community Services.
MR. MUIR: The Education Act requires the Department of Education to be responsible for the ages of children five through 20, I guess, so anything prior to that - now we are moving in a different direction with these Pre-Primary Program pilots. We are moving down here and we will have responsibility for those but no, Madam Chairman, through you to the honourable member, that is a matter for Community Services. They are the agent that is responsible for early childhood education and to be quite frank, although there are some exceptions who teach in the public schools, there would be a few early childhood educators, those who have gone one route and then switched into another but in general, the training programs, the expectations and the programming for early childhood education is different from that in the public schools.
MS. RAYMOND: Yes, I am well aware that the training is, in fact, very different and once again it's something that I think really does need to be looked to because although the Education Act does, in fact, leave the responsibility for education between the ages of five and 20 to the department, as I know the department is well aware, the concept of lifelong learning involves learning from a young age and when children do find themselves outside the care of their ordinary educators, then there is a responsibility to ensure that they are receiving the foundations of that lifelong learning which the Education Department is laudably anxious to foster. So, again, I would be very interested to know if there are mechanisms for future structural integration between the Department of Community Services child care services and the Department of Education's early childhood education. With that, Madam Chairman, I would like to turn the time over to my colleague.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou West.
MR. PARKER: Madam Chairman, I have an issue here I wanted to bring to the minister's attention and this was to be an education budget, but yet I am surprised today to learn in a letter I have here from the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library that they are actually going to be receiving a decrease in their funding and, Mr. Minister, there was a letter written to you on May 4th outlining their concerns from their chairman, Mr. Poirier.
You may remember, it outlines in the letter here at the UNSM conference in Truro last Fall, you had indicated there would be an increase of $750,000 in funding for the regional library boards and on December 14th of last year, there was a press release put out that indicated there would be a $1.1 million new investment in our public libraries, but yet the Nova Scotia Provincial Library and the regional libraries around the province are telling us in this letter that they are actually going to receive less money. The regional library board
says that the amount they will receive in 2005-06 is $11,513,200 and that is an overall reduction in their promised funding. Meanwhile, the budget estimates are showing that only $10.763 million is going to be there. That's a $750,200 decrease, so naturally they are very concerned about why they are getting a cutback in this, the year of the education budget. Mr. Minister, can you explain what is going on here?
MR. MUIR: Madam Chairman, I'm very surprised to hear the honourable member talk about a cutback in library funding. The budget for public libraries is up $250,000 from what it was in 2004-05. In addition, Madam Chairman, we distributed $1.1 million, an additional investment which was given in the Spring of this year which will be revenue that there's no way the boards would have been able to spend in the last budget year. So that money was available to them this year and that was quite clear when we gave them the money and everybody understood that.
There was, a few years ago, a funding formula review. I guess it was when you were there, I think, was it? There was a funding formula review, libraries made some recommendations that would have seen significant reductions in some parts of the province. The library things are census-based. The old formula is still in place and if there would be a slight drop in that revenue, it would have been based on a formula to which all the library boards had agreed. But I think if you take a look at the money that that board received in the investment just prior to the beginning of this budget year, they had more money to spend this year certainly than they had to spend last year.
I will also tell the honourable member, although I had to make an adjustment in my schedule because of the House hours on Monday, I am being visited by the chairman of our local library board and also the head of the public library and I expect that if you got a letter, I'm going to get one too.
MR. PARKER: Well, maybe, Mr. Minister, I will ask you, have you actually received this letter from the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library dated May 4th and signed by Conrad Poirier, the Chairman of the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library? Well, I guess it's in the mail, as they say. Anyway, in the letter it certainly outlines, again, as I mentioned, your promise at the UNSM for $750,000 more, the press release that your department put out on December 14th of a new investment of $1.1 million, and they're saying very clearly that they're disappointed they're getting a cutback in their funding here of more than $750,000.
Libraries are important to our provincial persona. They provide good reading material for many people, provide good quality information to residents throughout this province. Obviously, from this letter, there's a reduction, they feel, in the budget, and they're not very happy with it. Again, I'm going to ask, Mr. Minister, why is there a reduction in the budget for provincial libraries this year in Nova Scotia?
MR. MUIR: I have not seen the letter. I'm really surprised that a chairman of a library board would write a letter, when we gave an additional $1.1 million, and they were told, explicitly, why the money flowed when it did. I guess I'd have to see the letter, and perhaps get an explanation from them. Clearly, the library boards got more money this year - the amount of money they had available to them this year, we had promised $750,000, and it is up above that. They got $600,000 more than I had said at the UNSM.
MR. PARKER: Again, I'll just ask, after you get the letter, Mr. Minister, you have a look at it. This is a very serious concern for the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library, as it will be for other regional library boards. I'd ask that you give it your utmost attention, and see if maybe the information is correct, and see if this can be adjusted to look after the regional library boards, particularly the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library Board.
MR. MUIR: Madam Chairman, I clearly understand, according to Mr. Poirier, it says that the remaining $750,000 was to be set aside and used as part of the operating funds for 2005-06 - so we promised $750,000, and clearly this letter acknowledges it. In addition, we put another $250,000 in. I'll have to read the letter in detail, but it clearly acknowledges that that $750,000 did flow.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Timberlea-Prospect.
MR. WILLIAM ESTABROOKS: Mr. Minister, it's with pleasure that I recognize the members of my caucus as they bring individual concerns in this important department to your attention. As a critic, of course, you always make sure that you make ideal time available for the moments that they have to bring up issues. I want to compliment the members today who very positively addressed issues of some concern to them and of course to the communities that they represent.
Again, I say it's a privilege to bring issues forward. I want to be clear on the fact that I'm going to bring some negative media results to the minister's attention. I have a few headlines that I think deserve some comment. It's quite ironic - it's not ironic, it might be coincidental that this was in the February 2nd edition of The ChronicleHerald, that school libraries lack funds, Premier Hamm was told. We've heard today how important school libraries are, and the importance they have in the community. We are, of course, well aware of the constant pressure and the decisions of what's going to be taken care of in the education system, but there are no more negative public relations that this minister has been involved with than this picture. I know we're not allowed props, so I'm just going to table it. I'm going to refer to it a couple of times.
Here is the Minister of Education signing the memorandum of understanding, head down, surrounded by the university presidents, and in front of him is an outstanding young woman named Danielle Sampson from the Canadian Federation of Students, who has basically crashed the party. I remember that day well, and since then I've had the opportunity
to speak and, more importantly, listen to Danielle Sampson. It's the example of how if we're going to, as legislators, make decisions that affect the young people of whatever age - in this case post-secondary students - and we're not going to listen to them, we're going to end up with nasty confrontations such as that was.
I know there were some university presidents there who looked, if you look at them in the background, somewhat amused by the fact that this young woman showed the initiative to take a petition and say that she disagrees, and she disagrees for various reasons, when it comes to this memorandum of understanding. This memorandum of understanding was obviously some hard bargaining, it was obviously lots of consultation, but the key thing is the students weren't consulted. The students affected, the student leaders were not part of the loop, and they feel that was, at the least, a slight to them as duly elected educational leaders, they were not part of any kind of discussion in advance of this memorandum of understanding.
I would like to ask the minister if he has learned any lessons, or has his department learned any lessons from this experience, when the memorandum of understanding comes forward? I see Colin Dodds signing the document, I see the minister, head down, signing the document, and I see this young woman standing in front of them, making her point on behalf of students; not just on behalf of the students of NSCAD down the street - I know the minister knows my daughter attends that university - not just on behalf of that particular institution, but on behalf of the Canadian Federation of Students of which Danielle Sampson is a vice-president. Have we learned any lessons because of not consulting and having these young men and women involved in the process? And do you give some assurance that this will not happen again, not consulting the educational leaders?
MR. MUIR: Madam Chairman, I thank the honourable member for his observation. I am well aware, I know that NSCAD is particularly dear to his heart and indeed he does have a daughter who attends that very fine institution. Just a couple of comments on this before I give a direct answer to his question. The memorandum of understanding was something that we thought was in the best interests of all, primarily in the interests of students, and that was the focus when we started this. Clearly, it was trying to keep fees down for students, and we were committed to that.
As part of that process, we were prepared, like we did in the Department of Health, to commit to a three-year funding formula for universities in exchange for some things. First of all was a cap on undergraduate student tuition of 3.9 per cent, and as I've said, over the three-year period of the agreement, if you were to compare increases that had been common in the past five years to the increases that will be put in place over the next three years, an individual student would save somewhere around $2,600. The implementation of the cap, we believe, was a good thing. I regret that we weren't able to include all of the students in
that cap; however, the great majority of undergraduate students - and the ones who would not be included would, of course, be the international students. That was a good agreement. That, really, was the first agreement, that I know of in Canada, between a Department of Education, or a government, and its university system. We had done it in Health, we were the first in health. There is considerable interest in what we've done here in Nova Scotia. In other parts of the country, they're looking at it as a good thing. As I told our public school partners, I would hope that we would be able to extend this type of long-term funding to them as well, because when you know annually, or you know two years down the road, how much money you're going to have to spend, then clearly there are efficiencies that can be built in, and administrative and other types of arrangements that can be made over a period of time - maybe just a one-shot deal doesn't work - and these efficiencies can be achieved.
Indeed, universities opted for that. In response to a question from the member for Halifax Clayton Park, we are currently in discussion with universities - correspondence, perhaps better than discussion - to ensure that the terms and conditions of the memorandum of understanding have indeed been followed. Certainly we've followed it on our side, and I am confident on the other side they've followed it as well.
I should also say that this issue raised by the member for Timberlea-Prospect was drawn to the attention of the Human Resources Committee back in early April, I think, or sometime in March. The young woman to whom he referred did present at that committee. At that time the deputy who was there on behalf of the department and me did commit that certainly in the future, in the negotiation of any such agreement, university students would be more fully involved. You can take the position, well, they weren't involved, and clearly we knew their issues, their issues had been articulated to us many times before. The big issue is to keep the costs down, and that's what we attempted to do.
You should also be aware, as I know the honourable member is, that there are two student groups in Nova Scotia. There is the group represented by Ms. Sampson and then there is another student group, and they don't necessarily see eye to eye on every issue. Therefore it is not just as simple as it seems. If you were going to involve people, then you would pick from student organizations, and when you have two organizations that don't necessarily see eye to eye, this was a first trip through, and indeed more consultation probably would have been better. I'm not trying to make excuses, I'm simply saying that there were circumstances.
The other thing that we reasoned is that university presidents were in constant contact with their boards, and of course there are many student representatives on the board of every university in the province. So they would be involved in that way. We have now made the commitment, and in any subsequent agreements, that students will be involved much more heavily. It's likely that we are going to begin negotiations for a similar arrangement with the community college in this fiscal year. I will assure them that students will be heavily involved in that process.
MR. ESTABROOKS: Mr. Minister, we all know about student politics. Student politics from our own years and campuses were somewhat more radical than they are now. I see many of these university presidents who are dealing with many of these university student leaders, and I'm sometimes wondering who's more small "c" conservative, the university presidents or some of the elected student leaders. That's the little bit of edge that maybe they don't have anymore as they prepare themselves to go to law school, if that's what they're aiming for.
Danielle Sampson did say at the Human Resources Committee that, "A needs-based grant is a grant . . .", and she's answering a question from me at this stage, " . . . that is based on the student's financial need. So it is a non-repayable grant, it is upfront, and that's to equalize the opportunity for low-income students and those from higher- and middle-income students. There are many provinces . . .", Danielle goes on to answer my question, " . . . actually Nova Scotia is one of the only provinces that has eliminated its needs-based grant program, one that we had."
Now I've heard your deputy respond to these comments, and I would like if you could take a few moments at this time to respond to Danielle Sampson's comments, in terms of if you see the need in this province for a needs-based grant, such as the one that was described in her comments?
MR. MUIR: I would respond to it in this way, Madam Chairman, we're currently about to embark on negotiations with the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. If we are successful, those scholarships will be needs-based, with some element of grant in that. However, the Student Loan Program is indeed needs-based, and of course we've introduced a Debt Reduction Program, which obviously, if a student meets the criteria, makes all the payments, continues to work in Nova Scotia, will see about 50 per cent of the Nova Scotia portion of their student loan forgiven. Maybe it's not needs-based - you could say it's needs-based, because presumably people who have student loans get it because they need it. Therefore, there is the opportunity to have a significant portion of the Nova Scotia student loan removed.
MR. ESTABROOKS: Thank you for those comments. I am now actually going to talk about student loans. Your deputy is on the record, as he spoke in response to me at the committee which I attended, and he was of course accompanied by Kevin Chapman, which was a good use of committee time that day, when we were looking at student loans. This took place on Tuesday, February 22nd.
In his comments, Mr. Cochrane says about student loans, "It's a convoluted system. I, for one, have been quite critical of the relationship between the Province of Nova Scotia
and provinces in the federal government. We would have students in this province, depending on where they went, that may be dealing with three different service providers . . ." concerning their student loan, a convoluted system.
Mr. Cochrane goes on to say later, "The client goes through a very convoluted process . . . My opinion does not surprise them . . .", he's talking about the federal government, " . . . but I think we have to focus on the client. The client is the university student or a post-secondary student, going to the community college, university or the private career colleges, and it is a bit of a quagmire to work their way through it."
Now, first of all, I want to qualify my comments by saying that the student loans people have been very good, they get back to us when students bring concerns to our attention, when they happen to drop into your office, or I've seen them in various other circumstances, working in a restaurant or a local establishment, and they come up with problems about student loans, and I say to them, well, give me the details, put it on paper, let me tell you what I can do for you, and then we have a follow-up meeting with these students.
Students, when it comes to student loans, become very quickly frustrated with the process. I know that on many occasions post-secondary students probably find it quite difficult to believe - that's being a bit sarcastic, I take that back - they might find it a bit ironic that the Deputy Minister of Education is agreeing with them, it's a quagmire and it's convoluted. Now they're not pointing fingers necessarily at Kevin Chapman and the people in that department, but they are pointing fingers at the fact that the student loan process is at times extremely frustrating. It's extremely frustrating for them as young men and women.
I would like you to confirm, if you could, Mr. Minister, and hopefully you will, that you would agree with your deputy, that it is a convoluted system and a quagmire. For once, I completely agree with Mr. Cochrane.
MR. MUIR: The fact that the honourable member and the deputy are agreeing makes me wonder whether I should even venture into this realm. You had the direct interface with the deputy in that committee meeting on February 22nd - which, by the way, is George Washington's birthday, a little history fact today. (Interruptions) Well, he also mentioned February 2nd, which is my birthday. (Interruptions)
What he was saying is that the position of our department really is that we think the student loan programs ought to be integrated. We recognize that some of the criteria and the conditions of the Canada Student Loan Programs differ from the criteria and the conditions of how the Nova Scotia Student Loans Program operates, the application forms, you have to apply separately for each loan, and the application forms aren't exactly identical. We understand that there is some room for streamlining this process, indeed making it more user-friendly. A number of other provinces have opted for integration of the student loans to improve services for students, and we are pursuing that option now for that reason.
MR. ESTABROOKS: I know we all recognize the importance of student loans, because it's of real consequence. I hear certain members of the Third Party wax eloquent at times about going to university. That particular day, I must say, at that particular meeting, I found it a bit ironic that a senator's son was talking about student loans, but let me tell you this penitentiary guard's son had a student loan. If I hadn't gotten that student loan, with a little bit of help - and I can say it now - under the table for other reasons, I would never have been able to go to university. (Interruptions) Because of the agreement that was made that I wouldn't have to pay my residence fee but instead I would have to work every morning in the kitchen detail at Mount Allison University, that was a hand up and a handout, and my father and I both took it graciously.
But when it comes to student loans, students have to have faith in the fact that the right people are getting the loans for the right reasons, and the universities or community colleges are not just based on admittance because of the fact that your daddy or your mother has a cheque book that can get you there. Let me tell you, I have dealt with many young men and women in the school system who are exceedingly qualified and very rich in thought, but maybe dad or mom doesn't have the rich in the pocketbook to get them there. We can, under no circumstances, allow our post-secondary institutions to end up becoming elitist, open to only the people who can afford to send their children there. Thank you for those comments.
I'd like to turn to the topic of another negative headline, in my opinion, and it comes from The Daily News, Cathy Nicoll and Shaune MacKinlay, that school fees are a cash cow, so it's with great interest that we always look at these lists, whether it's the AIMS list or the school fees list. I want to share this with you, Brookside Junior High School, population 425 students, two years ago, generated $462,757, and that revenue from that small little junior high school on the Prospect Road was revenue that came into the principal's hands, and it came into the principal's hands through a number of sources. Of course that includes the dollars that were brought forward through fundraising for school trips, fundraising for extra activities, fundraising for, in some cases, the necessities that were identified by the school advisory council.
I don't live on the Prospect Road, but I want to use this comparatively, that Ridgecliff Middle School in Timberlea raised approximately $270,000, Tantallon Junior High School received, in the way of revenues from various sources but the community is where they're getting it from - the moms' and dads' pockets, the grandparents' pockets - $300,000 in funds that were raised.
Mr. Minister, this has become a huge problem. School fees and fundraising all get clumped together, and that's the first thing we must associate here. School fees, in terms of when the kids register at the first of the year, what specifically are they paying for in the package? If your son or daughter is in high school, some schools in some boards can have
a lab fee, you can have a yearbook fee, you can have an athletic participation fee, you pay for your locker, you might have some other things involved there, if you're in a computer course and you have to make sure that there's a certain amount of money available because of potential damage to the computer, that's the topic of school fees. I would like to talk about that first, school fees.
We have to get a handle on this thing. In certain boards, school fees are out of sight. You have a package where if you have two children in a high school, and you're coming home with a bill of $300 that you have to put across - and there are such places, there are such schools. Most of them, unfortunately, are located in the HRM. But is anyone in your department really seriously looking at this issue of the problem of school fees? Secondly, I'll come to fundraising in a moment.
MR. MUIR: The amounts of money raised and some of the bank accounts of schools in the province, particularly in HRM - it seems to me I can remember, perhaps it was in that list, where a school had something like $0.5 million in the bank. I would expect - you talked about $462,270 and $300,000, those are big numbers. The school, $425,000, that really is $1,000 per student, a little bit more than that. I wonder if the cafeteria revenues are included in that, and I believe one of the schools that the honourable member referred to is a P3 school, as well, in terms of revenue, how they account for it.
I guess our concern really is, of the Department of Education, whether children are asked to pay fees for access to public school programs that we fund. We are really concerned if students are paying for what is mandatory. We've conducted a survey of all Nova Scotia school principals to try to collect information on curriculum-based school fees. I think we have most of the information in now, but because of this time of year we haven't really had the opportunity to fully analyze what we have. We will have that, and I don't see any reason why we wouldn't make that information available to everybody. We may have to knock something off it, but it's not something we intend to keep secret.
MR. ESTABROOKS: I've had the occasion of a number of very pleasant meetings with Bev Mullin - Ms. Mullin is the Past-President of the Nova Scotia Home and School Association. She has brought this concern to my attention. At one time she was a constituent of mine, before boundary redistribution took place. There are examples that Bev brought to my attention personally that in certain situations fundraising actually involves things that you would consider a necessity in a school.
There have been fundraising drives in certain schools around this province for school desks. So if a principal, along with his school advisory council, made the decision, with input from the school staff, that we need some new school desks, you make the contact with whatever company it is, or whoever are the current people in school furniture, and you actually end up fundraising for school desks. You can't get any more basic than that, and that's a huge concern.
When we have kids who arrive at our door at home, selling chocolate bars, heaven forbid, but they still do that, or tickets or various things for a trip to Quebec City as a member of the French immersion class, that's good. These young men and women are showing some initiative, they're getting out there doing some fundraising, they're making sure that they're contributing to the cause. I can say, just last Saturday evening we had a very successful Brookside fundraising auction of which I had the privilege of being the auctioneer. You can imagine, if it's hard to listen to me for an hour in this House, how would you like to listen to me for two hours, auctioning? (Interruptions) That would be tough.
We made lots of money, in excess of $5,000. Let me tell you, the communities are at the stage, they've had it right to here. You see another ticket or another chocolate bar, and I won't tell you where they are usually positioned, but it's usually Friday afternoon and I'm walking into my favourite NSLC, and there they are. You run the gauntlet, you have the soccer kids - and they're all school kids. They know where to put them, the teachers know where to put them, because of the fact they're selling tickets, they're selling chocolate bars. I'm concerned about the fact that we have a problem when it comes to selling things for necessities. I look forward to the report that you're coming forward with.
Mr. Minister, I receive many press releases in the run of a year, from your department. I must compliment them, most times I'm well aware of events, although on occasion I've been late for some of them. I must say to you and to your staff that I do appreciate the heads-up. I did receive, however, a very amusing press release from Francis MacKenzie, Liberal Leader, for immediate release, April 4, 2005. MacKenzie says, "Province-wide Consistency is Needed in Public Education." I think he's beyond stale, but he's not the new Leader anymore. It says in the opening paragraph, "Nova Scotia Liberal Leader, Francis MacKenzie today announced that he wants Liberals and all Nova Scotians to consider standardized testing and curriculum in public schools throughout the province." I'm not going to read the whole release to you, because it's just nonsense.
Are you telling me, Mr. Minister, that we do not have a standardized curriculum across this province? I would be shocked, and I would be appalled if that were the case. But that's what the Liberal Leader is challenging you and your department about. Do we have inconsistencies in curriculum across this province?
MR. MUIR: I can say to that, and I understand why the honourable member somewhat smiled at that release, considering some of the questions that have been asked about standardized testing the past year, but indeed there is a program of studies for schools in Nova Scotia, a set of standard curricula guides for teachers. There are some local options, so I guess there would be some, in those local options, courses. The other thing is that within some courses teachers are given the freedom to make a selection from the approved list of materials. So the text read in one classroom, in an English class, might not be the one that's read in another one. But clearly, no, the curriculum, the aims and objectives are standard across the province.
MR. ESTABROOKS: What a relief. That was my impression from the get-go, that we have standardized testing, and it's something we need to make sure that we monitor the success of children. I would hope that at times there would be more input from teachers in the classroom level. Standardized curriculum, that is a given, that is what we have all been working for forever, that's one of the most important requirements that, of course, we have as teachers, based upon the guidebooks, based upon the curriculum people who are giving this advice. I want to tell you, I had a laugh that day. That was not something that I wanted to mock, but something I had to bring to your attention. I'm relieved with it.
I want to talk, though, about a topic that's of some concern to me, and that is, of course, the special needs kids who continue to fall through the cracks. Marilla Stephenson - and I referred to Marilla earlier in my comments the other day - I can quite candidly say I don't always agree with her but she stirs it up, and I know that we can say there are some difficulties involved when journalists take on school issues, because maybe they don't understand the whole thing. An article she wrote recently about how the education system is failing special needs kids, I take that to task.
Teachers are doing their best. They are in a situation where they have immense demands put upon them. The concern that I'm going to address, if I may, is the fact that - and I hear from school principals about it in August, and I hear from parents about it in September, that their child, who is, in various degrees, identified as a special needs child, who's in a regular classroom, and that is the way that it must go, that is a wonderful decision that I fully support. The concern that I have is that when it comes to the teacher's aide, the student's personal mentor in those classes, that there seems to be a great discrepancy in training across this province for the assistants who help out teachers with these high-needs children.
I think it would be something that the department should be considering very carefully, because in certain special needs situations there are people who need real wonderful skills to be able to be a teacher's aide, I know the terminology changes from board to board and so on. Has the department looked at this issue? Is it a concern for you as the minister that there is a discrepancy in training for this particular, very important position, when you are a teacher's aide in a classroom that has some high-needs children?
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, the issue of the teacher assistants or teacher aides or learning assistants - whatever board you're in, it seems to have a different name - between 1993 and 2000, actually the number of teacher's assistants in the system increased by about 111 per cent. It's a huge increase in the five years since then. I would not be surprised if it had increased by another 50 per cent, and perhaps more than that.
In April 2002, all school boards were served aid on the recruitment and training of teacher assistants. Generally boards reported that teacher assistants they hired have the basic qualifications, using the department's Teacher Assistant Guidelines as a minimum standard. However, they also felt that teacher assistants may need additional training after being hired. As a consequence of that, the school boards in the province now would have adopted a policy which will be in place, I believe it's this year, September 2005, and I stand to be corrected on that, that any person who is hired as a classroom assistant or a teacher's aide, or whatever you may choose to call them, will have to go through an approved training program. I think, really, the time of bringing people in without some training is past.
MR. ESTABROOKS: Heaven knows whether I'll get a chance to talk to you further on Monday, with the people in my caucus and the time that they want. So I've saved this one, it's of real importance to me. It's something I know you're going to support me on, Mr. Minister. The new high school that's being built is a wonderful contribution to our community. It was great to have you that day. A huge concern in the community is, now wait for it, the athletic field is not a regulation football field. Mr. Minister, I know that's a topic near and dear to my heart, and so do you, and I'm not saying it tongue in cheek. I know what the requirements will be when it comes to building schools, and school fields are sort of an add-on. Do you have any assurances that Sir John A. will have a regulation football field when it is completed?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Minister, it's not necessary for you to answer that question today. Our time is up. At this time, we thank the member from the NDP caucus for his questions today.
The honourable member for Halifax Clayton Park.
MS. WHALEN: I think we have about 10 minutes left today, so I have a few questions to continue on. I'd like to talk to you about the graduation rate for our Grade 12 students, really the attrition rate. How many are we losing who don't graduate, that's what I'm looking for. I had been asking for some figures, and I've heard the department is talking about 85 per cent graduate, but I think it's lower than that. Could you give me some update on the percentage of our students who graduate and, more importantly, the percentage we're losing?
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, I'm just looking for that detail. In light of the comments that I heard from the member for Timberlea-Prospect, do I understand that estimates for Education are going to continue into Monday, because I was under the impression they were going to stop today?
MR. CHAIRMAN: The member did not give me any indication, and I don't know about the Liberal caucus.
MR. MUIR: I had a closing statement, that's the reason. That was my initial understanding, but then somebody said it was ending today.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Remember that the estimates are finished today at 1:14 p.m., and you're now addressing the question of the member for Halifax Clayton Park.
MR. MUIR: The graduation rate in 2003-04, Mr. Chairman, was 82.8 per cent. The senior withdrawal rate in 2003-04 was 8.5 per cent. Now, I think the question that she was asking was, if you went back 13 years or 12 years and took the number of students who entered school versus the number who graduated, and I know that information used to be available, I assume that it still is. We'll endeavour to find that information for you.
MS. WHALEN: I appreciate that, Mr. Chairman. Through you to the minister, I had asked for some information from the library on that, and what I gathered from it was they look at Grade 9 participation rates and then figure out how many were there in Grade 9 and how many graduate. That's where you figure the 82 per cent. What I had pointed out to me by a number of educators is that there's a lot of attrition between Grade 8 and Grade 9. Again, I go back to my tremendous surprise to see that kids are dropping out that early. I would like to make the comment that we should be looking at Grade 8 participation rates, if that's available.
Again, I know you don't have student numbers and you don't have tracking of students to the extent that you might like. I think there's a big difference between Grade 8 and Grade 9, if you were to look at those participation rates vis-à-vis the graduating class four years later. I don't know if that is corroborated by what your understanding is, as well, but I'm not going to let you answer, Mr. Minister, because my time is short.
I'm going to go right to another question, maybe you could combine the two of them, and that is the capping of class sizes. I know that this is a very popular thing, and parents like smaller class sizes, but here in the city where our schools are sometimes really crowded, keeping the class size to 25 can be enormously expensive because they need more schools or they need to move students to another location, maybe bus them out of their area in order to accommodate them at 25. Now, again, from the academic community, they are saying that to get an increase in scholastic or academic performance you really need to have something like 15 students per class before it starts to be demonstrated that it's beneficial. So going to 25 may satisfy parents and perhaps it's helpful to teachers, but it doesn't really correlate to improved educational scores. Could you comment on that, because it's just such a huge cost to cap these class sizes? At least one school board has told me they could do so much more if they had the dollars and could put it into more resources and more special teachers in the classrooms.
MR. MUIR: Mr. Chairman, the class size initiative which this government has undertaken the past three years is the first time in Nova Scotia where the government has actually come out and said thou shalt not have more than x, occasionally there are some exceptions in a class. We understand that that initiative is working quite well, and indeed we provided additional monies so that could occur. In other words, the teachers would be funded so that that class size initiative could be implemented.
The feedback has been pretty good on it. Now, the honourable member said that she had some people who said, well, don't give us the class size initiative, give us the money instead. I guess if that was the position of the board or something like that and the request came formally, I suppose we'd look at it, but we've not really received any of those requests yet I don't think.
MS. WHALEN: In fact that was what was said, that if they had the extra money they could have better impact on the student outcomes by having the money that they could then put, rather than separating classes and having split classes and so on, to having some more specialists come into the classroom, maybe the extra teacher assistants that they need, the other supports that would allow the teacher to be really effective with the students that they have. That is what I was in fact told. So that's where that is coming from.
I had a question on student loans, and I think it's very important. I've had, as an MLA, a number of calls from people who have been denied student loans because they have been working prior to that application for the loan. These would be then more mature students who no longer fall under their parents' income in terms of their eligibility, they stand on their own two feet. But if they work at a minimum wage job for the eight months or however many months that are measured before they apply to go to university, they're supposed to have saved a huge amount of that income, when you consider that these are independent adults who have to pay for their apartments and homes and their transportation to and from work.
I wanted to raise the issue with the minister that it seems to me the whole process of applying for student loans is definitely geared to young students coming right out of high school, who are still under their parents' guidance, and not to the ones who are a few years older who have now made the decision to seek some higher education. That, as I say, has come up quite a few times in my short experience. I think it's a real problem, and I wonder if you could speak to that from your position as Minister of Education?
MR. MUIR: The student loan portfolio, I can say that the processing of activities that go on at the student loan office, if people get their applications in on time and complete, and they're reasonably, efficiently processed, normally where people come to me with problems with student loans, it's because information is not there. Then, obviously, sometimes they disagree with the decision, and I guess this is what the honourable member is talking about.
You mentioned minimum wage jobs, but if a person is fully independent, then that wouldn't be a barrier because you wouldn't reach the threshold of income where you would be denied a student loan. On the other hand, I know it's a horrible thing to say but I know personally of instances of students who have taken student loans who really did not need student loans and ended up then saying, well, I have to pay it back.
The issues around student loans are perplexing. I was surprised to hear the member for Timberlea-Prospect, in talking about student loans, saying he was a good enough quality athlete to get a grant and aid as a student athlete, but I think I'm going to have to check that one out. (Interruptions) But the issue of making . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time has elapsed for the estimates this afternoon.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. RONALD RUSSELL: Mr. Chairman, I'm unsure as to whether or not we have completed the time of the estimates. (Interruptions) No? In that case, I move that the committee do now rise and report considerable progress.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
[1:14 p.m. The committee rose.]