HALIFAX, WEDNESDAY, MARCH 28, 2018
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
Mr. Chuck Porter
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Would you please call the Estimates of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
Resolution E5 – Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $1,397,782,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, pursuant to the Estimate.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Just before I recognize the minister, I’ll just let the House know normally the minister is standing when he answers a question and the member is standing when they ask, but based on the fact that our minister is unable to stand at length for periods of time, he will remain seated and I would offer the same ability to the member to remain seated and we can carry on with a good, respectable debate this evening.
So, I recognize the honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development for his opening comments and to introduce his staff.
HON. ZACH CHURCHILL: Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman, I appreciate your indulgence in allowing me to break with procedure and sit down due to the leg injury I’m dealing with right now. I want to thank the members opposite. We’re lucky to have a couple of physiotherapists in the House who have been a great assistance to me during this time. I don’t know - it’s too early to tell if the advice they’ve given me is good or not, but we’ll know in the coming weeks.
I’m pleased to speak to you today about government’s commitment and investments for our children and students this year in both P-12 education and the early years.
Our commitment moving forward builds upon the work that began last year in four key areas: changes to our administration and the way in which our education system is governed; our work with partners to improve classroom conditions for teachers; government’s commitment to inclusive education and enhancing our ability to provide that inclusive education to better outcomes for our students; supporting children and families during the early years to create future success. That’s happening through an expansion of our regulated child care sector, which we are investing in heavily, and also the expansion of free universal pre-Primary for four-year-olds in our province, which is a service provided by our department.
Before I begin, I would like to introduce the staff who are here with me today: Cathy Montreuil, our Deputy Minister; and David Potter, Director of Financial Services. I do want to particularly acknowledge Deputy Montreuil and welcome her to her first Budget Estimates as the new Deputy Minister at the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Before I continue with some highlights about Deputy Montreuil’s very distinguished and applicable career and experience, which we’ll benefit from greatly in Nova Scotia, I do want to recognize in the gallery our Director of Communications, Pamela Menchenton, and our Director of Policy, Sara Halliday, as well. (Applause) They are lovely people who are worth our applause. That’s for sure, Mr. Chairman.
Deputy Montreuil brings more than 30 years of experience working in education. She has taught in elementary and secondary schools and special education programs and has held positions as vice-principal, principal, superintendent, director of education, and also associate deputy minister for the Province of Ontario. We are pleased to have her join the department, and I look forward to working with her on many important initiatives that will benefit our education system and, more importantly, our students and children within it.
Deputy Montreuil and David will assist me today in answering your questions. If there are any questions that we cannot answer, of course, we do have staff who will help us produce answers as quickly as possible - if at all possible, during our time here in the House. If not, we will provide members with that information when it is available.
The future prosperity of our province begins with some of our youngest Nova Scotians, Mr. Chairman. To ensure they continue on a path of success when they reach our public education system, we are investing more in quality education in this year’s budget, which we have done every single year that our government has been in power. Budget 2018-19 will continue to invest in Nova Scotia’s public education system so that students, families, and educators have the resources and supports they need to succeed. We will also continue our focus on the early years by supporting preschool-aged children and their families with enhanced access to child care that is affordable, accessible, and sustainable in our province.
This year, we will invest $80.1 million more than last year. This represents a 6.1 per cent increase, and that brings our total estimated budget for 2018-19 to almost $1.4 billion. The Education and Early Childhood Development Department is the second-largest department, after Health and Wellness, in our provincial system.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, our path forward this year is focused on four key strategic areas. In accepting Dr. Glaze’s report, Raise the Bar: A Coherent and Responsive Education Administrative System for Nova Scotia, we are accepting a stronger education system for our students. I had the great opportunity to visit each region before the legislative session started. I met with administrators and staff from the regions, and I met with teachers, principals, and parents through the school advisory councils. It was an important experience and opportunity for me to hear first-hand feedback from the front lines, Mr. Chairman. Under the previous system with our boards, that was actually prohibited. In fact, one of the first letters I received as minister was a request from the boards to not meet directly with the principals’ forum, the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, or front-line workers because that was part of the protocol under a previous system. A new system, of course, allows us to open up these channels more proactively and consistently.
Changes will be made this year that will see a shift of resources from administration to classrooms to support students while giving parents and teachers a stronger voice for local education priorities in their schools. It is important to recognize that these and other changes to come are fundamental to our education system. We have not experienced a change in our administrative and governance structure in more than 20 years in this province, Mr. Chairman. We are moving from a fractured system with eight independent authorities to one integrated and unified system, which I believe will be to the benefit of students in this province.
The structure of the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial, or the CSAP, will remain unchanged, but they will have an education Act that speaks directly to their structure and the important role that they play in the system, from an HR perspective and from a cultural and linguistic perspective. Legislation will be introduced to make this happen. This is a significant milestone, I know, for our Acadian and francophone communities in Nova Scotia as they have important roles that they need to continue to play in our education system, especially for the Acadian and French-speaking students and families in our province.
Any dollars saved from implementing the administrative review changes will be reinvested into our education system to protect the programs that we have in place for our students. For example, our school advisory councils will have a budget allocation this year offering them an even greater voice in matters of education and an ability to direct spending in their own school communities. That is a first that we will have in this province. We anticipate the dollars to be approximately, depending on how much is saved through this on an ongoing basis, around $2 million. We will enhance the vital role and influence of these SACs and examine areas for improvement such as ensuring that we do a better job having representation from communities in underrepresented areas right now and ensuring that we have the diversity that we need on those committees to make sure that they are operating effectively by having the multitude of voices that are required from our communities to do that.
In her report, Dr. Glaze recommended that the voices of Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotians be heard at senior administerial levels as well, Mr. Chairman. We are creating two new roles at the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to elevate these voices within the structure of the department. Those will be permanent positions. We are in the process of finalizing the roles and responsibilities of those offices, and those job postings will be out this spring. I look forward to having new talent in our department that will be focused on areas of Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotian education. We have had a significant achievement gap with those communities for a very long time, and it’s time that we do start taking some meaningful action to address that achievement gap.
Our 15-member Provincial Advisory Council on Education will also have representation from all regions of diverse backgrounds and experiences, including someone with experience in inclusive education. I do want to thank the member for Dartmouth South, who presented an amendment to our legislation, which we accepted, that would ensure there was a first-person voice on that group. I think that will be to the great benefit of any minister that is sitting in this privileged position on an ongoing basis.
Reinvesting in our education system is not only about dollars and cents. We will give teachers and principals more autonomy over learning materials. They are in the best position to direct the funding that’s currently available in our system to purchase the materials that they believe are best for their students because we believe our teachers on the front lines know best what our students need in their classrooms. The changes we make here will create the solid foundation of our education system, upon which all other improvements in education will be implemented. It will support the delivery of provincial education policies and programs that are consistent and equitable to all Nova Scotian students regardless of where they live or go to school.
Our schools welcome more than 118,000 students every day. Each day, they are instructed and supported by more than 9,000 teachers. We are fortunate in our province to have high-quality teachers who bring their best to our children and to their students every day. As Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, I often hear that our system needs to change, and I also hear about the amazing work of our teachers and how they help our students each and every day. I continue to be impressed with the collective knowledge and commitment of our teaching workforce, of our administrators, and of a group of people that doesn’t get mentioned enough in this House or in the public discourse, that is our TAs, our EPAs, and all those great assistants and other staff people who work in our schools to make sure that we have great places to go to school each and every day in our province. I do want to thank them as well.
Government is committed to quality education. We know our teachers are too. We know that we must work together in this area, and we know that improving classroom conditions for teachers improves classrooms for students and leads to better quality education and better outcomes for our students. Through the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, we are listening to and working with teachers directly. I have had the great opportunity to meet with the council on several occasions and discuss the great work that they are doing.
This is a first in our province’s history. This is the first time that teachers have actually been brought to a decision-making table within the department and had the ability to actually direct resources and direct the development of policy in the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
This year, we are budgeting an additional $10 million to improve classroom conditions. This will bring the total available budget that the council has to spend to $20 million. Approximately $10 million of that budget has been spent thus far, and I look forward to seeing where the council directs the next round of spending.
The Council to Improve Classroom Conditions will determine which priorities will benefit from that funding. Last year, the council achieved great progress on behalf of teachers and students, highlighted by the hiring of 99 new teachers to implement class caps in Grades 7 to 12 - this is on top of the class caps that were implemented from Primary to Grade 6 - the hiring of 40 new teachers to support literacy and math at junior high levels, and grants to more than 40 schools to support school based initiatives. The hiring of those teachers are also on top of the 671 new FTEs that our government has created in the system for math and literacy supports primarily, and other supports that we need in our schools.
They have developed a new provincial student attendance and engagement policy. This is also a historic policy in our province. We have not had a provincial attendance policy in Nova Scotia any time before in our history. This is a first, and the feedback we have been getting so far has actually been quite positive in relation to student attendance. I’m sure the situation differs from school to school, but generally speaking, the attendance numbers have improved as a result of this policy and as a result of the 14 pilot projects that we’re engaged in to improve student attendance. We have attendance support workers whose job it is to help kids get over the obstacles that are preventing them from getting to school. They’re connecting them with government resources if it’s necessary to do that. This isn’t about dragging kids back to school, as in the past in previous stages. This is about understanding what unique and individual challenges our students are facing in terms of getting to school at all or on time and assisting them in overcoming that.
A core priority for the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions in 2018-19 will be a focus on the provincial assessment policy. We will work with the council and its partners to develop an assessment policy with a goal to implement it in 2019. One thing that we have heard consistently from teachers is that the amount of data collection and entry and paperwork that’s involved with current assessments is taking away from their focus on teaching. That’s a challenge that has been created in the system. The council is helping us identify which data is most critical for decision-making and allowing us to focus that data collection in a way that does free up more time for teachers to focus on teaching.
Reading Recovery is an intervention program that supports literacy by providing individually designed one-on-one lessons to students in Grade 1. This is a program that was cut by the previous government that we have brought back to success. We will invest an additional $3.3 million this year to expand Reading Recovery. That includes 49 new Reading Recovery teaching positions. This will bring our total annual investment to $10.6 million, covering about 96 per cent of schools. By 2019, every school in the province will once again have access to Reading Recovery, which I think will be a very good day for students in our province.
We continue to provide significant investments in both math and literacy, including finalizing a new mathematics strategy in the 2018-19 school year. We look forward to sharing more details of that strategy in the near future.
Access to hands-on learning for high school students will also increase as more skilled trade centres open across our province.
In April 2017, government announced capital funding to create seven new skilled trade centres at Cobequid Educational Centre, in Truro; Riverview Rural High School, in Coxheath; Sir John A. Macdonald High School, in Upper Tantallon; Digby Regional High School; Richmond Academy, in Louisdale; Amherst High School; and Central Kings Rural High School, in Cambridge. Amherst High, Sir John A., Central Kings, and Richmond Academy will all be open in 2018-19 to offer programs to students.
Overall in this budget, we are investing $1.8 million to support skilled trades programs across the province. This is also an area where Nova Scotians have told us our education system was lacking. This is an important area for us to ensure that all students have access to the best opportunities that can be made available to them. We are on track to have 25 skilled trade centres in place by 2019-20, and the planning has already started for a new skilled trades offering in the culinary arts, which is really exciting.
The well-being of our 118,000 students of course is a top priority for any government that has the pleasure of sitting on these benches. Students today encounter many challenges that their parents may not have faced when they are in school. Some experience bullying, others peer and societal pressures. The biggest difference today from our parents’ generation is how the Internet and social media amplify some of these challenges and experiences, Mr. Chairman. As parents, teachers, administrators, and decision-makers, we have a responsibility to acknowledge that mental and emotional health is just as important as physical health. As the world around us changes, we must also change to meet the needs of our kids. Students should always feel that they can turn to a teacher, a principal, or a guidance counsellor for support and advice. I think it’s critical that those same professionals act online in a way that provides a good role model and mentorship to our students so that we can improve everybody’s behaviour online to better mental health and emotional outcomes in our system.
To support the needs of our students, we will invest $1.6 million this year to expand the SchoolsPlus program. SchoolsPlus brings a range of services together, including mental health services, into schools where students and families can easily access them. This is also a great model to bring other government services to bear on situations for students. We do have a strong referral network to the Departments of Justice, Community Services, and Health and Wellness so that it’s not just our teachers or administrators who are taking on the burden of some individual challenges that students might be facing that are outside their area of expertise and job description, but we’re also ensuring that those government services that need to be available to our students are available to them in a way that’s easily accessible to them.
As Jennifer McCarron, the IWK clinical manger of mental health and addictions, said: “The school setting offers clinicians an opportunity for early identification and intervention when students are experiencing mental health and addictions difficulties and disorders. Overall, partnerships” through SchoolsPlus “strengthen supports for students, reduce barriers and improve access to needed care.”
To date, SchoolsPlus supports more than 270 schools, through 31 hub sites in every county across the province. There are 30 facilitators, 37 mental health clinicians, and 51 community outreach workers who serve close to 90,000 students. That’s about 75 per cent of all of our students who now have access to SchoolsPlus. In 2018-19, we will look to expand SchoolsPlus to support students at 54 more schools, including adding 11 more mental health clinicians and are committed to making it accessible to all students by 2019-20.
Our commitment is in line with a recommendation from Dr. Glaze to expand SchoolsPlus. As part of this commitment, we are undergoing an evaluation process also to ensure that every community receives the maximum benefit of SchoolsPlus supports. One of the challenges that was brought to my attention when I was on the road meeting with teachers and administrators was that the program was actually being delivered differently in each board to different levels of success. A new, integrated system will also help us ensure that the best practices of SchoolsPlus are being applied in every single region of this province.
Government has been clear. We are taking a student-centred approach to education. Our decisions are always guided by what we believe to be best for our students and their success in the academic learning environment and, of course, their success in life once they graduate.
Improving the system of inclusion in our province is another big priority for this government. We know, and teachers and parents have told us, that the inclusive classroom model we now have in place is not working. It is not producing optimal outcomes for all of our students. As with the administrative review, it has been over 20 years since the model of inclusion in our province has actually even been reviewed. I’m happy that we have been able to have an open and frank public discourse about this because it is a sensitive issue. It hasn’t been an easy one for any government to engage the public in a conversation on. But we’re there now, and I think we’re going to see some positive results in this regard over the course of the next few years.
We have three experts who were chosen to examine the model of inclusive education. The Commission on Inclusive Education released their report on March 26th, and it was titled Students First. Like the members of the commission, government is 100 per cent committed to a student-centred approach to education and an inclusive classroom model that works. The commission indicated that we need a needs-based approach for a truly inclusive model of education in this province, one in which we provide more support and professional development for educators and additional funding for behaviour, health, and education specialists to assist students and teachers. The commission has also asked us to work with our partners in the education system, as well as within government to unite our system in our approach toward ensuring all students can be successful no matter what their needs are.
We know families and students have been waiting for this report. I want to tell them today that government is committed to changing the model of inclusion in this province and to ensuring our students’ needs are being met to the best of our ability. We accept the objectives of the report and are excited to move forward with our partners to achieve those.
Work is already getting under way in areas that will make the biggest difference for our students and families as soon as September. Let me name a few of these top priorities. We will hire more specialists to help students dealing with behavioural and mental health issues and get to work with our partners on guidelines and strategies in these areas, as well as for autism, where we do currently have gaps in the system. We will target funding to address the needs of students in complex classrooms. We will immediately identify and develop training and professional development that will better support teachers, teacher assistants, and para-professionals in meeting the needs of our children.
One of the interesting findings that the commission had was that two thirds of teachers who responded to surveys indicated they did not feel well prepared to take on some of the challenges around special needs in our education system. That is a major problem. That is where the system has been failing our teachers, and we plan to do a better job addressing that gap in training and expertise.
We do need union support for that. I’ll be pretty frank about that in my opening comments because development is an issue of collective bargaining. Right now in Article 60 if I’m not mistaken, it is not dictated that professional development should be focused on the needs of the students. This report has recommended that we actually have professional development opportunities that are directed towards the needs of the students. Recognizing that two thirds of the NSTU membership has indicated that this is an area of concern for them and a challenge for them, I really do hope that we are able to move forward co-operatively with the union in this regard to ensure that dollars that we’re investing in professional development are benefiting the teachers and are also looked at through the lens of improving their ability to support kids each and every day in the classroom.
We are continuing, as I mentioned earlier, to expand the Reading Recovery program. This was also a recommendation in this report. We will immediately begin working on the intensive treatment programs, which we know are particularly needed in Cape Breton and Halifax. We will ensure that parents of children with special needs are represented on our school advisory councils, and we will build on our Nova Scotia success stories, like the programming in Lawrencetown, to find ways to bring these and other transition programs to more young people in more communities.
Lawrencetown was an experience that really stuck out for the commission members. They’re providing alternate educational programs for students to great success. We want to make sure that successful program is replicated in as many schools as possible.
There are many commonalities around what the members of the commission and Dr. Glaze identified as to why the current model of inclusion and our current administrative structure aren’t working.
I want to provide you with a few of the direct quotes from the Students First report. “One obstacle to progress is the lack of clarity and consistency in how inclusive education is defined and implemented in Nova Scotia. For many years, the policies, procedures, and terminology for inclusive education have been interpreted and applied differently from school to school and region to region . . .”
“There are too many silos at every level . . . These silos hinder the collaboration, communication, and sharing of responsibility that is essential to successful inclusive education. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators are all frustrated with the maze of rules, regulations, procedures, and paperwork they must navigate when trying to secure programs and services.” in this province.
I’ll add that these statements are applicable to the current board structure, but they’re also applicable to silos that do exist in government - silos that we have been trying to break down between departments to do a better job providing holistic services for our students.
The commission was “struck by the fact that we are a small province with a large number of policies. In the seven English school boards, we counted approximately 200 policies, guidelines, and procedures listed under the headings of student services and/or special education.” - 200 different policies. “At the department level, approximately fifty policies, guidelines, and supporting documents were found for special education and student services on the . . .” website of the department.
This is recognizing that the department needs to change as well. We need to do a better job ensuring that there is a coherent approach to giving our students with special needs better service.
One of the final comments they made in this regard was that we need a “unified model of inclusive public education that responds to all student needs and aligns multiple changes at all levels of the public school system toward one common goal: increased student success.”
This quote I found to be very consistent with Dr. Glaze’s recommendations and her assessment of our challenges in our education system. I am encouraged that have seen three independent reports - Myra Freeman’s report, Dr. Glaze’s report, and now a report on inclusive education - which have identified these challenges related to the fractured nature of our system in such a small province. I do find that this has been validating for what our government has been trying to do. Both the commission’s report and Dr. Glaze’s report are challenging us on the education system to unite around a singular goal, and that’s to help our kids be more successful no matter where they are in our province or what their needs may be, Mr. Chairman.
From here, we will work with our partners in the Teachers Union; special education programs and services committees; superintendents, who will now be regional executive directors; principals; the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions; our principals forum; and what will be a professional association for our administrators in the system to make sure that we’re all working in unison on next steps. To help with implementation in 2018-19, government has earmarked $15 million in this year’s budget to help build a new model of inclusive education. These dollars will be focused on behavioural supports, additional health supports, and training that we need to make available. Those are the three areas that we will be focusing on with that funding.
Mr. Chairman, this is just the beginning. This is a multi-year plan, and our government looks forward to speaking to increased investments each year that follows that we know are going to be focused on our children and their needs. As the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, I have had opportunities to travel our province to meet with people who are passionate about education and their children, their students. Some of my most memorable moments to date have occurred during my visits to child care centres and pre-Primary classes. It’s a really joyful experience going into these classrooms and watching our kids engage in a play-based curriculum, which we know, based on evidence and science, is going to be to their great benefit.
The budget continues to invest in growing and strengthening an early years system that supports our children from infanthood into school. In January, our government signed a three-year $35-million early learning and child care agreement with the federal government that will enable significant investments in affordable, accessible, quality, and inclusive early learning for Nova Scotian children and their families, and child care opportunities. For 2018-19, we will invest $15.5 million from that agreement in the early learning and child care system in Nova Scotia. Some of the work on this plan began in 2017-18 and is already making a difference.
In February, we made changes to the Child Care Subsidy program to make regulated child care more affordable for 1,600 eligible children and families in this province. In fact, we have made more changes to the subsidy program in the last two years than had been made in the two decades prior, Mr. Chairman. That investment will continue into 2018-19. The maximum subsidy is now available to families who earn up to $35,000 per year. It was just shy of $21,000 per year two years ago. That is a significant increase in the financial eligibility criteria when it comes to those who will get the highest amount of support from government in pursuing child care opportunities.
We have also increased the amount of subsidy available for all families making up to about $70,000 per year. For the first time in the history of this province, we have made part-day programs available for subsidy. That has not happened before. Subsidies will be available for families pursing programs that are providing part-time daycare.
These combined changes will save Nova Scotian families over $5 million annually. We’re also working to make child care more accessible. Over the next two years, we will grow child care by up to 1,000 regulated spaces, through family home daycare programs and child care centres. We will focus on supporting the creation of the type of spaces that families need, such as infant spaces, where there currently is a gap in the system. This is also critical because to date, only one in four of our kids have access to child care and early learning in this province. We need to bring that number up to four out of four.
As Donna Buckland, operator of Giant Steps Child Care in Upper Tantallon said, “As an operator of a child care centre and a family home day care agency, I am happy to see the release of a plan that will support more child care spaces in areas of our province with identified need. This funding will help ensure long-term, sustainable, high quality, inclusive child care programs for our families and children.”
We also know that infant care costs more to deliver, Mr. Chairman. As of April 1st, we will offer an incentive of $4 per day per child to child care centres for every infant space they create and maintain to ensure that additional costs associated with offering infant care are not passed along to families. Federal funding will also enable us to move markers with regard to quality. We will also launch an aggressive marketing campaign to help the child care sector recruit and retain more skilled early childhood educators.
Looking ahead, we are developing a workforce strategy to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of the early childhood education workforce in our province. Inclusion is another key indicator of quality in our child care system, and we are committed to working with the sector to embed inclusion in their early learning environments and practices. We are pleased to say that we are creating a bursary program to support individuals from under-represented populations to access training in the field of early childhood education because we know that our workforce should be as diverse as the children and families that it serves.
We are also strengthening our investments to the sector in early intervention services to enhance supports to children and families from diverse communities who have additional needs. Most importantly, to support a deeper shift in how people work with children of all abilities and needs, we will invest in the creation of new positions, inclusion coaches. They will work with the providers across the province to promote and support social and emotional competence in infants and young children.
This government is also making investments in the pre-Primary program, Mr. Chairman, which I’m very proud and excited to talk about. We are investing $24 million in 2018-19 to support new and existing pre-Primary classes across the province. Of this investment, $17.6 million will be used to open 130 new pre-Primary classes which, after two years, brings the total to 184 pre-Primary classes province-wide.
I believe that that brings the number of spaces up to 2,600 if all of those classes receive the maximum amount of students, which we are actually expecting will happen in most cases. That’s 2,600 kids who wouldn’t have had access to early learning who now will in our province. That’s an exciting day for a lot of families, and we’re not done yet. We will continue to roll out the pre-Primary program until the 2020-21 school year, when every four-year-old in Nova Scotia will have access to this program.
The evidence is clear: giving children access to high-quality early learning programs will help them be more successful in their academic years and years post-graduation. We know our schools, early childhood educators, and most importantly, our children are transitioning very well. During the first year of the program, more than 800 four-year-olds and their families benefited from this early learning opportunity. Again, that number next year is going to be brought up to 2,600.
In fact, everyone - the families, the children, and the community - benefits from this program. We have heard about a pre-Primary program in Halifax that, while enjoying some outdoor time, noticed an elderly neighbour needing some extra help with their Fall raking. The early childhood educator and the children helped the neighbour to gather leaves in her front yard, a really touching story. We’ve heard from the program in Chester Basin where the pre-Primary students are making friends in Grade 2 as they read together.
In pre-Primary, children learn through play and outside play, which is a big component of the Nova Scotia early learning curriculum framework. One day, the pre-Primary class in New Germany, while exploring a wooded area nearby, created a marching band with objects found in the forest. The children are surely enjoying their time, and the parents enjoy having the peace of mind knowing that their kids are safe and well-cared for, and taking part in a program that helps them be the best they can be.
Tonya Matthew, from Richmond County, who has a child in pre-Primary said, in her own words: This year our school, Felix Marchand Education Centre, was very lucky to receive the pre-Primary program. This program has so many benefits. I was unsure of what to expect, but it’s turned out to be one of the best decisions to enroll her. She has learned so much through the program of learning through play. My child was a shy girl when she started, but her teachers, Ms. Sandra and Ms. Tina, have worked with her to use her big voice and big words. They’ve helped her to build self-confidence that we have been trying to instill in her. The daily routines that she is learning to be doing in school prepare her for her first academic school year. I find these words to be very moving.
The program is also free, which for some families means the difference between accessing an early learning opportunity or finding alternative care for their children. Tasha Pitcher was interviewed by CTV and said, “I would have had to struggle to come up with money for other daycares, where here she’s able to go for free” Parents aren’t the only ones who see the value of the pre-Primary program either. We have voices from Cape Breton who have said that “wow” would be the only word to describe their impression of pre-Primary.
The program also welcomes and supports all children who are eligible to attend. This includes about 40 children this year with identified special needs, some of whom are attending a program for the very first time. For some children, pre-Primary is a game-changer as they prepare to start Grade Primary.
One little boy with autism in one of our programs, when he started the program, he attended for a few hours a day a few days a week. That was all he and his family were ready for. That’s okay because pre-Primary is all about supporting and preparing our children. He now comes every day and for most of the day - a big improvement and a big step in a few short months for this child.
The pre-Primary program is also creating jobs and bringing people home, like one master’s-level early childhood educator who, after living and working in Australia, moved home to Antigonish to work in pre-Primary in Sherbrooke.
We are even receiving recognition from abroad. Nancy Carlsson Paige, an expert on early learning education in the United States, wrote an article for the Washington Post citing the amazing work we have done here in Nova Scotia on creating our own homegrown early learning curriculum for the early years in this document that guides all of our pre-Primary programs.
Education and early childhood development will continue to be priorities for this government, whether it is in the classroom with students, in child care and learning opportunities for children, or behind the scenes to ensure we have a system that supports students, children, parents, and teachers.
All of our decisions, all of our actions are about our students and their success in school and beyond. We have been through some very difficult decisions as a government, but I very much look forward, over the course of the next number of years, to seeing the impact that these decisions will have on our students and on the outcomes that they achieve in class each and every day.
With those few words, I’m happy to open the floor for questions from the Opposition.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Welcome to the debate this evening. We’ll start with the honourable member for Dartmouth East.
MR. TIM HALMAN: Good evening, minister, Director of Finance Potter, and Deputy Minister Montreuil. Welcome to Nova Scotia, deputy minister. I taught in the Bruce-Grey Catholic School Board in 2001, so I know many of the principals that probably worked for you, like Gerry Casey and Glenn Miller - quite well. Welcome.
Minister, I want to thank you for your opening remarks: the overview that you gave pertaining to key elements in the budget, key elements in the Glaze report, and key elements in the inclusion report. My questions will pertain to some local matters along with questions on the estimates in the budget and, of course, on inclusion.
Without any further ado, let’s get to work. First off, minister, I want to thank you for the assistance you provided Ian Forsyth Elementary in Dartmouth East. The level of benzene in that school was of great concern to parents. I think anyone who was following that story could certainly understand why that was the case. Again, thank you for getting occupational health in there quickly to get that matter resolved. The parents in my community appreciated that.
So my first question is this, minister - with the new education administration being established and in light of recent events regarding the air quality that you know about at Ian Forsyth Elementary, how will you ensure that a clear communication policy and procedure is put in place to ensure that all staff and parents are informed of planned or unplanned maintenance activities at their schools, especially regarding health and safety?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Just before I recognize the minister, I will remind ministers and members about the word “you.” Questions should be directed to the Chair, not directly to the minister or referencing the word “you,” but I’m not going to interrupt you. As in past debates, I’m not going to interrupt you each time. I’ll leave it to you to try to manage that on your own, unless it gets too out of hand.
The honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
MR. CHURCHILL: Of course, health and safety is a top concern for families and students. Right now, we have different communication protocols from region to region. We will make sure that we are learning from the very best protocols that deliver the best information the quickest to families and ensure that those practices are being employed from one end of the province to the other. Quick and effective communication to parents is important, but there are some challenges there. Even here in HRSB, we have had some faux school board accounts on Twitter that are actually providing parents with misinformation. We do need to find the most effective way to get through the noise that’s out there online and make sure that good accurate information gets to our parents quickly.
Also, I want to thank Mr. Potter, who corrected some of my comments from my opening remarks. Before I forget to correct myself, I hope the members will just allow me a quick second. On the pre-Primary numbers, I had said that there will be 2,600 in total. That number is now actually going to be up to 3,400; 2,600 is the amount that we’ll be covering in the new 130 classes, and that’s on top of the 800. So the number of four-year-olds who will be able to access this program will now be up to 3,400 not 2,600. I just wanted to make sure I got that on the record because I did misspeak in that regard. So thank you for your indulgence there.
MR. HALMAN: Within the topic of communication to parents, it was indicated to me by a number of parents in Dartmouth East whose children attend Ian Forsyth that the report that was issued - the nature of the report was written almost for other engineers to understand. So the report was very complicated. Minister, would you or the department commit to ensuring reports of that nature are more publicly accessible, in other words, that it’s written in a context not necessarily for professionals but for parents?
MR. CHURCHILL: I would never presume to tell our technical experts how to formulate a report. I think that they should be speaking in technical terms when we’re talking about technical issues. I also believe the role of communications staff in our regions and in the department needs to be to make that information more accessible to the public so that it can be understood fully. I would never presume to tell those folks how to write a report because they have an expertise that I don’t have. We want to ensure that we’re benefiting from their technical assessments, and I would leave it up to them to best describe what those technical challenges are.
To the member’s point, easily accessible language is really important when it comes to communicating to everybody, myself included, on these technical matters. So I’ll leave it up to the communication professionals within the department and within our regions to make sure that public communication is delivered in a way that makes sense and that people can understand.
MR. HALMAN: Minister, will the department commit to making public all maintenance issues, activities, and planned remedies prior to work starting on a school building so that all stakeholders are aware of what is happening in their schools? If we look back on that situation, minister, it was clear there was a breakdown in communication. Obviously, as the MLA for the area, I would like to ensure that there are protocols in place to ensure that doesn’t happen again.
MR. CHURCHILL: I honestly can’t speak in great detail in terms of what those protocols are for communication. If the member has any suggestions on how they can be improved, we’re very happy to take that under advisement.
MR. HALMAN: On to a different topic, we have seen the reform of our administrative model here in the Province of Nova Scotia. Minister, does the department know how much money is required to rebrand school boards into regional education offices?
MR. CHURCHILL: We don’t have that assessed at this point, but staff are currently working with our regional leads to identify what those costs will be. Obviously, our goal will be to ensure that the costs are minimal, and actually we are looking at ensuring that in terms of the regional brand, that that remains consistent with what it is now.
MR. HALMAN: As a follow-up to that question, does the department know how much of the supposed savings from centralization is being used for things such as stationery, business cards, and signage?
MR. CHURCHILL: I think it’s important that I clarify the intention of this process. Integrating is not the same as centralizing. I understand that both can be looked at as being synonymous with each other, but this is about integrating our system better, taking the English side away from seven different regional, independent governance authorities and turning it into one. While with integration there is an element of centralization in certain regards, it is also our intention to decentralize some of the decision-making and put some of the decision-making powers back in the hands of our principals and administrators locally.
An example of that would be Dr. Glaze’s recommendation to give teachers, principals, and VPs control over funding for course materials. Right now that happens at the board level. In the future, that will actually happen at the school level, which we believe is a better model. It’s very easy to brand these changes as centralization. That’s a very easy way to understand that. I get that, but in fact, it’s a lot more complicated than that. I think that’s an important point to make.
MR. HALMAN: Does the department know the cost of keeping schools open that are going to be more than half empty in the Cole Harbour-Auburn family of schools, due to the suspension of the completed school review process that the minister knows about? How much money is being diverted from classrooms, Mr. Chairman, to maintain mostly empty buildings?
MR. CHURCHILL: There’s no money being diverted right now. The funding is currently allocated and has been allocated for those spaces.
We have paused the school review process for some really important reasons. I know it has been a frustration - I’ll speak frankly about that - to community members. I know there’s a worry that all of their work will be for naught. I first want to assure all the community members, who I know spent countless hours through that school review process on the options committee, that their work will be critical in terms of reaching a decision point on the capital needs of that family of schools. That’s important to note.
Any additional information will be cumulative to what has been compiled so far by that group, but there are some key questions and some changes in terms of process that need to happen. First and foremost, is space available for a pre-Primary program? We will begin to conduct a space audit across the province to know where we can put the rest of our pre-Primary spaces - where there’s space available, where there’s not, and where we’re going to have challenges so we can prepare. That’s very important. That’s critical information in terms of helping us make a decision in the Cole Harbour-Auburn school situation.
Also, the Auditor General has told us that he would like to see a more enhanced process that’s focused on needs of school communities. We are working on that right now, developing a better process for school review, closures, and new schools. Dr. Glaze has also asked us to improve that process by looking at more of a multi-year approach to capital planning.
We think it’s really critical, before we make any major decisions in terms of moving forward and in relation to these incredibly important capital investments that we have answers in all of those areas. We have budgeted, I believe, close to $25 million in this year’s budget for capital (Interruption) Sorry, $11 million. This is for one year in this budget.
We will be releasing our capital plan in June. That is our plan right now. I know it has been a long wait for those communities, for those students and those families. An answer is coming this summer in that regard. But it’s really incumbent upon us to take the recommendations from the Auditor General very seriously - Dr. Glaze as well - and make sure that we understand the challenge around space that we’re going to have for pre-Primary before we invest in these schools, which will provide education to their communities for generations.
MR. HALMAN: Again, as we know, the residents of that community want information on the status of those schools, so the sooner the better.
Minister, is the department able to table or bring an analysis forward that shows Nova Scotians the 7 per cent budget increase in our education system over five years? Can an analysis be tabled that that number is appropriate, that there is a strategic plan for that 7 per cent increase?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of having an independent look at the numbers, the Auditor General does provide that, broadly speaking, for our budget and commentary to the House in relation to the accuracy of the numbers that are presented.
In terms of the dollars that we have allocated for education, which is over $80 million, I believe these are in strategic areas. These are in areas that, in the election, we committed to improving, such as inclusion and more supports in our school for mental health and capital, as well - and for hiring more teachers.
We have actually hired more teachers each and every year that we have been in office. I think when you look at the number of positions that have been created - for the class caps, for the attendance policy workers, and for the math and literacy experts - and also when you look at the number of people who have been hired to replace retirements, we’re looking at approximately 1,300 hires over the course of our tenure in government. That’s almost unheard of. That’s happening at a time when there’s an enrolment decline in this province. That’s the first time that has happened in our province, that we have actually hired more teachers when enrolment is decreasing, and that’s something that we’re very proud of.
Obviously, that hasn’t meant we haven’t had our challenges or tensions with the Teachers Union or the front-line workers. But the fact is we now have, I think, the lowest or one of the lowest teacher-student ratios in the country because of these investments. These investments are in strategic areas, areas that we have been very clear, from our platform to our budget documents to our public communications, are part of the strategic areas of focus.
They are also being informed by the action plan that came from Myra Freeman, by the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, and by the Commission on Inclusive Education, as well. I think that’s another important note to make, that it’s not just government making these decisions in isolation. We have actually brought other voices to the table that are helping us direct these funds and policies that we’re moving forward with.
MR. HALMAN: The minister is aware that there is uncertainty, many questions around the reforms that are put forward in Bill No. 72. I have a number of questions I would like to pose regarding what I hear to be uncertainty. Minister, will there be layoffs due to redundancy between former school boards and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in areas like administration and areas like programming and technology?
MR. CHURCHILL: I do want to acknowledge the member’s comments around uncertainty. Change inherently breeds uncertainty and concern. Change is not easy for people in general. It’s definitely difficult when change impacts long-standing institutions and their norms and cultures. I want to recognize that change isn’t an easy thing. It does make people worried.
But I also would argue that it’s necessary. These changes that we’re moving forward with have been a long time coming and are important in terms of us achieving our strategic objectives to improve achievement levels for our kids, to address the achievement gaps that we have between certain learners in this province, and to make sure that we’re doing a better job applying consistent support for students with special needs from one end of the province to the other.
I do recognize it’s not easy. I recognize that these changes are transformative, in many ways, and have challenged all the major institutions that have been responsible for running our education system and directing it for a very long time. They have challenged us all in real ways.
In the case of the school boards, it has been existential for them. In terms of layoffs, I do want to recognize that these decisions impact the elected school board members who have been employed in that capacity. I recognize the worry and hurt that those folks have felt as a result of this process. I can empathize with how they’re feeling in a very real way. I know a lot of these folks personally. In my area, of course, I have had a very close personal relationship with the majority of the board members.
Making a decision like this does take a personal toll as well when you know that you’re impacting people in such a way. I do want to say that it’s not because of them or the quality of their work that we’re making these decisions. These folks have been dedicated, in some cases for many years, to their communities and the students. But this is a system issue that we’re trying to fix, which I believe has led to a lot of real challenges in terms of delivering the highest quality education possible to our kids. We are trying to fix the system.
Saying that, I do recognize that in doing that there are some individuals and groups of people that feel very hurt by this process. That is tough for everybody, but I do have to stay focused as minister on doing a better job for our kids. That’s where my focus is. Outside of those positions, there will be no layoffs. We have been pretty clear about that. There will be redeployment of human resources in our regional offices.
Dr. Glaze has told us to make sure that math and literacy supports - mentors, experts - are back into the classroom and not in the regional offices except for one day a week to prepare for their work. Right now, some boards are doing a really good job ensuring that those folks are back out in schools, and their success does vary from board to board. We want to make sure that all of them are out and working.
There will also be some changes to job descriptions. There will be permanent resources in place to support our SACs, so there will be some job descriptions that change within those offices. The title and perhaps some of the roles and responsibilities of our superintendents will also be changed to regional executive directors. Their line of accountability is shifting as well under our new cohesive system. There are changes happening, and there will be changes happening in these board offices, but I do want to assure people who are working there that these aren’t layoffs. Opportunities that we pursue, in my opinion, can be pursued over time in a thoughtful way that minimizes the impact to the jobs in those offices. It’s about being smarter and better and more effective with the way we deploy those resources, ensuring that we’re doing a better job, elevating the achievement levels, and elevating the supports that are available to our teachers and our students.
MR. HALMAN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Minister, of course, with all due respect, it is my opinion that a lot of that uncertainty that’s now within the system is completely unnecessary. The types of education reforms that were being asked for were quite different than what we saw contained in Bill No. 72 in the removal of school boards and in the removal of administrators from the NSTU. I know we have a difference of opinion on that. However, I’m of the opinion that this uncertainty could have been avoided and other paths, other reforms, could have been implemented.
Moving along, does the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development know what costs will come about where administrators are returning to the classroom, when they want to return to the classroom rather than accepting removal from the NSTU? Are there any calculated costs associated with that in the situation where an administrator decides to return to the classroom so that they won’t be removed from the NSTU?
MR. CHURCHILL: I do recognize that there is a difference of opinion in terms of these changes and our position. Those who have argued against Bill No. 72 and its reforms have made the case, as the member just has, that these aren’t changes that have been requested. In fact, if you look at the independent assessments that we have asked for from teams of experts and from different experts, these reforms are very much in line with what they have told us needs to happen to improve our system.
These changes stem from the Myra Freeman report, which brought together a number of education experts and thought leaders to help us develop an action plan that resulted in the Avis Glaze report being done. Myra Freeman asked us to review the administrative model because she and her team recognized the challenges that it creates. Myra Freeman also told us that administration matters and that we should look at taking administrators and those who have supervisory capacity in the system outside of the union. Dr. Glaze had very similar findings in her report.
In fact, if you move to the inclusion report, which is really important - I think an inclusion report is one of the most important reports and group of recommendations that this province has seen in a very long time. You actually find consistent diagnoses of the challenges that a fractured system is creating. So I have disagreed and will continue to disagree with the member or any member who suggests that governance doesn’t matter in our education system, that how we administer ourselves and manage the system doesn’t matter. I think it does. I think there is substantial literature out there, even outside of the three independent reports that we have had that are evidence based, that points to the importance of these things.
I do want to remind the member the reason why we’re moving forward with these. We have been living in a situation in Nova Scotia where statistically, if you’re a student studying in certain areas of this province, you will not achieve the same level of success as students studying in other areas. That has been consistently true.
There have been some who have blamed that on poverty. That has been the chief narrative of acceptance of these outcomes. I would argue that the extensive amount of literature out there and evidence that has been accumulated over at least the course of the 21st century will show that poverty is actually not a key determinant in student outcomes.
What matters more, primarily and first and foremost, is teaching excellence. What matters secondly is leadership excellence. I’ll bring the member’s attention to some key findings around the issue of administrators and what we believe to be a conflict of interest in the union membership.
There’s an article here, which I will table, from The New York Times - I will ask that the Pages photocopy this so that I can keep a copy of it - which looked at the success that Chicago has had in terms of student achievement and graduation rates.
Now, we can all recognize that Chicago is known for being a highly-impoverished city - or for having communities where there is a high level of poverty. Chicago public schools have been successful in increasing their graduation rates by nearly four times the national average, to about 77.5 per cent. That went up from 56.9 per cent. The percentage of Chicago students going to post-secondary education after graduation also increased from 50 per cent to 63 per cent.
According to David Brooks, who wrote this article, “These improvements are proof that demography is not destiny, that bad things happening in a neighborhood do not have to determine student outcomes.” Actually, what does is excellence in leadership. In this article, he puts a special emphasis on one particular thing: the role of principals.
This is a quote from the article. Principals who are given support training and independence actually have the greatest impact on student outcomes. “If you manage your school well . . .” He uses the word “manage.” I know that for some reason that word has become a faux pas in the education sector but it is important, in my opinion. I don’t associate the negative connotations with good management as others do, perhaps because I don’t come from the education or the secondary sector. But if you manage your school well, kids will do better.
Independence is key to this. The fact of the matter is that administrators have not been independent in our system in Nova Scotia, and it’s because of that membership in the union. That has hindered them in a number of ways.
I want to recognize that there is not consensus on this amongst administrators in this province. I learned that on the road. With 1,000 people, it’s very difficult to get consensus, but I would argue that there are a lot of principals who privately have concerns around that membership because it has impacted their ability to focus on performance issues that exist in our schools. Knowing that teaching excellence is the number one determinant for student outcomes, that is a major problem. It impacted their ability to fulfill their obligations to the Act in relation to student safety during work-to-rule. It would have done it again had there been an illegal strike action taken, which I’m thankful didn’t happen this year.
Those are problems, in my opinion, and I think the extensive evidence out there on student achievement would support my argument in this regard.
I want to bring the member’s attention to another article written by Michael Z. Zwaagstra, who has a B.Ed, has a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Education, and has a Master of Education in educational administration from the University of Manitoba.
This is a brief written in Manitoba, and the title of it is “Should Principals be Union Members?” I’ll bring the member’s attention to his conclusion: “It is clear that an independent association devoted exclusively to the interests of principals and vice-principals would be a more effective way for school administrators to receive support. The Manitoba Teachers’ Society has the improvement of working conditions for teachers as its primary goal, and while this goal is commendable, it has often led MTS into direct conflict with a large segment of its membership - principals.”
According to Mr. Zwaagstra, “A new association, the Manitoba Principals’ Society, would be the best solution to this ongoing conflict of interest. Manitoba’s school administrators are worthy of being represented by an organization that has the enhancement of working conditions for principals as its primary goal.”
This is also consistent with the experience of many administrators in our system in Nova Scotia, which they have expressed to me directly, whereby there has been an incapacity to get their priority items on the agenda for union action. The reason for that is very simple. We all respond to the incentives around us. All of our institutions do. Our political Parties do, people do, the media does, and the union responds to their incentives as well. When only 10 per cent of their membership is made up of administrators and 90 per cent isn’t, that obviously and logically leads to a situation where it becomes very difficult for those folks to get their priority items on the agenda.
The solution that we have found, which I would argue has been a good compromise, to help us achieve our goals of having a better system of support for principals that will be focused on their priorities, that will focus on leadership excellence - recognizing again that that is the second most important determinant in student outcomes - will allow them to be and support them in being better leaders in our schools in ensuring that their issues are properly addressed by government.
There’s a reason why we needed to have a principals’ forum: to make sure that we knew what was going on in the minds of our administrators so that we could act on their concerns, because their concerns were not being represented adequately, according to many of them. Not everybody, and I want to recognize that, but according to many of them, they were not being reflected by the union.
We now have a solution, I think, to that situation, whereby our administrators have been removed from the bargaining unit. They will have a professional association that will be self-directed and will be focused on their priorities, but they will also maintain an affiliation with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, which allows the process for re-entering the classroom, which ties into the member’s question, to be very easy, because it is going to be the same as it is now. Administrators who disagree with government’s decision, and if these decisions impact their career decisions, will easily be able to re-enter that workforce.
I don’t have a cost assessment of that, because that happens now, so that same process will be in place. But at the same time, achieving their independence helps us, for one, to get rid of that conflict of interest that has impacted their ability to assist their staff in terms of performance in the way that they believe is best, and it also takes away their conflict during a labour situation.
I will remind the member that governments tend to negotiate every two years. For these collective contracts, it is usually two years, so there is a lot of negotiation that happens. Particularly during times when governments choose to be disciplined in spending, there are a lot of opportunities for governments moving forward for those sorts of conflicts. I think we have found a reasonable solution to the challenges that we have identified in the system, and I think that it will also help address some of the concerns that administrators and the union have had.
MR. HALMAN: Thank you. I appreciate you going over some of the ideas of some leading thought leaders. I thought they were intellectuals, but I guess “thought leader” is the new buzzword now.
The issue with those ideas, while I believe they certainly have merit, is that you need to get your key stakeholders to buy into them. As I’ve indicated in this House before, absolutely, teaching excellence, administrative excellence, class composition, class size, and social economics always have to be factored in as well, in order to set students up for success. But it appears that the path set out to achieve those things - to put those things in place - has created more uncertainty and more destabilization. That, of course, needs to be addressed. I’ve asked you a number of times the process by which you will set about to repair that relationship. Any model put in place, if you don’t have the public educators on board with it, is going to be problematic.
That being said, we now see an emphasis on school advisory councils. This idea can go back to the 1990s with previous Liberal Governments, site-based management and so forth.
Could the minister outline what costs and responsibilities will be given to SACs, beyond money for jerseys and playgrounds and guest speakers? Could the minister outline the scope of responsibilities of school advisory councils?
I’m getting a lot of questions from people in my community, and there appears to be an information vacuum. I believe Nova Scotians want to know what the role of SACs will look like moving forward. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
MR. CHURCHILL: Two parts to that member’s question are really important - buy-in from the sector and the role of SACs. I’ll start with the comments around buy-in.
I recognize there’s a challenge in terms of implementing major changes when there is a segment, perhaps a large segment, of that profession that doesn’t necessarily agree with you or that is concerned about it. I do want to have a frank conversation with the member about that. I believe that we, as a government, have a responsibility to Nova Scotians to make decisions that we believe are in their best interests. I think there is ample evidence to point to areas where we have been failing our students in the education system. I feel obliged, I feel I have a responsibility, as difficult as these decisions are, to make them to improve the system for our kids.
Yes, the way this has been rolled out has been a challenge. I did not anticipate the tension being as great as it was, but I also think it’s important to say that it’s not solely these decisions that we are making that are having an impact on the working environment for teachers in this way, or in the way that they are interpreting what these decisions mean for them. Buy-in is a two-way street. The challenge from my perspective is knowing that I have an obligation to make difficult decisions - decisions that do create some uncertainty for a finite period of time, in my opinion.
I also think some of the tactics that are employed by the union leadership, by a segment of the teaching population online, when it comes to how these issues are discussed, when it comes to information that is inaccurate and not reflective of the intentions of government or the outcomes, which is being spread very quickly and effectively to large segments of the teaching population, are also problematic to having a constructive discourse on these changes.
I don’t know how to overcome that part of it. I’ve tried at every stage to communicate in a way that has been respectful, that has acknowledged the real concerns that are out there and the opposing viewpoints that have been expressed.
I don’t know what the solution is to a situation online where the conversation results in name-calling and personalizing these changes and vilifying those who are making these decisions. I also can’t control the tactics that are employed by the union when it comes to these things, if they disagree with us.
I do believe that their actions are as important to this process as the decisions I make as government, as my actions are. I believe that the actions of teachers are also as important as my actions.
We do have to find a better way of talking to one another. I acknowledge that I need to improve in that regard, as minister. I acknowledge there is a trust issue that stems directly from the fact that we had to legislate a collective agreement in order to maintain our fiscal plan, but I need some willing partners on the other side to do the same.
Like in any relationship that goes through difficulties, I’m very committed to keep working at it, to keep the lines of communication open, to communicate in a way that I hope is respectful of those who disagree with my position. But I really do need some help on the other side to make this better and to make sure that the discourse is more constructive so that we actually can talk about the ideas, the policies, the outcomes that we’re trying to achieve, the areas of mutual agreement, because there are many. It’s difficult to do that the way this discourse sometimes, in my opinion, degenerates online and in the public. That’s a problem that I think we need to keep working at. I accept the role that I have in that, but again, I believe it is a two-way street.
In terms of SACs - essentially, I heard from SAC chairs in my consultations. There was not a real desire amongst the chairs to take on additional governance responsibilities. That was very consistent in every single region where I met with all or the majority of SAC chairs.
Where there is a high level of interest is in having some extra dollars to spend in the school communities, recognizing that it’s not going to be a significant amount of money - we’re probably looking at the realm of a couple of thousand dollars per annum that they will have control over - but also ensuring that there is a better and more direct line of communication opened up between our parents and our school communities with the regional office. So we are going to have human resources dedicated to SAC success and transfer of information to regional offices, and also to making sure that those who have the greatest stake in our education system, outside of our kids - the parents and our communities - have a more direct line of communication with the minister.
Essentially what you’re going to see is an ability to direct funding in the local school communities of small amounts of money every year; a direct line of communication and association with regional offices through dedicated human resources that will be there for the SACs to transfer information to regional executive directors; and to go back and make sure there is a better line of communication there between the regional offices and the SACs and a more direct line of communication between SACs and the minister. That will obviously be achieved through our work in the department with regional executive directors, who will be more closely linked to SACs. We are looking, I think, at having an annual conference where SAC chairs can come and speak to the minister directly.
Right now those will be three key areas that we’re planning on changing, but we also want to reach out to those SACs that are high functioning and do a really good job and are having the highest levels of success in our school communities, and see if there is anything we can learn from their examples to further enhance this network and their capacity.
MR. HALMAN: I want to thank the minister for his response. Talking about response, it’s my hope that there are observations as to the response to the inclusion report. The response among teachers and parents, as the minister is aware, is quite positive. That is why on this side of the House we have been saying for a number of months that the order of operations in the proposed education reforms are incorrect, that first we should be moving forward with classroom reforms.
If one looks at the response from teachers and the NSTU, it’s a good response. There are a lot of questions about the inclusion report, but one sees a desire to work with government on this.
I want it noted for the record that the response to this report is positive, and if this had been brought forward months ago, I believe that the response and the goodwill would have been drastically different.
Moving on to further questions relating to the impact and uncertainty of Bill No. 72, my question is, local regional agreements between the NSTU and the school boards that control issues like staffing, leave, and sick days are remaining in place for now. Could the minister indicate the time frame for harmonizing those agreements?
MR. CHURCHILL: I know that it has been part of the narrative of those who have opposed the governance and administrative reforms to suggest that the inclusion reforms should have happened first. What I will say is that while I do believe that from a political standpoint, in terms of soliciting buy-in amongst teachers and administrators, politically that would’ve absolutely been ideal, I think there was a lot of confusion around Dr. Glaze’s recommendations. People were expecting it to be focused on inclusion, when in fact it was a very separate report.
From that standpoint, yeah, absolutely it would’ve made sense to come out with inclusion first. Had we done that, the reaction to governance and administrative reforms may have been different. I don’t think that’s a guarantee, because I still believe that the union would’ve been aggressively opposed to these changes, because it does impact them in ways that I understand that they’re not happy with.
But if you actually look at some of the language in the inclusion report, which I’ve noted in QP today, which I’ve noted in my opening comments, and which is referenced around 10 times in the report, the inclusion commission is actually saying that one of the issues with how inclusion is rolled out has been the fractured nature of the system, has been the inconsistency in application and policy and resources for those with special needs. One of the challenges in terms of helping kids in every region in the province has been these inconsistencies and lack of coherence. I think if you actually look at these arguments that have been presented in the commission’s report, that points to the fact that in order to do this right, we actually need to look at some of those fundamental problems that we have in the system - fundamental problems that have led to a situation that the Interim Leader of your Party, in her comments on Bill No. 72, recognized impact the supports that are available in different ways, to different levels of success from region to region.
From a non-political, practical standpoint, from an operational standpoint, I would argue that it is absolutely essential that we make these administrative changes first. Unfortunately, politically the opposite might have been the case from that vantage point. But I think if you look at the rationale presented in this report, if you look at the nature of the concerns that were expressed by Dr. Glaze, if you look at the same concerns that were expressed by Myra Freeman, you will see that in order to properly implement any provincial policy or program to the greatest effect from one area of the province to the other, these changes are critical.
One of the challenges that we have had in this province - and again, I’m not blaming this on individuals. It is a system problem and exists in other provinces as well. Every jurisdiction has the board structure, because the boards were there first, because education first began in communities. What we have done is create a Byzantine structure that has tried to keep this structure from a previous era in place, to mixed success from region to region.
I would argue, and I really do believe, that the literature of all three reports validates this position, that these foundational governance and administrative changes are required to implement the inclusion report in a way that is the most effective and has the greatest outcome for our children and the system.
Sorry, there was one more question. The member also asked a question around local agreements.
As the member rightfully stated, currently there is no change to any local agreements. The reason we’re able to do that is because the legal entities of what we are calling Regional Centres of Education will be intact as they are now. While we have changed the governance and elements of the administrative structure, we are also keeping those regional entities in place, which means a number of things. For one, local collective agreements won’t be impacted. That goes for the NSTU. That also goes for the NSGEU, CUPE, and any collective agreement that’s in place for any employees in the employ of our regional offices. It makes who parents communicate with the same as well.
It also ensures that the people who are making decisions around school closures, who are making local operational decisions - which I know that the member for Queens-Shelburne brought up - it’s actually those very same people who will be making those very same decisions as they do now. Parents will be contacting the very same people in relation to those local issues.
There is a difference that needs to be clarified for the House once again, because there does seem to be some confusion on the difference between the governance body of the board, that exclusively made decisions on governance and policy, and the operations of the system, which operate with a high level of independence from the governance boards in many regards and will still operate with a certain level of independence from the department on issues pertaining to local operations.
MR. HALMAN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. The assertion that school boards were perceived as almost a Byzantine labyrinth - with all due respect to Deputy Minister Montreuil and the Deputy Minister of Finance and Treasury Board, often that perception is seen with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development here among teachers and parents.
The notion that school boards were a problem was minimal, I believe. There were some complaints, but not enough to warrant the vaporization, as I’ve described it, of elected school boards in the Province of Nova Scotia, especially when - conversations with the Nova Scotia School Boards Association - we know there were alternatives that existed, alternative governance models that could have been examined. Again, I go back to my main point that the order of operations was backwards on the types of education reforms brought forward. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that.
Sadly, our time is slowly starting to come to an end, but the good news is, I’ll be back after my colleague the member for Dartmouth South has some time to question you as well.
Here’s another question for you, how much money are teachers going to be able to access to select their own curriculum supports and curriculum resources as outlined in the Glaze report?
MR. CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, I do appreciate the difference of opinion here. I would still argue that having eight independent authorities in the system has created systemic challenges. It’s not because of the board members. It’s not because of their work or their performance. It’s a simple fact that the system itself, and its fractured nature, create the possibility of these things happening.
There’s the 33 per cent achievement gap from our worst-performing region to our best-performing region - like, consistently. Consistently and statistically, if you’re going to school in certain regions of the province, you will do worse than if you’re going to school in other regions of the province in different classes.
The inclusion report recognized, Glaze recognized, Myra Freeman recognized that the supports that are available for students are being employed differently, in such a way that it’s actually achieving different levels of success with our children. The question is, what do you do about that?
In our opinion, we need to evolve the system. We do need to integrate it. We need to eliminate the silos of authority that have existed because without doing that you will not change this, in my opinion, from a governance perspective. I know Dr. Glaze solicited the opinions of governance experts as well who also shared this point. So long as you have independent authorities in a system that are able to operate independently, you will see policies, programming and resources being allocated in different ways.
The unfortunate reality is that that has led to a situation where, statistically, our kids are doing better in some regions than others. That’s the problem we’re trying to fix. I’m not blaming it on the board members. It’s a system problem, and I think it’s important to change the system.
In terms of the funding that’s available now for purchasing materials, it’s approximately $7 million province-wide. Those funds right now are directed by board offices, and we are changing that to actually put those resources in the hands of teachers. We’re looking at $7 million in that regard.
MR. HALMAN: A 33 per cent achievement gap, certainly with my experience in the classroom, I believe there is validity to that. I have witnessed that. I have experienced it
I still don’t see the correlation, minister, between dealing with the achievement gap that exists within some communities in Nova Scotia and obliterating school boards and removing principals from the NSTU. While I certainly agree with the assertion that, in terms of public policy, that has to be dealt with, I don’t see the connection in the governance model that this government has brought forward.
However, we have a few seconds left. When I return, I would like to talk a little further, minister, about the $7 million.
That being said, we head down the Waverley Road, past Braemar Superstore into beautiful Dartmouth South.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the PC caucus has expired for the first round. Before I move on, three times in the last hour, I heard cellphones or some audio device. I would ask that you turn them to silent or off, whatever is necessary. That would include those in the gallery also. Thank you very much.
We’ll take a short recess for the minister, and we’ll return.
[7:33 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[7:39 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The minister is ready?
I now welcome the NDP caucus for one hour. The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
MS. CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you, minister and staff, for being here to answer these questions. Contrary to some chatter we were having in the hallway, I really do look forward to this as an opportunity to find out information. As long and late as these sessions go, especially as a new member, I actually do find it very helpful to move through these budget documents and other documents and just have a more relaxed opportunity to find out information.
I’ll just also start with a comment to say that I have a lot of respect for the work of both the senior staff and all of the government ministers. I recognize how hard your jobs are and the decisions that you’re making. I would never suggest that you’re making those decisions lightly. We do have disagreements obviously, but I would never impugn the motives or the personal character of any of the ministers, or the government, or indeed, of anyone, to the best of my ability. I recognize that this is difficult. This job is difficult for all of us in different ways, and I appreciate the availability and the opportunity to ask questions.
I am going to start this evening with the budget document, just to move through there and ask a few questions about changes we see there because, of course, they don’t come with a lot of explanation. I see the deputy getting ready there, and I’ll just start with the budget for senior management on Page 7.4. I see there’s the addition two FTEs, and I’m wondering what these are, what the roles and responsibilities are, and also, where these people will be located.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The minister just asked the member if you could repeat the question. He couldn’t hear.
I’ll just remind those in the Chamber to please just keep the tone down a little bit. Much appreciated. Thank you.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
MS. CHENDER: My question was about the budget for senior management in the department. On Page 7.4 of the budget documents, we see that there will be the addition of two FTEs. I’m wondering what these are, what the roles and responsibilities are, and where those will be located.
MR. CHURCHILL: I do want to recognize my appreciation for the member’s comments and for her approach in the House, debate in QP, during bills, and particularly during this process. I know the member is an extremely passionate advocate for educational issues. I think that the NDP caucus is fortunate to have that passion on the subject in their ranks. Also, I know the member is very well-read on these issues and takes the time to review even the budget documents, which are pretty boring for most people, myself included. I want the member to know that I do appreciate that.
I also recognize that, during debate on Bill No. 72, while the member and the NDP fundamentally disagreed with the changes in the Education Reform Act, the member took the lead in terms of, at the very least, ensuring that there were amendments made to improve the Act, from the NDP’s perspective. On two of those occasions, that member convinced the government that those improvements would be helpful as well. I do want to thank her for that.
I appreciate the comment on intent. It’s very easy during moments of conflict to get personal, and take commentary personally. That’s one of the challenges I think we have in moments of disagreement with the union and the teaching population to be honest, that it’s a natural human tendency to kind of personalize things. In this House, we do always have to rise above that instinct. I can recognize that I have faltered in that regard, I’m sure on numerous occasions in Opposition and in government. I want the member to know that I very much appreciate those comments, and I believe we all have to challenge ourselves to rise to the calling of these offices and ensure that the level of discourse we’re engaging in is focused on ideas and policy. I want the member to forgive me when I falter in that regard and thank her for those comments.
Those two positions specifically will be the lead positions for the Commission on Inclusive Education and the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions.
MS. CHENDER: So just to clarify, the lead, the executive director of inclusive education - if you had the title of those roles and also the location - will they be located at the department here in Halifax - and any detail on the roles and responsibilities?
MR. CHURCHILL: To clarify, those are executive leads. They’re not executive directors. Right now, those people, Kristen Tynes on the Commission on Inclusive Education and Donna MacDonald on the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, are executive leads who are housed in the department. Ms. Tynes is an FTE we’re borrowing I think from Community Services to help us with the important work we’re doing in the education department.
Since we’re on the topic of both of those individuals, I do want to express, on the record, my deepest thanks to both of them. They have performed remarkably and admirably in their capacities as these executive leads. Donna MacDonald has been a real key to the success of the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions in helping facilitate conversation, in helping provide broad policy perspective, and in ensuring that, as minister, I am prepared to execute effectively the recommendations that come forward. Kristen Tynes is has been a really great asset on the Commission on Inclusive Education, from a communications standpoint and from a project management standpoint. We wouldn’t be in the positive position we are without the work of both of those incredible, incredible people. Since we’re on the topic, I just want to take time to thank them.
MS. CHENDER: Right underneath that, the department’s Strategic Policy and Research branch shows a reduction in overall funding, one less FTE. Could the minister tell us which position was eliminated or moved?
MR. CHURCHILL: That is how we have actually funded the executive lead on the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. We reduced an FTE in strategic policy to make sure that we had that FTE available for the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, and that is common practice.
That has been common practice in every department that I have worked in, to work within our budgets. You find vacancies that are budgeted for, and then you fill those vacancies where they’re needed. That was an important strategic move on our part to make sure we’re executing the council’s recommendations.
MS. CHENDER: Moving to the Education Innovation Programs and Services, there are reductions here in the budget for Education Innovation Programs and Services as well as for Learning Resources and Technology. I’m just curious about why those numbers were reduced from 2017-18.
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of those reductions, that is actually reflective of a shift of resources to another area. In the department, we have a budget for the branch in terms of these resources that the member spoke of. What we have done is shift those resources to the budget for the Action Plan for Education, which was initiated under our previous minister. That reduction you will find a corresponding increase in the budget line for the action plan.
MS. CHENDER: Now I want to ask a couple of questions about the African Canadian Services and Mi’kmaq Services, lines on Page 7.8.
Later on tonight or perhaps tomorrow, I will have other questions in this regard. I’ll just bookmark here that the minister referred several times in his opening remarks to the Freeman report, to the recent Glaze report, to the things that have been waiting since the Freeman report. The minister didn’t refer to the BLAC Report which is a very important report, we all know, in our educational history and one that we are still waiting for action on in many regards. So that is background, and as I said, I think we’ll return to that.
I see that the budgets for African Canadian Services and Mi’kmaq Services are flat here, and there’s a net decrease in FTEs in the Student Equity and Support Services branch. We have had the chance to have a fair amount of conversation, and I think we’ll have more conversation in the next couple of days, about the loss of local school boards, particularly the diverse voices on those boards. Given the loss of those voices, is the minister concerned that there might, in fact, be an increased need for Student Equity and Support Services? Can the minister speak to why we’re seeing a decrease in the funding there?
MR. CHURCHILL: That’s a very important question. Staff have informed me that that is in relation to secondments from the department into the regional offices. That is not a reduction - it’s a move.
I will remind the member that there has been an increase in the department budget every single year we have been in office, since 2013. If you do see a reduction in resources, it means they are going to pop up most likely in another area. The reduction is in relation to a secondment of these positions to board offices, taking them closer to the front lines.
The member brought up some really important concerns around representation for African Nova Scotian and our Mi’kmaq communities. I do want to note that there is some concern right now, in this time of transition, in those communities. As late as this morning, I actually met with representatives from the African Nova Scotian community in Digby who expressed these concerns but also expressed their commitment to keeping our collective eyes on the future and looking for opportunities to ensure that these voices are embedded in the system, that agency is provided, and that resources are allocated in a way that will really target that achievement gap.
I want to recognize that the BLAC Report is one that has been outstanding in our province. I have already directed our staff to assist me, along with the Council on African Canadian Education and the Black Educators Association. I have also met with the Black Cultural Centre as well. I have given directives to staff, and I have expressed a need for support from those other three institutions to assist us in going after this achievement gap in a meaningful way. Looking at the recommendations in the BLAC Report that need to be executed can help us do that, and also looking at ways that we look at our curriculum, as well, our African Canadian history curriculum and cultural curriculum.
This was something that was brought forward to my attention by Craig Smith, who is retired now. He was an RCMP officer based out of Yarmouth for a while. He’s very good friends with myself and my mother. My mother actually taught African Canadian studies in high school, and she’s very passionate about that subject. Craig highlighted a gap in terms of the curriculum where the focus is really on the North American experience generally and some of the North American figures who are prominent in that history. Where we do have a gap is the local history in Nova Scotia, which was a very different experience historically than that of African Nova Scotians in the United States, for example. It’s not one that stems from a slavery background, but different challenges that existed, different elements of success as well.
We’re actually hoping to take the Black Cultural Centre up on their offer to help us develop a more local Nova Scotia-relevant curriculum in that regard. By finding ways to work together, the African Nova Scotian community, the Mi’kmaq community and the department, and making sure that were going after those strategic objectives outlined in the BLAC Report - and Reality Check as well, another report - I do believe that we’ll do a better job in terms of being successful in assisting all of our students to achieve higher levels of success in school and beyond.
MS. CHENDER: I feel like this is a topic we could go down a long road on, which I don’t think is a fruitful use of time at this moment, but I’m glad to hear that.
I certainly hope that the consultation with those groups and that frame would extend to the standardized tests in use across the province. We know that Bill No. 72 will increase our emphasis on those tests as a measure of student outcomes. It’s broadly thought, if not accepted, that many, many, many of those tests have a bias against racialized learners. I’m encouraged to hear that the department is taking these issues seriously, and I hope that will extend throughout the different educational tools and testing methodologies that we use.
Just to follow up on my last question though, given this shift, I’m glad to hear that the minister is meeting with these groups. Is there an anticipation of any shifting roles, for instance, for the Student Equity and Support Services folks, whether it’s on the front lines or in the department, to fill what the minister is calling a temporary gap that’s being created, where in some cases, certain communities, populations, and regions relied on elected representatives or appointed representatives that are no longer there?
MR. CHURCHILL: Speaking very frankly and humbly, this is one of those areas where I do require assistance in terms of figuring out where to go next as minister. I recognize the challenges, and I think the most effective way in terms of developing solutions is going to be led from the community itself. So, we are looking at establishing processes for that to happen.
Again, I do want to recognize the very real concern around the loss of those elected or appointed positions from the African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq communities, but I do think it’s important to recognize that those positions in a structure that, in my opinion, has been ineffective as a whole in addressing the achievement gap - which has been expressed as a priority from every single organization that I’ve met with from the African Nova Scotian community - I don’t believe is the answer either. So, to uphold a framework or a structure that hasn’t necessarily helped us in achieving solutions and better outcomes in that regard, I don’t think is the best option either.
So, it’s about figuring out - looking forward, recognizing that something has been lost for the community, I do want to recognize that. There is a sense of loss there. More a sense of a concern in terms of what happens next, but I believe that in the community there is also optimism, in terms of where we can take this now. I’m committed as minister to ensure that the voices from the institutions I’ve mentioned, as well as the community from one end of the province to the other, can help us in terms of developing a new system that does a better job.
I do want to note, though, that Bill No. 72, while part of the diagnosis of the issues that Bill No. 72 is trying to address, Bill No. 72 does not put additional emphasis on standardized assessments. That is one of the areas that we’ve looked at from a diagnosis perspective, in terms of identifying gaps in the system, inconsistencies in the system, but there is no mandate in that to have a focus on standardized assessment. But I think looking at student achievement, in my opinion, those are really important metrics that help us understand if we’re being successful from an academic perspective, recognizing that the story is different from community to community. So, it’s about figuring out ways to have a system in place that best suits the needs of each and every child in the system. So, I thought it was important to note that as well.
MS. CHENDER: I think we’ll talk about student achievement probably a bit later. I’m interested in particular - and I don’t want to talk about it now, but when we do talk about the inclusion report, if the minister has a comment on the difference in what the Commission on Inclusive Education, in looking at inclusive education, which includes all students in our province, looks at as a student success, which is a very holistic view, and what the Glaze report looks at as student achievement, which I would argue is a much less holistic view, in fact.
I mean, there are elements of that report that take into account all kinds of important issues, many of which I would argue were not actioned upon - the ones I thought were perhaps more important - but I do feel like there is a bit of a contradiction there. So, I’m curious to see how that plays out. I couldn’t help myself making that comment, so I’m sure the minister may have a response.
Just a quick follow-up in this area. I believe the minister said in his opening comments that we would be seeing those executive director positions - I don’t know if it’s this fiscal year or next. Is that the case? If so, where do they sit here?
MR. CHURCHILL: The member is right in identifying the different perspectives that inform our interpretation of student success. The inclusion report, of course, is on the overall well-being, socially and emotionally, of all our students, which is absolutely important. That was something that moved Dr. Glaze, as well - and so those are different things, but they are both critical indicators in terms of success. Student achievement is important. How well we do in school is important for the majority of the population, and for 90 per cent of our students in a system, they get what they need through the classroom environment. For a small percentage - 8 to 10 per cent - it’s a very different story, but where there is a glaring consistency in both reports is in the inconsistency from one region to the next of both of those indicators.
The Commission on Inclusive Education pointed out, I think accurately, the variants and supports for students with special needs, and the variance in the impacts and success of those supports. They found some really key examples of success, and they helped us understand that there are examples in our province where we are not achieving what we need to. Dr. Glaze found those same inconsistencies.
In terms of diagnosing a governance challenge, a structural challenge, a systemic challenge, looking at different indicators, and the fact that there are two different lenses in regard to these reports that we are looking at here, and the same conclusions that are being found, that is further evidence for me that the structural challenges are real, and that they are having an impact in both of these very important ways to student success and student well-being. I do see an important consistency there and I also want to note that the Myra Freeman report also noted this.
So, there is consistency in challenges and problems being presented by the structure of the system. I will inform the member that in having some frank conversations with my colleagues across the country, not to suggest that any are pursuing the same policies or approach that we are - I don’t want to get anybody in trouble in other jurisdictions - I will tell you that there is broad-based consensus amongst all those who are currently serving, or some of them anyway, in the position of Education Ministries, that there are challenges; inherent, systemic challenges that exist with the structure. It’s not just Nova Scotia that has dealt with this, other provinces have as well. I think that is important to note.
In terms of the funding for the executive director positions of African Nova Scotia and Mi’kmaq, the member will not find those budgeted in the operational budget of the department, and that is because the governance grants that were provided to boards, which we no longer need, the money saved from those governance grants will be used to fund these positions.
We do have draft terms of references for those positions and the job descriptions are being finalized right now. I have not seen those yet for final sign-off, but I am sure those will be getting to me soon. The postings for those jobs will be happening this Spring. I very much look forward to bringing on these two new, important positions, which I believe are allowing us to have focused resources on some of the key challenges that those communities face in the system. I think that will help us coordinate conversations around solutions and get to the solutions that we need to.
MS. CHENDER: Moving through the budget - I feel like I’m almost done with these questions - there’s a significant increase in the budget line for Non-Formula Program Grants, Page 7.10. Any reason why?
MR. CHURCHILL: That’s where the member will find funding for the Commission on Inclusive Education, the $15 million, and the remaining $10 million for the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, and that’s what the increase that she’s seeing is. It is the additional funds for both of those organizations, and the recommendations that are related to their work.
MS. CHENDER: There’s an increase in the budget line for buses - I will have more questions about buses, but for now, I’m wondering - I guess the assumption is that the busing costs will increase? I’m wondering why that expectation, and how the department arrived at this budget amount?
MR. CHURCHILL: So, that budget line is actually not the budget for transportation or the cost of busing. The member will find those budgets in the regional offices, so not reflected in the operational budget of the department. What that line is though, is the amortization and depreciation of the fleet, which we have to reflect in our budget.
MS. CHENDER: Okay, to shift gears just for a moment to Bill No. 72, I want to go back to an issue that my colleague from Dartmouth East raised. I believe the minister said that the savings from, I’ll just say Bill No. 72 - we won’t get into semantics around whether it was a reform, or a centralization, or maybe a mistake, I don’t know.
Anyway, the legislation: so, $2 million is the number we have, I believe, and the minister can correct me if I’m wrong. Just off the top of my head, when I look at that bill, I anticipate costs for two new positions, although I’m now being told these are coming out of operating grants, but presumably, those governance grants would be part of the $2 million savings. So, we’ve got two new positions, we’ve got branding, which is shockingly expensive, which I’m sure many of the employees of the department will know - so, all of the HRSB websites, letterheads and decals and everything else - we’ve got changing contracts, we’ve got program delivery, we’ve got staff training, we have changes in staff, we have a new provincial advisory council, which presumably will get some kind of stipend. Are these and any other costs that aren’t just right at the top of my head, being accounted for when we talk about a $2 million savings? Frankly, Mr. Chairman, I have a hard time believing that that truly represents a savings.
MR. CHURCHILL: So, in terms of some of the costs associated with new stationery and items related to branding, I want to assure the member that all those items right now that our regional offices are stocked up with will continue to be used until they are depleted. Then we’ll look at purchasing new items, based on the budgets that currently exist.
The member is right to conclude, or infer, that there’s not a budgetary savings that we are allocating because any dollar saved in relation to the administration of the governing boards will be reallocated into the system, so they will be reallocated in two key ways - one, as I mentioned previously, the governance grants. Dollars from that fund will be used for the creation of two new executive positions for African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaq communities within the department. The major portion of those dollars will be allocated to SACs for disbursement in their school communities.
There will be some costs associated with changing decals on buses, and I’m sure some costs associated with website branding, and those sorts of things. But as I mentioned earlier, we’re trying to minimize those costs. So, in terms of regional branding, at this point, I don’t think the plan is to change the names of the regions. There will be a shift from the use of the word board, consistent with legislation, to Regional Centre for Education.
I don’t believe we have a costing associated with that at this point, but our regional directors have been asked to come up with costing for that, but I don’t expect that number will be in the range of anything that’s going to impact our ability to provide funding to SACs or fund those two executive director positions.
MS. CHENDER: I appreciate that the boards - or the regional centres - will use their stationery until it’s done. I would assume as much. The point I’m trying to make is if we’re calling it a savings, then in my mind, it means there’s not cost associated. I think it’s the same thing as calling something a profit - if there’s no revenue, if there are no costs booked against it.
I guess I’m asking - you mentioned these operating grants or the governance grants that the executive directorship will come out of - what I am hearing the minister say, and I just want to confirm that, is that aside from changing some decals on some buses and websites, there aren’t any other costs that are going to arise. Will the provincial advisory council be getting a stipend? Presumably there will need to be some kind of staff training, and reorganizations always have costs. The regional executive director will now have a different direct report. I’m assuming there will be some costs, and I’m wondering if I see that anywhere, or if the minister could tell me about those?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of costs associated with reorganization, I believe they will be absolutely minimal. The fact that we are maintaining the regions as legal entities helps us with that, so there aren’t any major changes in relation to staffing, other than some job description changes ensuring more resources from our regions are getting into the classroom.
Also, I’ll note to the member that we’re looking at an overall budget in the department of $1.4 billion, which is substantial. We do have to look at absorbing cost pressures within that overall budget, so you look at ways of doing that. One of the ways we can do it is in vacancies, when they are there.
In terms of all these other operational costs, they are not necessarily going to be in relation to the $2.3 million, where we’ve been pretty explicit in terms of how those funds are going to be allocated. Those funds will be allocated primarily for executive director positions and disbursement of funds to SACs. If there are any dollars left over, then they can be used to mitigate other pressures in the department in relation to any of these changes, but also, we have a much larger budget than $2.3 million where we absorb these pressures. So, that is an ongoing process that happens each and every year when it comes to budgeting. I just want the member to know that those funds are going to be dedicated in the areas where we want them to be, and any other cost pressures associated can be absorbed in other ways, within our broader budget.
In terms of the member’s question in relation to a stipend, at this point we are considering a stipend, albeit smaller than the stipend for elected board members. Of course, any cost associated with travel or accommodations will also be reimbursed to the members of the School Advisory Council. You’ll note, with the appointments of boards and commissions and the majority of positions in relation to those boards and commissions, you’ll see a very minimal stipend. This will be consistent with common practice across the board in that regard, which will be smaller than the stipend is currently being allocated to our elected board members.
MS. CHENDER: I’m going to ask a few questions about school boards, and before I do, I just want to make a few prefacing comments. In response to the minister’s comments about school boards in his opening remarks, where he called them a Byzantine structure that was inherited, whether or not that’s the case, I would say that I was somewhat saddened by those comments because on the one hand, the minister acknowledged that education was born out of community, that’s where education starts, and that through community these boards were created.
I’ve heard the minister say many times tonight, and many times in the last few weeks, that there were structural issues and that this has been reinforced by the inclusion report, this has been reinforced by the Glaze report, and I will be the first to say - I’ve said it in this Chamber and I’ll say it again - I agree. There were structural issues, that I don’t think is at issue. I think the question is what the solution to those structural issues is, and I think that’s where there is some fundamental disagreement, just to save the minister from pointing out that there are structural issues - I recognize that.
The other thing I recognize, from having met with the Nova Scotia School Boards Association on two occasions, having spoken with them on many more, having spoken with my own school board representative and many others, is that the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, taking the lead, but also the Halifax Regional School Board, in which my district sat, and with which I am most familiar, had been very actively trying to fix many of those structural issues and hitting what they perceived as a brick wall in the department for a long, long time. I feel like it’s important that that be clarified, if nothing else, just for the record, because the minister pointed out that he’s had conversations with school board members, and that there is some personal hurt and upset over these decisions, and I think that’s a big part of why, because even if the comment isn’t the school board members were incompetent, that’s obviously how it will often be received.
I think it’s really important to point out that both the school board members and many of the school board organizations, including the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, the governing body, were actively trying to reform and not meeting a very receptive audience in their attempts to do that.
In particular, they have put forward a number of resolutions which they have shared with government over the years, and I’m going to ask about a few of those, partly because at our meeting several months ago, I said I would ask about them - whether or not the writing was on the wall then, I don’t know - but I’ll keep my word and I’ll do that.
So, to begin with, in 2014, the NSSBA, the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, put forward a resolution to encourage the department to make it a priority to ensure that all students and families were supported by a SchoolsPlus site by the 2015-16 school year. This is before we met Dr. Glaze. This is before the Commission on Inclusive Education was commissioned. Can you explain why this school wasn’t met or even, as far as we can tell, taken seriously at that time?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of SchoolsPlus, in fact, we would be in agreement with the School Boards Association in terms of expanding that program, which we have done every single year. We actually now have 76 per cent of our students that can access that program, and we will continue those investments until there is 100 per cent access.
Right now, we do have 100 per cent access, I think, in Cape Breton. I know Cape Breton for sure is at 100 per cent, and the Strait is at 100 per cent. So that will continue until there is 100 per cent access.
In terms of the structural issues, a challenge that we have is that the program is being applied differently to different levels of success, from region to region. While I can recognize and appreciate very much the feelings of the School Boards Association, the frustration around the fact that they’ve made a number of recommendations, particularly around the capital process, and that being aligned with Dr. Glaze’s report, for me, and I think for Dr. Glaze - and I’ve come to agree with her assessment upon great reflection, to be honest, because I wasn’t without my doubts, obviously, in terms of providing government response to this and accepting all the recommendations. It’s a big decision that impacts people.
But I’ve come to believe that having these separate authorities itself is the challenge, and having a province the size of less than 1 million people operating in such a way with independent authorities - and if you have independent authorities, they’re going to act independently. That’s the nature of the business. Seeing that has impact structurally, statistically, success in terms of delivery programs like SchoolsPlus impacting achievement outcomes, I really do think is a problem.
The tension that has existed between the department and school boards, which has been long-standing, which has transcended all Parties and every government that has been here is inherent in that structure itself. So, yes, the school boards are frustrated with the department, the department has been frustrated with school boards. Past governments, including - I know the member wasn’t a member of the previous NDP Government, but that government had those issues to an extent, where one of the school boards was fired. Previous PC Governments fired school boards as well. Unless you change the nature of the authority in the system, I really think that problem will be inherent and continuous.
So, in my opinion, looking at it from a governance perspective, either you get rid of the department and you allow school boards to run the show and make all the decisions, or you accept that a moderate system - in my opinion, this would be my position - means that you have an integrated system from one end of the province to the other. That doesn’t mean the department doesn’t need to change either, because we do need to change as a department - and I believe in some fundamental ways, particularly around what’s a natural tendency to centralize decision making.
It’s the intent of our government on the elected side to decentralize some of this decision making and give more authority back to principals, back to teachers, who are the leads in these communities and who know these communities, I would argue, even better than elected school boards who represent relatively large regions. That’s a cultural change that we need the deputy’s support, and perhaps some outside expertise to help us change that culture in the department as well.
Dr. Glaze’s report has challenged every single institution that is responsible for running the education system. She has asked the department to change in some fundamental ways. She has asked us to change the board structure, which has obviously had an existential impact on the elected side of that structure, and she has asked the union to change.
If we are going to change the system, I really believe that you have to change the institutions within that system. If we are going to continue to do the same thing, practise in the same way, I think we will continue to see the same inconsistency of results.
I think the governance component of this really does matter. I do think the administrative components of it really matter, and I do think that almost all the literature that I’m familiar with validates that position.
MS. CHENDER: I think time will tell if the differential results that we see around the province are the particular fault of the elected school boards. As the minister points out, the staff and the superintendents will remain the same, so in a way, we’ll have quite a scientific experiment where we remove one thing, control the others, and see what happens.
I would say, though, recognizing the validity, that tension between independent school boards and departments has transcended Parties and time. I would say the difference is that this government seems to have very little appreciation for this kind of generative usefulness of tension. I think that independence is important. I think that because a delivery system is efficient doesn’t actually mean that it’s effective.
I have no doubt that it will be easier for the minister and senior staff to carry out their mandates in the absence of school boards, 100 per cent. There is no doubt that will be the case, but there may be reasons that it’s actually important to have friction in that process. That it is important that local voices can come up against those organizational charts and have their voices heard in the mix.
I would disagree with the minister that Dr. Glaze required something of everyone. I don’t think she required much of the department, other than firing the school boards, or not at least that I’ve seen, in terms of major restructuring or reorganizing, although that wasn’t part of her mandate.
My last comment would just be that I think that it’s unfortunate, again I’ll just say, that those regional voices, as you point out, which cover broader areas, which are not specific schools, are lost in the inclusion commission’s report. In fact, it refers to regional advisory councils, and certainly we can talk about that later, but my ears perked up.
I think we need a regional voice. I think we need a voice that is looking at parts of the province in a collective way that can make decisions. Perhaps that will be the Regional Centres for Education, but for my money - and a few of those tax dollars are mine - I’d also like that to have some independence.
Our time is getting close, but I’ll ask another question about the School Boards Association resolutions. In 2014, again, the School Boards Association made three very specific resolutions related to African Nova Scotian students: to review IPPs and the IPP process; to make necessary programming changes to collect quantitative data on academic performance and learning opportunities of African Nova Scotian students - that’s part of a bill we introduced recently around data collection, which we think is really important; and to intensify efforts to recruit more African Nova Scotian teachers.
Again, I am wondering if the minister could tell us what was done in response to that resolution that was put forward by the school boards at that time, four years ago?
MR. CHURCHILL: I do want to say that in terms of the member’s assertion that I have suggested that the systemic challenges that this province has faced is the fault of school board members - I do want to remind the member that I’ve never said that. I’ve never blamed the situation on any individuals within the system.
The fact is that people within the system respond to the incentives in that system. That’s consistent, that’s how human behaviour works. In order to change outcomes, in my opinion, you need to change the system.
So, here’s what’s not acceptable to me, the fact that in three consecutive reports, and in all the data that has been collected, students are achieving different levels of success from region to region. It has been diagnosed that the variance in authority in the system has contributed to that in a significant way. That’s not acceptable to me because I think if you are pursuing an education in Nova Scotia, whether you are in the Tri-County, Strait, Chignecto, Cape Breton, Halifax, South Shore, Valley, or the CSAP, that statistically, you have the same opportunities that kids have in other areas that are pursuing education. That is not acceptable to me, as Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
While I’ll note that I think there have been some really thoughtful, good resolutions that have come from the NSSBA, none of them that the member has pointed to today is related to that system problem, or related to those system outcomes, or related to the structural challenges inherent in the way the system has been built. They are policy specific, and I think that’s important to note.
While I can’t speak directly to resolutions that came in before my time as minister, that’s a challenge for me, because I’ve been pretty absorbed in taking on what has proven to be a really serious challenge, being the minister of this department, but I’ve been very focused on the work that has begun and continued since I’ve been given this wonderful, incredible, and stressful responsibility.
MS. CHENDER: I don’t know that we’ll get the chance to get through all of them, but I will point to a handful of resolutions that do, in fact, point to student outcomes. In 2015 - I feel like we’re trading places from Question Period here - but in 2015, the Nova Scotia School Boards Association passed a resolution to advocate to the department to collaborate with, support the efforts of, and to acquire through an accreditation process, that university schools of education in Nova Scotia have effective recruitment strategies to attract and train sufficient numbers of quality male applicants for elementary application, African descent applicants, Mi'kmaq applicants, and Acadian applicants. We know teaching success is pivotal to student achievement.
In 2016, the association brought forward a resolution asking that the department fund and implement the reporting component of learning management and reporting, so school board and staff would have the data they need to make effective, evidence-based decisions.
In 2017, the School Board Association asked the department to engage in a process to analyze the educational, social, economic, and demographic data relative to performance of Nova Scotian students. That’s three. I have a stack of other ones.
I guess my question in all these cases is the same, why weren’t any of these actioned? Why weren’t any of these treated with the same amount of import as a report that seemingly somehow almost fell out of the sky, and that we’ve rearranged our entire education system around?
MR. CHURCHILL: Quickly, I will say there have been a number of those resolutions that I believe have been adopted by the department and acted on. I will argue, though, that none of those resolutions is related to the structural challenges of the system, they are related to policy.
I will also point to the fact that there are issues in the structure because we don’t have to - the department does not have to - act on any of those resolutions, nor do the boards have to act on provincial policy in a way that’s consistent with provincial interpretation. So, here’s another example of a structural issue in the department where . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the NDP caucus has expired. I’m sure the minister will carry on with that conversation in the next round.
We will now take a short recess.
[8:40 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[8:45 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please.
For the PC caucus, the honourable member for Dartmouth East.
MR. TIM HALMAN: I would like to return to our question on curriculum supports, specifically the $7 million for those supports. Could the department provide more specifics as to what those curriculum supports will look like?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the disbursement of the $7 million, the way that works right now under the current system is, there’s $7 million - $4 million of which is for bulk purchasing that’s run through the department; $3 million of which is disbursed amongst the regions for regional local purchasing. So, the changes that will happen in terms of empowering teachers’ voices in the dissemination of those funds are two-fold. The regional dollars for local purchasing will be actually handed over to teachers and administrators to direct in terms of what materials they believe they need in their schools, and also ensuring that the teacher’s voice is enhanced when it comes to the bulk purchasing that we have.
Bulk purchasing is really important. That’s why those dollars still need to be funded through the department, because that is where we find our greatest amount of savings when it comes to purchasing. So, our purchasing power and getting the best deals possible is in those bulk purchases. But teachers’ voices will be enhanced in bulk purchasing, and they will actually be directing, instead of the boards, the allocation of those resources for local materials that they want to see in their schools and classrooms.
MR. HALMAN: Moving along to other topics within the budget, at Supply the other day, I spoke on what is missing from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development Estimates. As the minister is aware, this summer we’re going to see a profound shift, a profound change, in Canada’s public policy on cannabis. There does not appear to be any money allocated in this budget for cannabis education in our public schools. I’m wondering why there is no money allocated in the Estimates for cannabis education.
MR. CHURCHILL: In fact, cannabis education is already embedded in the curriculum in many ways, in age appropriate ways, from P-12. Use of cannabis, our understanding of cannabis, is not fundamentally changing because of the federal government’s policy of legalization. That can now be a component of this, but in fact, this education has been going on for a while, so you see that happening in different levels already, I think primarily through the health curriculum, and I know there are courses - like in Grade 9 for example - in Citizenship 9 - on substance use and abuse.
The member will actually not see a dedicated stream here, but you won’t see that for any specific curriculum initiatives. That is important - I agree with the member. The science is clear in terms of what the impact of cannabis consumption can be on the younger brains of our kids. The fact is, a lot of them are doing it now, and getting it from illicit sources, and that’s an issue. But I want to assure the member that in terms of what is in the curriculum now from a health perspective, cannabis use, use of opioids, use of alcohol - I really do feel we have a pretty robust curriculum in those regards right now, it has been around for a while, and has evolved over the years as well.
MR. HALMAN: Minister, I think we would agree that the conditions will change as a result of the legalization of cannabis. The stigma that is associated with the use of cannabis, if you look at jurisdictions such as Colorado, teachers in those jurisdictions indicate that with the removal of that stigma, you often see an increase in school-related suspensions due to cannabis.
My question is this, at minimum, is the department open to reviewing the current curriculum, whether it’s in health in our junior high schools, whether it’s in the Grade 9 Citizenship course - which I understand will get going in September - are they open to reviewing that curriculum?
MR. CHURCHILL: The curriculum development process is an ever-evolving process that seeks input from professionals, that seeks input from teachers. We will enhance the input of teachers in the new curriculum process, but right now that is an ever-evolving process that continually changes curriculum in ways that we collectively believe are important for student achievement outcomes and well-being.
Philosophically, the question around the stigma is an interesting one, and I do wonder - it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing - I wonder if we are looking at a public policy of legalization because the stigma itself has actually decreased naturally, or if that stigma is impacted by the law itself. I don’t know the answer to that question, but it is a really interesting one to ponder philosophically.
I know the fact of the matter is right now in Nova Scotia we have about 50 per cent of our population that have identified that they’re users of cannabis for recreational or medicinal purposes. So, we have a high - you know, almost half of our population has indicated, I think - I stand to be corrected on that if I’m getting those numbers wrong, or if my memory is inaccurate on that.
Right now, it’s being heavily used, so I think a policy around legalization is one that I do support philosophically. I think it’s important to have a more regulated framework in terms of distribution of a product that 50 per cent of our population is using, to make sure that other more dangerous, illicit drugs aren’t mixed in, which does happen. I’ve heard scary stories of even the deadly fentanyl being mixed within certain cannabis drugs. I know angel dust was a concern when the Hells Angels were dominant in the city. Eliminating those risks to users is important. Taking away that revenue source to criminal elements in society is important, and recognizing that people have the freedom to make decisions in relation to certain things they consume is also important, from my political and philosophical perspective.
Education is important for responsible use and for an understanding of what the consequences are for use. We’re always open to suggestions to enhance how and what we’re teaching our students.
MR. HALMAN: I would certainly encourage monitoring that, as the dynamics, I believe, in our school change as a result of the legalization of cannabis.
Switching gears a little bit, I’d like to discuss the collection of data. Minister, I’m sure you’re aware that some of the frustration on the part of our public school teachers has been around the collection of data, the amount of time having to input that data. Certainly, I’ve been a part of that process, and I felt that frustration. One of the interfaces that was designed to input information on individual program plans, as you’re aware, is TIENET, and one only needs to use TIENET once to have unbelievable sensory overload. The way it’s configured, teachers have indicated that it’s very, very challenging to input data, to be able to extract information on an individual program plan, and according to the report on inclusion, they’re setting the goal of improving TIENET, which I think is excellent. Certainly, getting information faster is much better to deliver programming, to get information on students. So, Mr. Chairman, my question to the minister is this, what will improve in TIENET, which is recommended for immediate implementation? Does the department know the cost of that, to improve TIENET?
MR. CHURCHILL: This is an area I know that has been a frustration for teachers. I’ve heard pretty consistently in my meetings with teachers, beginning when I was in Opposition, having local meetings in the Yarmouth area, that assessment paperwork associated with it has become burdensome to the point where teachers feel they are pulled away from actually teaching, along with classroom management. There are a number of factors that have pulled teachers away from their focus on teaching our students.
In terms of what’s happening right now around assessments, I think it is important to note that data is important. So, the work we’re doing right now is to understand which data points are going to be most critical in terms of helping us, helping inform the decision-making process, helping to inform policy, helping to inform any decision that we make at every level of the system, but ensuring that the data that has proven to be not helpful isn’t being collected anymore, or that teachers have more administrative supports in terms of inputting that data.
That’s being led by the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. Teachers themselves, along with a guidance counsellor or parent and student that are on that group, along with the union, and our deputy, who is co-chair of that group, they are developing recommendations on assessment as we speak. That is their current focus in terms of developing recommendations.
Also informing that process is what we call Ask the User. So, Internal Services has actually supported the department, and they’ve done this work for other departments, including their own, going out and actually asking the users of TIENET - PowerSchool would be another data-entry platform, I believe - what’s useful, what’s not. So, we’ve done an extensive consultation with our teachers and all those that are using these platforms to get a better sense in terms of what’s useful from their perspective.
So, the council’s recommendations will be informed by that, which I know will be a a very informative process.
MR. HALMAN: Minister, is the department aware of any proposed recommended changes for TIENET? I believe the educators in our province want to know what that new version will look like. I do appreciate explaining the protocol, the process in which we’re moving towards TIENET reform. What do those improvements look like in practice? Do we have any sense of where these changes are going?
MR. CHURCHILL: The council does have recommendations for improvements on assessment. I have not seen those recommendations yet, and the reason I haven’t is because it’s the council’s desire to do some testing amongst their peers, and perhaps getting some outside voices to look at that as well. Key voices for that are going to be - and I know the deputy will help me ensure that this happens or the Council on African Canadian Education in particular, and MK, the Mi'kmaq educational group. We have to make sure that those voices are consulted as well, because assessment does have an impact on those communities.
There are recommendations, but I have not seen them, so I cannot comment on what their nature is at this point. I do know that the recommendations are now being tested amongst teaching peers, and amongst the other advisory groups we have that help inform our decision making. As soon as I have those in front of me and I make a decision on them, I will be informing the public and teachers directly.
MR. HALMAN: Keeping within the theme of the inclusion report, let’s take a moment and discuss the Nova Scotia Institute for Inclusive Education, which, if implemented by the government, would see an institution, if I understand correctly, that would monitor and measure outcomes as it relates to inclusion. If I understood correctly, it will also audit finances and it will have, in terms of its governance structure, an executive director. There will be an independent chair, along with a Mi’kmaq representative, an African Nova Scotian representative, an NSTU representative, and so forth.
What will the Nova Scotia Institute for Inclusive Education cost annually? Does the department have a projected cost of that new arm’s-length bureaucracy that will be created?
MR. CHURCHILL: This is a really good question and I want to speak very frankly about that recommendation.
In terms of the objective of that recommendation, to ensure that we are achieving outcomes and that we are improving inclusive education, and to make sure there is a level of accountability for the department, those are important objectives that we’re going to be pursuing.
We have not yet made a decision if the institute is going to be a recommendation that we specifically follow through on, and I’ll speak very frankly with the member about some of the concerns I have there.
We don’t want to create another level of bureaucracy that takes funding away from the classroom. Also, in our attempts to break down the silos within the education system from a board perspective, I am also sensitive to the fact that we don’t want to create too many silos on the advisory side of things as well.
We are now looking at a Council on African Canadian Education and we have the BEA, both of which advise the department on issues related to African Nova Scotian student success. We have the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions and the Principals’ Forum, and we are going to have a professional principals association and a provincial advisory council that is reflective of our regions. We are starting to look at an advisory structure that risks creating new silos, in terms of advising.
If our goal is to integrate the system, I also feel that we need to integrate some of these voices as well. We have not yet figured out exactly how that is going to look. I hope the member can appreciate that what we don’t want to do is get rid of these silos on one side and create a whole new group of them on the other, but we do need to monitor and be accountable for decisions we are making around inclusive education, because we want to make sure that we’re doing a good job.
That is an objective that we will be fully pursuing, and at this point, whether it’s through the institute or not, I don’t have an answer for the member, but that is an important question that we are pondering and that we will have a decision point on at some point in the future.
MR. HALMAN: I can tell by your response that certainly this is a recommendation in the report of the Commission on Inclusive Education that I can sense you see a lot of merit to, a real possibility to help improve our inclusion model.
I’m getting the sense that there is a desire out there to really get moving on this report, yet I sense, from some of your statements - you said that you’ve accepted the broad scope of the report which, again, I know that response is very different from the previous report that came out in January, with the Glaze report. I’d like to ask you this, why not the same sense of urgency with the inclusion report as you and the government did with the Glaze report, in terms of abolishing school boards and removing principals from the union? If you could perhaps clarify that.
MR. CHURCHILL: I’m happy to clarify. In fact, we are moving forward with this report in the same fashion as we have with the Glaze report, with the same urgency. We actually have in this budget, which I would guess the members opposite are going to vote against, $15 million to begin moving on the recommendations of this report as soon as September. Also, consistent with the response to the Glaze report is that we have stated from the very beginning that the objectives of the report are going to be pursued aggressively by the government and to conclusion, but that will require a level of flexibility. So, this is the same approach that we’re taking to the inclusion report.
The way that worked out with Dr. Glaze’s recommendations is that we pursued and are pursuing all recommendations. However, implementation requires a level of flexibility. So, how that played out in the final piece of legislation that came before the House in Bill No. 72, was that there were some adjustments made from Dr. Glaze’s recommendations. She did not recommend that we have a provincial advisory council that had a seat for regional voices. We did pursue that in implementation.
Dr. Glaze did not recommend that we have an affiliation between the professional association for our administrators and the union. However, we were flexible in terms of pursuing that recommendation.
Dr. Glaze wanted us to establish a college of educators to establish standards of excellence in teaching and leadership. We are not pursuing the creation of the college. However, we are pursuing the establishment of the standards of excellence. So, the very same approach is going to take place here, where we do need to be flexible in terms of the recommendation around professional development, for example, because it involves the collective bargaining process. The union’s position on that is going to be critical in terms of allowing us to actually fulfill that recommendation.
I do want to flag that this is an area where I do have some concern right now, because I know for the union, ideologically, professional development is seen to be something that belongs to the professionals and should be self-directed. To a certain extent I agree with that, but I am eagerly anticipating the union’s official response to this because I do believe that should always be looked at through a lens of student need, and that doesn’t currently exist in the system. In order to move on that recommendation fully, we need co-operation from the union on that.
We just talked about an example of flexibility in terms of the institute. I believe that the objectives of having accountability and measurement for our success on implementation of the inclusion report, and how we operate an inclusive model moving forward, is absolutely critical to the success of this department and the province in the realm of education over the long run. How we accomplish that, I think, we do need to put some more thought to.
In terms of the urgency, in terms of the consistency and approach, I would argue that it is very much the same. In fact, we budgeted for the inclusion report based on the interim report that came in and conversations we had with the Commission on Inclusive Education, we made sure we had $15 million budgeted in this budget to help us implement these things for Spring.
However, I will speak frankly with the member again about challenges in terms of meeting some of the resource targets they have for behavioural specialists, speech pathologists, and those professionals and experts that are needed in the system. We’re going to have a real challenge there, simply because we don’t have those folks in the system right now. We don’t have a supply right now to meet the demand that we know is out there, and that the commission has asked us to meet. That’s a challenge in at least the Atlantic Provinces, and it might even be in other provinces as well, so that’s a national challenge.
We’re going to have a challenge in terms of doing that, but we’re still going to aggressively go after these recommendations because these are as important, in my opinion, as the recommendations that came forward from Glaze.
I think if the member would look at the actions that we’ve taken, he will actually see consistency in the response and the same level of urgency being applied to both reports, as was the same level of urgency applied to the establishment of pre-Primary.
MR. HALMAN: Does the minister and the department accept the inclusion report in its entirety?
MR. CHURCHILL: As I have described, and I’m going to continue to be very frank about this, we accept the objectives of this report, and broadly speaking, as we did with Dr. Glaze, we accept these recommendations.
I just went over - and I don’t want to repeat myself, but if the member will refer, once Hansard is available for these proceedings, he will see there are certain areas where we do require flexibility, as we did with Dr. Glaze. So, that is why I cannot say that the letter of the report will be followed, but the objectives will be. I hope the member can understand the importance of being flexible with implementation, and the complexities involved in implementing this letter precisely, because there are other partners that we need to have at the table with us.
MR. HALMAN: The commission estimated that the recommendations, fully implemented in the five-year time frame set out in the report, will cost up to $80 million and represent a 7 per cent increase in the department’s budget. Does the department feel this is a realistic, sustained increase over five years?
MR. CHURCHILL: While I appreciate the commission’s assumptions on costing, I will note that there wasn’t a full costing done by the commission - there is an estimation that has been provided. We are in the process now of doing some deeper analysis on the costing and that will be important for us moving forward.
In terms of increasing supports in the system, we are obviously committed to doing that. Our $15 million this year is consistent with the increase that the commission wanted to see, and I would anticipate the member will see future budgets from our government that have increased supports for education.
I’ll also note, with the dissolution of the school boards, we are now entering into a brand-new world in terms of how we fund education. So, with having those independent silos in the system, we were held to the Hogg formula, and funding in education has been disbursed on an enrolment basis, not a needs basis for some time. Now that the system has changed and has been integrated, there is no need to follow a funding formula, and we’re going to take time over the next number of months to actually look at how we fund education in Nova Scotia, and how we can do a better job funding based on need.
There could very well be some changes in the structural funding of the system that provide for some of the additional supports that are needed to follow through on the recommendations of the inclusion report. It might not be that we need to have an additional $80 million in the budget over the next five years, but that we can accomplish that through restructuring of how we allocate resources, but I don’t know that yet. I don’t know what a new funding system looks like yet, but that is something that we are working on, and I’m really optimistic about the possibilities that exist with that.
You know, I do want to remind the member that the Liberal Government does have a clear history of investing in classrooms. There has been nearly a $300 million increase in overall department spending over the course of our tenure in government, and that is significant, especially considering that previous governments followed the belief pattern and norm that funding should align itself with enrolment.
That led to a situation in the previous NDP Government and Progressive Conservative Governments, where there were decreases and cuts to education funding. The rationale provided was because, well, enrolment is down, so we don’t need to spend as much. In fact, enrolment isn’t the best way to assess what the actual needs are of the system.
I’m really optimistic about what we can accomplish in this regard from a funding perspective, a change in how we fundamentally fund education, but also in being consistent with how we’ve operated the government and increased funding every single year in the province. I’ll remind the member over $300 million in new money has been invested in this education system. We’ve hired more teachers than we have ever hired in this province. We’ve hired more specialists. We’ve hired more mental health clinicians. We’ve hired more speech pathologists, math, and literacy experts.
Good things are happening and those things have been shadowed by a collective agreement dispute which changed people’s perspectives on government and our intentions and our actions, but I think at the end of the day - and as I think the member for Dartmouth South mentioned - we’ll see over the course of the next number of years whether we’re going to be successful or not. I have confidence that we will be, from a student achievement perspective, from a student well-being perspective, and I very much look forward to what the future of this system is going to look like. I fully believe that history will be the judge of these moments and these decisions, and I’m open to the fact that I can fail as minister as well. That’s always a possibility.
I really believe that the evidence that is informing our decisions is sound. I believe that the rationale informing our policy is sound. I really do have full confidence, especially with the new deputy minister at the helm, who has incredible experience, particularly around student achievement and special needs supports, which are two key areas of our government’s focus and which are - I can speak very frankly - key factors in determining her hiring.
We are in a very good position to achieve what we are setting out to achieve, and I’m very willing and open to the fact of history being the judge on this, because I think we’re going to achieve important things for our kids.
MR. HALMAN: Does the government expect to cut programming or find efficiencies elsewhere to realize the increase in spending on inclusion over five years?
MR. CHURCHILL: Again, I do want to remind the member that the way we fund education is going to change, so that’s important. That will help us better achieve, structurally, the goals of the commission’s report, and do a better job ensuring that the needs of school communities are being met. Also providing some funding to SAC will help community members invest some, albeit limited, dollars in areas that they believe will contribute to their students’ success as well.
One of the areas where I believe we will, over time, find savings that will be reapplied to the system is on how we look at shared services between the regions. At this point, we’re not rushing into anything there. I know shared services is a term that kind of scares people, because they think they’re going to be laid off, but we’ve been pretty clear that that’s not an intention of our government. We believe that savings can be found there through attrition over time.
There is now an opportunity that’s being provided to us to find savings there that currently we’re not able to under the current system, and I know there has been a lot of criticism from the members opposite around the amalgamation of the health authorities, but in fact, there were substantial savings found through that process and one of the things that we’re going to benefit from is there is an incredible amount of knowledge, institutional knowledge and capacity, in many of our board offices. I’m very excited as minister to have access to these supports now, and these brains in our regional offices.
One member in particular I’m thinking about was critical to the health care amalgamation from a financial standpoint, and she pointed out when I met with her how much has actually been saved through that process, and those are dollars that are being reallocated into the health care system, and her sense was that we could achieve over time those same positive financial results by looking at shared services between regions.
MR. HALMAN: I’d like to thank the minister for his response. As the minister knows, one of the primary goals of the commission is the achievement of uniformity and equity in inclusive education. Certainly, equity has been, in my experience as a classroom teacher, a major issue - equity with respect to programming, equity with respect to physical space. Does the department feel this equity can extend to physical space in schools available for enhanced services, new specialists, and new programming?
MR. CHURCHILL: I’m not entirely sure I understand the question in its entirety, so if I don’t answer the question, I’ll ask the member to help me better understand the nature of the question.
In terms of capital expenditures and school design - I believe that is what the member is asking about - there are great opportunities to ensure we’re building better spaces to learn, that are informed by the most recent evidence in terms of how learning spaces can contribute to outcomes.
For example, if you go to the new Bible Hill Central Elementary School, a very different design than the elementary school that I grew up in - a heavy focus on shared spaces for collective learning. The library - I forget the names of each of the areas, to be honest - but all of those designated learning spaces that, growing up, there would have been a specific room for. The central hallway now makes up all those various spaces, and they’re outside of the classrooms, so students come out and they’re actually entering into a shared learning space. It’s a really, really great design.
I think the architects that we’re employing - part of the tendering process involves what the design looks like, and whether it’s creating optimized learning spaces, and whether it’s based on modern learning facilities, so I think we’re getting there. I think the schools that you see being built over the course of the next number of years - which will be significant - will be reflective of these new design ideas that will help our students enjoy the space more, and learn more while they’re going to school there.
I do make this offer to the Opposition - if there is ever an opportunity for us to get on the road together and check out some of these schools, I’d be happy to do that with you. Some of them are going to be awe-inspiring.
MR. HALMAN: I look forward to my road trip with you, then. Away we go to southwest Nova Scotia. Thank you for that response.
How does the department intend to reconcile instances where need for services in a particular area is high, but space is not available to accommodate? Is there a plan in place to deal with a situation such as that?
MR. CHURCHILL: Need needs to drive our decision-making process on capital expenditures. We have a really high demand and a lot of capital pressures that are out there. We do have a lot of aging buildings that aren’t the best environments to learn in.
In terms of space, we’re actually in the process, or will begin shortly, a space audit across the province, to get a better understanding of what space is available, really helping to form the pre-Primary decision-making primarily, but it will also give us that data for capital planning as well.
We have $11 million in the budget this year that will be allocated for capital needs. That can be renovations - A&As, as they’re referred to in the jargon of the department - or for new school developments. We’re also in the process of following through on the AG’s recommendations and Dr. Glaze’s recommendations to have a longer-term capital planning process, so that communities can know over the long run what dollars are going to be invested in their communities for capital improvements - whether it’s renos or new schools. I think that’s really important, because right now communities are kind of waiting year over year, and we only have so much budget each year.
I know that creates a stress in communities, particularly those areas where facility improvements are needed or new schools are needed, so we’re trying to do a better job in that regard in terms of providing that longer-term certainty to communities so that they know their capital needs are going to be met.
MR. HALMAN: What amount of the initial $15 million first-year commitment is allocated to space improvements or expansion in schools?
MR. CHURCHILL: That $15 million the member references is a direct correlation to the recommendations from the Commission on Inclusive Education. The intent of those dollars is now to be spent on human resources in the system, behavioural specialists, primarily autism specialists and other speech pathologists, those kinds of specialists that the system requires right now, and also on teacher training and professional development. Those are the two key areas where you’ll see spending happen as a result of the report.
There’s going to be a supply-and-demand issue here that I want to speak very frankly about, because we’re going to face it, and I don’t know that there’s going to be a solution for September, simply because these experts don’t exist in the system right now - not enough of them anyway - to meet the demand. We have to really focus on training over the long term to ensure that our post-secondary institutions are producing the specialties that we need, so that’s not linked to capital.
In terms of the capital investments the government is making, the member will see that listed under capital expenses.
MR. HALMAN: The minister mentioned investments would be in human resources, autism specialists, speech language pathologists, teacher training for professional development. I can only surmise that these are the key parts of what we’re seeing with the multi-tiered system of support.
I have a few questions around the multi-tiered system of support. Certainly, when I’m looking at the notes from the commission, I see a lot of similar attributes and characteristics to this multi-tiered system of support that I taught in for many years, certainly an emphasis, when you get to tier two on Reading Recovery, math recovery, which I think are all fantastic initiatives.
My question is this, who is ultimately accountable for assigning students to tiers under the new MTSS model - teachers, administrators? Will it be delegated to some of the new specialists that we’ll be hiring over the next little while? The deputy minister? The minister? I’m curious as to how the control structure will work, and the decision-making structure will work in MTSS.
MR. CHURCHILL: Just to clarify - and the commission was very clear on this in their presentation of the report - this is not about returning to a model that the member would have taught under, where we are trying to fit students in specific spaces. This is about ensuring that the spaces available for students are reflective of their needs. It’s about finding a space that fits the student instead of trying to fit the student in a space.
For approximately 90 per cent of our kids in the system, that space is in a regular classroom, what we would call a regular learning environment. For 8 per cent to 10 per cent of those kids, that’s going to be in smaller groups, and a more focused learning environment for that group. For zero to 3 per cent of those children, that will be in individualized, intensive intervention. This is about shaping the educational environment to the needs of our kids. This isn’t about necessarily having separate spaces where all those with special needs are, as previously happened, being put in one class.
I can remember the old - they called them general classes, I think - where people who were assessed at having a certain intellectual capacity would be put in those. This is not about returning to those systems, which I think we can all recognize were problematic in certain ways, perhaps effective in others, but not in line with an inclusive model of education.
This is about ensuring that we are doing a better job tailoring the system to meet the needs of those children, and I think the commission has done a really good job identifying what they refer to as a tiered system, to help us formulate and frame our approach to that.
MR. HALMAN: As the minister is probably aware, more than half of the educators in the province reported spending 10 hours or less on inclusion-focused professional development in the last 10 years, and I can certainly attest to that. The time I spent in the classroom, much of the professional development was focused on anything but some of the realities you are confronted with in the inclusive environment.
The need for enhanced inclusion-focused professional development, I know we both agree, is significant. We need to make sure that that occurs, in order to make the PSPs much more meaningful for students.
What role will the department play in expanding professional development around inclusion? Certainly, the teachers in our province have been asking for this for quite some time. How significantly will the department be directing professional development as it specifically relates to inclusion?
MR. CHURCHILL: There are two key partners that we have in moving forward with a more focused, student needs-based professional development program.
First, I want to say that we are absolutely committed as a department to ensuring resources for professional development are student-focused and are based on the needs. I think that is consistent with, as the member said - who is a former teacher, by the way, and whose class I was in as an Opposition MLA. I don’t know if we’ve had the chance to talk about that in the House. Back in the good old days of Opposition. Life was a lot simpler then. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that that is the primary lens that’s looked at when it comes to precious dollars that are invested in professional development.
It seems to me, based on the feedback that the commission received, with two-thirds of teachers saying that they did not feel adequately prepared through their training to take on the diverse and complex needs of the classroom, that I believe the majority of teachers would be in agreement with that.
That is an objective of this report that we are going to be pursuing to the best of our ability, and any dollars that we allocate in that regard, I think, need to be focused on the needs of the students, because really, fundamentally, at the end of the day, this system and everybody who works within it, is there to do our very best and give those kids what they need.
There are two key partners that we have in doing this: one are post-secondary institutions - the B.Ed. providers, in particular. We already have a steering group that we’ve put together with them to ensure that the skill sets of our graduates are such that it will meet the needs of the kids in our system, ensuring that the gaps we have from a supply-and-demand standpoint on the expertise that we need, is being produced, from a supply standpoint, by our post-secondary institutions.
Another key partner in this is the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. We have already had preliminary conversations with them. I’ve spoken to the president, and I know the deputy has spoken with the executive director on this need. I can’t speak on their behalf, but Article 60 does outline professional development.
I think there does seem to be an ideology that drives a policy position within the union that professional development should be the property of the teacher, and I don’t disagree with that premise, but I also think that the primary lens we need to look at, in terms of disbursement of those funds, should be on student needs.
I don’t know, at this point, if the union is in agreement with that position, but time will tell as those conversations continue. At this point, I would flag that as a concern, from my perspective, and a potential challenge. It’s a real one and we do need their participation, so time will tell if we are going to have a willing partner there to help us achieve this goal because, again, this is in Article 60 of the collective agreement. Recognizing the fact that two-thirds of the membership believe they’re inadequately prepared to meet the needs of an inclusive system is telling and so, while I’m worried, I’m hopeful that we will find mutual agreement in this regard.
MR. HALMAN: Of the $15 million that’s going to be allotted essentially in phase 1, what does the department plan to spend in year one, specifically on professional development out of that $15 million? Could we get a number?
MR. CHURCHILL: As the member would see by reading the report, the commission is not costed out. They’ve provided us general assumptions on the overall cost of moving forward with these initiatives, but there is not a specific costed-out plan in terms of how these funds will be disbursed or what the cost of professional development will be, versus the hiring of new people in the system.
We have had this report for three days, and we have already begun to flesh out the costing of this. The costing is going to be driven by supply and demand. It depends on how many folks we can hire, and how many we need to train in terms of how those funds are distributed. It will be the supply and demand of those resources that will inform the balance of the financial allocations. If there are so many people in the system that we can hire right away, those dollars will be there to hire those people. If we need to train more, then that will inform how many dollars are invested in training.
MR. HALMAN: Speaking of training, certainly for an educator, professional development is critical to their pedagogy, to ensuring that they’re implementing best practices in the classroom, which I know teachers want to do. One of the things that I know is very promising in the report is the emphasis on inclusive education for Bachelor of Education students, and I think within every province, teachers have said that there is such a gap between what they learn in pre-service, and then what they learn in their practicums - the realities, the day-to-day realities of the classroom. I understand there is a B.Ed. review taking place at the moment. Could the department indicate some timelines to that B.Ed. review, and what are the things that are under consideration for inclusive education at the Bachelor of Education level here in Nova Scotia?
MR. CHURCHILL: We will be prepared to see changes in the B.Ed. program for 2019, for the semesters of that academic year. We are now making sure that the recommendations that have been considered by the steering committee are consistent with the recommendations that are coming forward from the inclusion commission. For the most part they are, so we’re in good shape there, and there will be an emphasis on culturally responsive pedagogy, and on effective practices differentiating illiteracy and innumeracy. This report is going to inform other decision points - and the deputy has just reminded me that obviously, behaviour support management is a big part of that as well.
Those are three key areas where we find alignment between the work that has already happened with the steering committee on Bachelor of Education group and this report. So, those are three key areas where there’s alignment right now.
MR. HALMAN: Unfortunately, we only have a few moments left together. In that time, I have some general questions I’d like to ask, specifically related to the PSP, the Public School Program. I understand the review is nearly finished - what costs are budgeted for the implementation of that new Public School Program?
MR. CHURCHILL: We don’t currently have a budget allocated for that, and it’s because the work that’s ongoing with the curriculum team - also ensuring we’re bringing more teachers into that process - will inform the budget of that item.
MR. HALMAN: I ask the question because in my experience with education, often you would see situations where - teachers often refer to it as initiative fatigue. It’s not that they’re against change in the system - they’re most certainly not - it’s that every few years new changes come through that are overwhelming at times.
Let me ask you this, will teachers be expected to initiate a new program with no training or limited training? When a new PSP is implemented in our public schools, will there be training appropriate PD that goes along with that?
MR. CHURCHILL: Key to us, in terms of reaching a decision point, or multiple decision points in this regard, is the voice of teachers. We’ll be working directly with the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. They have indicated a desire and willingness to work with the department on this and that conversation has already begun, and once it’s concluded to a decision point, we’ll be informing the public and the workforce on that.
Right now, that is yet to be determined but, the member can take solace in the fact that we’ve got the right people helping us to reach a decision point.
MR. HALMAN: We shall end our time talking about busing, which is a major concern to Nova Scotian parents. What is the plan for busing in the province? We currently operate both contracted and publicly owned services in different regions. Under this new school governance model, what is the plan for busing in our province?
MR. CHURCHILL: The busing concerns that have been brought to my attention have been very specifically in the HRM area in relation to Stock Transportation. I know there was a recent decision made by the URB in relation to that, we do have contracts that need to be considered in terms of any change to policy. Of course, any change also means dollars spent as well, but over the course of the next number of months, we will be reviewing transportation policies in the province with the intention of ensuring best practices are applied from one end of the province to the other.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the Progressive Conservative caucus has expired. We’ll now move to the New Democratic Party caucus for about 19 minutes.
Just as we move into the final 19 minutes of our day, a reminder for members around terminology. “You” is not to be used as we address one another. Thank you very much.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
MS. CLAUDIA CHENDER: It’s a bit of a stretch to call this a day. I think we’re well into the night now, but I look forward to a few more minutes of asking some questions. I will eventually pick up where I left off with school boards.
Before I do that, I would love to hear more about busing. The minister did indicate, in his answer to my colleague’s question about busing, that it was a predominantly localized issue. Representing a riding that falls within the Halifax Regional Municipality, I do share those concerns about Stock Transportation. But moving on from Stock Transportation, I would say there’s a very general issue about busing.
Attention was drawn to Section 64(2)(d) of the previous Act during the debates on that Act for the omission of the original inclusive education language. That was also the section that specified that school boards had responsibility for busing. That language is entirely left out of the current legislation, as far as I can tell. I don’t know if that was a mistake or an omission or where the legislative authority falls for administration of transportation.
I wonder if the minister could comment on that and whether that will stay the same or be different or show up in regulations and what those might say and when those might come. Of course, it is a crucial way that people get to and from school.
MR. CHURCHILL: I do recognize that transportation is obviously a fundamental aspect of our education system. Getting our kids to and from school is critical, and making sure that that’s done safely is important.
The nature of the Act is such that operational decision making is not dictated in the law. There is an important reason for that, because we do need to have the ability to be flexible in terms of making operational decisions. The member will see language around transportation expressed in the regulations.
However, I will say, broadly speaking, that the current contracts do carry on with the regional entity. Those decisions will remain in local operational hands. However, as a minister and as a department, we are reviewing those policies to ensure that best practices are being applied and make sure we’re doing our very best. I know there are some questions around distance for walking. That’s a key question that I want to wrap my head around as minister to understand if we have landed on the right distance for walking. Broadly speaking, we will have an ability through the regulations to have a say over what that framework looks like, but in terms of the local operational decisions, the current contracts that are in place, those will carry forward under the new entities of regional education centres.
MS. CHENDER: Just to clarify, I know there are several sections of the new Act that just change the language from school board to Regional Centre for Education, so some of those responsibilities that formerly were of the school board and now reside with the regional centre are certainly enumerated in legislation. It is concerning that transportation does not appear, so I will look for it, hopefully, in the regulations. I’d also be interested to see - and I understand that there’s likely not an answer at this point, but when you talk about disparities across the province, that is one.
We have former school boards as of just a few minutes that own their own fleets, as the minister mentioned earlier. We have some that have contracts with busing companies, some of which are more reputable than others. I think that’s a place where we could all do with some standardization.
The minister provided a perfect segue to my next question around walking distances, which also leads off into a whole other realm of conversation. But to stay focused on that, back to the Nova Scotia School Boards Association and their advocacy for intelligent policy.
In 2014, that association asked the department to adopt the recommendation of the Sabean review of student walking distances, and suggested that the walking distances for elementary students should be 1.6 kilometres, which is substantially less than it is now, and for secondary students, 3 kilometres, and that adequate funding should be provided.
Here in the HRM, those distances under the guidelines are reduced due to supplementary funding, I believe, but did the department act on that recommendation? Are they studying it? Are they intending to make changes to those walking distances?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the general comments around the law, the member is correct in her assertions that the language in the law is around structure and not around operations. That is intentional. There is no need to have operational protocols in the laws of the province. We do need to make operational decisions and we do need to - and all governments will need to - make adjustments and adapt those policies or regulations as we move forward. Having those things enacted in the law of the province makes all of our abilities to respond operationally a challenge.
I can think of a key example of that challenge in terms of prescriptive legislation. During my time at the Department of Municipal Affairs, for debentures - for loans from the province that municipalities were looking for - the law was written in such a way that those had to have an official seal on the documentation, and the interpretation of the law was that it needed to be a physical seal.
We actually had to change the law to allow emailed or digital applications for debentures - a really standard operational procedure. We’ll blame it on the former Leader of the Progressive Conservatives, who filibustered that bill. That debate was prolonged for three weeks or a month in this House around something like that. I know the member can appreciate that having those things embedded in the laws - which should just reflect values, embed structures, and form systems - those operational matters, in my opinion, shouldn’t be legislated.
In terms of the walking distances, to date, that has been in the purview of the boards. There might have been a resolution that has come forward from the NSSBA asking for more dollars to invest in lower walking distances, but the fact of the matter is that that policy was in the realm of the board.
While I appreciate that school boards were always looking for additional funding and that the nature of those requests would form themselves in different policy asks, the fact of the matter is that not every government is able to say yes to every request that comes in, financially.
We’ve been through a process in our government where we’ve had to say no in order to maintain the financial integrity of the province and that, I think, needs to be a key factor in terms of all governments who make decisions.
The member points to one of the structural issues in that system where, even though resolutions come forward from the NSSBA, they don’t need to be acted on. Even though the province has provincial policies or programs, the system allowed them to be implemented very differently from region to region. So, again, I see this as further evidence of that structural challenge that existed, and while I believe - just to carry on further with our conversation - I agree with the member that a culture of challenge is important when it comes to decision making.
We can all sometimes suffer from groupthink and live in echo chambers, and that now exists to an even greater extent with social media and the algorithms that are used to produce the top stories for people. So, a challenge culture, I think, is important for good decision making, but having a structure that has embedded implementation of policies and allocation of resources in such a way that it has actually led to statistic disadvantages from region to region, I don’t see that as being a productive structure. I did want to provide the members with that comment to close out our previous conversation.
MS. CHENDER: I’ll try to stick to one topic at a time here. I want to go back to the busing piece because it’s important. With respect, minister, my implication here is not that we should talk about who gets busing from what company when - that would be ridiculous, and I agree with the minister that that’s not the proper subject of legislation.
Currently, there is no responsibility of the province or of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to provide busing at all. So, my question is, will that responsibility reside in law or not? That’s the question. I’m not asking the minister about operational details. I’m asking about whether the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development intends to continue providing busing.
MR. CHURCHILL: I hope it would be obvious to the member and to the House that there is no intention to stop busing to school by the government. That would be a major conspiracy that would be concerning for everybody. Where the member will see verbiage in that regard is in the regulations. I do believe that to be the most appropriate element of the legislative process, to actually have that language embedded.
MS. CHENDER: I’m not floating conspiracy theories. This is the question I’ve gotten from a number of people because they see that gap, and of course, we have law for a reason - it governs most of the work we do in this Chamber, it’s to be explicit about responsibilities and regulations. So, if it appears in the regulations, great, the sooner the better, and I look forward to seeing that language.
In terms of walking distances, which is connected, of course, because those students who are eligible for busing are eligible if they’re outside that certain distance. My understanding - and I may be mistaken here - was that in fact, those global distances were not set at the board level but are actually educational policy of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. They have been modified at the level of certain boards, as I mentioned in the case of the HRSB, with supplementary funding from municipalities and elsewhere, that have allowed them to reduce those distances.
I think in different places across the province, but certainly in urban ridings - I have a constituent whose child didn’t attend school for a month because he was 13 years old, he lived with a single father who was disabled, who didn’t have a vehicle and who didn’t want him walking that distance, particularly over busy roads in the particular route to school by himself, and home every day in the winter.
So, it’s a real issue. It will be alleviated somewhat, I believe, by the low-income bus pass here in the HRM, but I think these distances are an issue. They’re a persistent issue. It is one that has been raised over and over again. I look forward to hearing about what the minister or the department or the education centres - how or if action will be taken on that.
MR. CHURCHILL: The member is accurate in saying that there is a provincial policy around distances, but there are also variances in regional policies, as well. This is another one of those complicated issues where there are differences in application that do vary from board to board. Having these policies that are not necessarily aligned, I would argue, is confusing for parents and is confusing for the system.
I think that looking at the distances is important. There are different opinions on this. Some argue that walking is good. It’s good for the health of our kids, and it helps keep them active and healthy. There are other concerns, of course, particularly around the routes, whether the routes are safe or whether the distance itself is problematic from certain perspectives. This is an area where I believe we do require some provincial focus and attention to make sure that we are doing our very best when it comes to transportation.
What we can do may be limited, particularly because of the contracts that are currently in existence and our legal obligations to meet those contracts. I can’t say, at this point, that we can necessarily change everything overnight, but it does need to be and will be an area of provincial focus.
A particular question that does need to be answered is around the distances. I recognize that because there are some parents and students who are concerned with that and others who aren’t, we need to get to the bottom of what’s best and use the best evidence to help inform that decision.
I will also say that any change to that policy will require investment, and so dollars being available is an important part of that conversation as well. To date, we have been focused on classrooms and having more teachers and ensuring there are more supports in the system, but this does need to be an area, considering the new structural changes, that we do need to turn our eye to and have some answers for Nova Scotians.
MS. CHENDER: I would say that where there is variation at the board level, in this particular case, it’s where boards have taken leadership and found supplemental funding to reduce the distances that children need to walk. With respect, I don’t see this as an issue around regional administration at the board level because I think this is a place where boards have worked in the best interests of children to reduce those distances. Yes, there is an investment, and yes, classrooms are key, but kids need to get to them.
We know it is an issue that the family unit and kids’ daily routines look much different now than they did even 10 years ago or 20 years ago. I appreciate that the minister is indicating that this is an issue, and I hope it is one that will be investigated. Frankly, I hope there will be some parity with regions around the province. As a constituency MLA, I also have concerns about the urban area.
Thank you to the minister for your answers tonight.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order please. Time for debate on Supply has expired for today.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: I move that the committee do now rise and report progress and beg leave to sit again.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
[The committee adjourned at 10:04 p.m.]