HALIFAX, THURSDAY, MARCH 29, 2018
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
Mr. Chuck Porter
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. I’ll now call the meeting to order.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, would you please call the estimates of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development - Resolution E5.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth South with 41 minutes left in the NDP’s time.
MS. CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you again to the minister and staff for being available for questions. I want to pick up today with something that we have discussed a fair amount in here, which is consultation, more specifically, meetings with stakeholders.
We have heard the minister say on several occasions in the House that he has spoken with teachers or spoken with school boards. I just have some questions, because we’re getting differing opinions on if and when a lot of those meetings took place. I appreciate that the minister may not be able to answer all my questions, but if we could have information provided (Interruption)
I’m sure the minister will have an answer to my questions - whether he has the specific information I’m looking for, I understand that may need to be provided later.
To start, the minister has said that he has met with the school boards and Nova Scotia School Boards Association in the lead-up to the implementation of the Glaze report and Bill No. 72. But as we discussed yesterday, there are big questions as to how much collaboration took place with the school boards before it was decided to eliminate them, so I would like to ask the minister for the dates of his meetings with the school boards and the School Boards Association since the minister took over the portfolio. When are the junctures at which the minister has spoken with those boards and with the School Boards Association?
HON. ZACH CHURCHILL: We’ll have the time and dates of those meetings to the member before we leave the Chamber today. The protocol is that the minister meet with the chairs of the elected board. The first meeting happened very early on in our mandate. I think we had two very quick meetings with the board chairs to discuss topics of interest.
The boards sent me a letter saying they did not want me to meet with teachers - and I paraphrase here - but to utilize the Principals Forum or the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. There was concern about that because the protocol was such, under the previous model, that the ministers were supposed to meet with board chairs. Our first meeting was to discuss that letter. I did make it very clear to the board chairs at that time that I very much intended to meet with our front lines and continue to use advice from the forum and from the council to inform on our decision-making process. I believe they were satisfied at the end of that meeting.
I have not met with every board in the province. We were in the process of doing that, but I did meet with Tri-County. I have met with the Tri-County board numerous times since being an MLA, since being elected in 2010, and developed very close relationships with those on the Tri-County board, those elected members in particular. I also met with the Chignecto school board. I don’t believe I got to the other regions, if memory serves me correctly, to have direct meetings with those boards.
There are at least four meetings that I can recollect, but we’ll make sure that we look at the schedule and provide the member with a specific number and place and time of those meetings.
MS. CHENDER: Similarly, I would ask the minister to provide a list of the dates of his meetings with the Council on African Canadian Education and the Council on Mi’kmaq Education. Both are existing stakeholders that have a connection to the minister’s office and, I am sure, have had plenty of things to say about the goings on in at least this sitting of the Legislature and the last.
MR. CHURCHILL: The first meeting I had with CACE was actually in Yarmouth. I was very happy to host them at the school board office in Yarmouth and had a very productive conversation. It was an introductory meeting whereby we had a really focused conversation on the achievement gap challenge that our system has faced. Of course, for CACE the recommendations that have not been moved on from the BLAC Report and Reality Check are important too, so we are evaluating those reports as well.
I believe I have had two meetings with CACE, if memory serves me correctly. Again, we won’t just go by memory. I’ll ensure that the member has the scheduling information before we leave. I also met with the Chair of CACE and I believe other representatives of CACE and the Black Educators Association as well.
During Dr. Glaze’s work and post-recommendations, and I was very pleased, they did indicate a high level of interest in working with myself not just on the achievement gap but also on ensuring that, moving forward under a new structure, the African Nova Scotian community would be adequately represented regionally as well as provincially through the advisory council. I have also, as I believe I mentioned, had two or three meetings with the Black Educators Association as well and met with the group I referenced yesterday - the Digby settlement coalition as well. I have had two direct meetings with them as recently as yesterday - my second meeting.
I have not met with MK yet directly but I have met with representatives of MK. Darren Googoo was part of the first meeting I had with the board chairs. Also, Cabinet meets with all the joint chiefs of the Mi’kmaq Nation, in this province. We have had those meetings annually, every single year. I have had numerous meetings and conversations with Chief Leroy Denny, who is the lead on the Chiefs Committee on Education, to discuss topics of interest.
A big focus for the Mi’kmaq community is language preservation. That is an area where we’re very interested in supporting them from an educational perspective to assist their communities to preserve their language. That is something that I think for any minority group that has a language other than English - those languages can be lost in one generation. I can speak to my own family’s experience of that, coming over from what was the Ottoman Empire, and within two generations, Arabic is no longer spoken in our family.
That is a concern of course with the CSAP. They have a Charter mandate to preserve language and culture, French-speaking people in Nova Scotia. That is also a focus for MK and for our Mi’kmaq community as well. We are going to continue our work with them. I believe there are even meetings happening this week if I’m not mistaken on that very issue.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage on an introduction.
MS. BARBARA ADAMS: Mr. Chairman, I am very excited to rise today to introduce an amazing group of students and an even more amazing group of teachers and assistants. They’re not all here yet, but there will be Jennifer Bragg, Jodi Robinson, Allison Wilton, and Trevor Pierce; and program assistants, Sandra Smith and Tammy Munroe; and most importantly, our future politicians of the day from Eastern Passage Education Centre. Welcome everybody. Please stand up. (Applause)
MR. CHAIRMAN: Welcome to the gallery and to the House.
MS. CHENDER: I know that visitors to the gallery don’t always understand that as members, we’re not allowed to speak directly to them, but I will tell you, Mr. Chairman, it’s nice to have a lot of teachers and students in the gallery when we’re talking about education. While I doubt that this will be categorized as interesting or entertaining, maybe there will be something that they’ll take away from this visit.
With that, I’ll ask the minister about the former Education Act and something that many students will be familiar with. I know it’s a source of questioning in my family. We have talked a few times about the former Section 64(2) in the old Education Act. First, we talked about inclusion, and then we talked about busing. Now, I would like to ask about lunchtime supervision. The former Education Act stated that a school board shall provide supervision to students at lunch at no cost to the student.
In my parents’ generation, lots of kids walked home from school for lunch. I wish that my kids could walk home from school for lunch and that I could have lunch with them. They’re eating lunch right now, and I would rather be eating lunch with them, honestly. I know the minister would as well, but here we are at work. My kids are in their classroom with the supervision of lunch monitor or a teacher, and that is provided for in the legislation.
My question to the minister is, will the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development continue to have the responsibility for no-cost lunchtime supervision of students across this province? Where will we see that in legislation or regulations?
MR. CHAIRMAN: They were introduced as future politicians. Perhaps, one day, they’ll come back and take a seat in the House when we’re not in session. You can get a feel for what that might be like.
The honourable Minister of Education and Childhood Development.
MR. CHURCHILL: The answer is, of course, that will continue to be provided to our students, and that will be dictated in regulation.
MS. CHENDER: Can the minister tell me where we would see this in the budget, because of course, this would be a cost line in the budget - and also any comment on who will be providing the supervision? I know that in our neighbourhood school, lunchtime supervision is a constant challenge for the school administration. Will it continue to be a part-time job that is hired by the regional education centre, or is there some other plan in the works?
MR. CHURCHILL: In relation to this, nothing is going to change. Those dollars will still be found in our budgets for the regional education centres, as they are now. Those programs will continue to be managed locally by our operational staff as they are currently. In relation to lunchtime programming, nothing is changing in that regard.
MS. CHENDER: Just to confirm, we will see that in the regulations?
MR. CHURCHILL: It is actually currently within the minister’s authority to direct. My deputy tells me it might not even need to be in regulation.
MS. CHENDER: Not to belabour the point, but as we discussed yesterday around regulation, if it’s in the minister’s discretion to direct, it is also in the minister’s discretion not to direct. I would request that you consider enshrining that, either in legislation or regulations, for greater certainty for parents across the province who need to know that they will have a no-cost option for their children at lunchtime.
MR. CHURCHILL: Nothing is changing. There are no plans to change that. There is no incentive for myself or any minister to change that practice. I assure the member and parents that it will continue as it is now and will be budgeted in the same way that it is now in the system.
MS. CHENDER: With respect, something is changing. We had a piece of legislation that mandated that the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development provide lunchtime supervision at no cost to students. We now do not have that legislative guarantee. I will ask the minister a last time, and then I will leave it, will we see that in legislation or regulations?
MR. CHURCHILL: This is an area where I think, as legislators, myself and the member do have a philosophical difference in terms of what should be in law and what shouldn’t be in law. Laws should reflect values, structures, and systems. Every single operational decision or option that the current minister or future ministers need to consider or that operational leads in our regions need to consider, in my opinion, should not be legislated.
As long as I am minister, I will ensure that those things are not in law because, as I mentioned yesterday, that results in a process that can lead to complications. Not that it will in this particular case, but I will assure the member on the record, and I will assure the public. There are no plans to change lunchtime monitoring. We have not indicated that there are plans to change that. They will not change. Nothing will change in terms of that practice.
If we do find that our operational leads are not executing in this regard in any way, which I do not anticipate in the slightest, the minister has authority to change that. I hope the member, the public, students, and parents can accept that assurance.
I do appreciate the philosophical difference that we do have as legislators in terms of what should be in law and what shouldn’t be.
MS. CHENDER: Certainly, it is a difference of opinion, and I will just close that off by saying that my concern is not for the actions of this minister, but perhaps if a less enlightened government were elected in the future, they would not have the legislative mandate to provide what I think would be safe saying all public school parents now expect as part of the system and structure of what happens when they send their child to school.
I want to come back to something that we spoke about yesterday, which is the administrative review that took us to Bill No. 72. One of the mandates of that review was looking at the “Roles, responsibilities, and administrative structure within the education system including . . . the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.”
I think I said yesterday that it was my sense that, in fact, not much change was being required of the department. I can’t speak to whether or not there was a thorough review of the department. I’m not privy to that process or to the data. I would like to ask the minister, what if any specific changes are being made within the department as a result of that review?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of Dr. Glaze’s recommendations that were impactful to the department, there were two key recommendations that actually took authority away from the department around assessments and also around standards of excellence for teaching and for leadership. The two recommendations that would have an impact on the functionality and authority of the department were the two recommendations that asked us to have an independent office for assessment and to relinquish the department’s authority over certification and holding the standards of excellence for the profession, to actually hand that over to the profession themselves.
In both of those two areas, there seemed to be broad-based consensus amongst teachers - at least expressed through the union. That was expressed to me in my meetings, that those were two options that the teaching profession did not want us to consider.
The college particularly became an area of concern because teachers were worried that any grievances in relation to their performance would be publicized. We assured them that wouldn’t be the case, but it still was a concern.
Also, leading up to a situation that could have been very disruptive with an illegal strike action had the union decided to pursue that option - we felt it was in everyone’s interest to listen to teachers in both of those regards. Teachers particularly had concerns around the independent assessment office because we’re currently doing work right now through the Council on Classroom Conditions to remove the paperwork burden associated with assessments. The union and the majority of the teachers I spoke with did not want that authority to be given away from the department because of the current mandate of the department.
With the college, it became very clear that the majority of professionals who were expressing their opinion on this - not to suggest that we have received all opinions out there. With a workforce of 9,300, there’s not necessarily always consensus on these things. I know there was some support for a college, and that idea did excite some, to be a self-regulated profession that oversaw certification and standards of excellence in teaching, learning, and professional development, but it’s difficult to accomplish that if there isn’t buy-in amongst the profession.
I think those would be two of the most impactful recommendations in terms of department authority in the system, but we heard directly from the front lines that they didn’t want us to consider either one of those options. We are looking at how to achieve standards of excellence in teaching and leadership without a college. That will most likely fall to the department now, in partnership with the union I imagine, as well as assessments.
I think we do need to find a way of independently evaluating the data that comes in from assessments. But we might be able to accomplish that recommendation without establishing a new fixed independent bureaucracy to do that. We might be able to do that through an independent auditing process, for example.
Those are two recommendations that we are pursuing. Had we pursued the recommendations to a T, that would have had fundamental impacts to the department operations, but again, we were being responsive to teachers’ concerns in that regard.
Also, in terms of resources in the department that can be directed to the achievement gaps of African Nova Scotian learners and Mi’kmaq learners, Dr. Glaze has asked us to establish two new executive director positions, which are new to the department. They will focus attention and human resources to those challenges and help us overcome them, so that is a change.
There were a lot of recommendations in that report. I’m trying to remember if there were any others that directly impact the department. A cultural change that does need to happen, and I mentioned this yesterday, is attempting to give more authority to - this is another fundamental change as well. There’s a tendency of government departments to not decentralize some of the decision making in a system. From my experience as an outsider coming in, that does seem to be a cultural thing. I think there are times there’s good reasons for that and times there isn’t.
It is the goal and intention of our government to actually decentralize some of this decision making that happens, giving more autonomy and authority to the front lines, to administrators, in particular to teachers when it comes to allocation of resources for course materials and allowing them to actually select how the regional dollars are being spent so that they can have the say over how those dollars are spent in choosing course materials for their classrooms. That is another fundamental shift I think that you will see as we move forward in terms of changing how the board offices work and decentralizing some of their decisions to the front lines. That also translates into the department.
Those are the key areas I can think of off the top of my head, without the report in front of me.
MS. CHENDER: Just to clarify, it sounds like there are some responsibilities or resources that are being moved out of the regional education centres, in particular, and deployed to the front lines, and there’s more coming. And there are some that would have happened but didn’t.
I guess I have two follow-up questions. Was there any sort of fundamental restructuring or reorganizing within the department itself that was requested or acted upon? If there was, I didn’t see it in the Glaze report. Are there budgetary or cost implications for any of the things that the minister just spoke about?
MR. CHURCHILL: I’ll mention one more item that impacts how the department functions. It’s on curriculum as well. Dr. Glaze asked us to do cross- fertilization with teachers, to bring more teachers into the department to focus on curriculum. That is another fundamental shift.
I came in and inherited the new structure in the department, so I can’t speak off the top of my head, based on my experience with those changes. There’s a centre of excellence now in the department. There are other fundamental changes made as a result of Myra Freeman’s report. I would tell the member that she can refer to the Myra Freeman report in terms of some other major shifts that have happened in the department.
From our time in government, from 2013 to today, the system is changing in a lot of fundamental ways. The way the department functions has been key in all of that. There have been major shifts there.
MS. CHENDER: I want to turn now to some labour-related questions. I know that this wasn’t the bill that has been interpreted, at least, as most directly impacting labour relations, outside of the principals. There are other repercussions as well in Bill No. 72.
On February 27, 2018, the Strait Regional School Board sent a memo to all non-union and CUPE staff to address concerns and confusion about the status of their employment after the dissolution of the school boards. That letter stated that there would be no change in terms and conditions of employment for employees. I’ll just take a moment to say we know that these employees are, at the same time, the front-line staff in many ways - particularly in the inclusion provision in our schools - and also in almost every case, the lowest-paid and most vulnerable. One issue identified in this legislation after it was passed, which was after this letter, was that it is not at all clear about whether the provisions of the Trade Union Act continue to apply to these employees.
We presented an amendment to clarify this, but government voted it down. So, I want to take the opportunity now to ask the minister to clarify whether or not these CUPE employees are still, as they were prior to the dissolution of the school boards - which were their employers up until Sunday - covered by the provisions of the Trade Union Act. I would love to hear it if the minister cares to comment.
MR. CHURCHILL: The answer is yes. As we dictated in a letter that we sent out to every single employee, there is absolutely no impact to the regional collective agreements, nor an impact to the process under which current agreements are being negotiated right now.
To have passed the member’s amendment, in my opinion, would have been redundant and unnecessary. Keeping the legal entities as they are now regionally, under the same boundaries, has allowed us to accomplish that, to ensure that the contracts of these critical staff people - the NSGEU, CUPE, and there is a third union which escapes my mind, but they make up the bulk of the employees - that these critical people are not impacted.
We became aware pretty quickly that there was some concern there because there was misinformation being spread online - “misinterpretation” is perhaps a better way to say it - around whether this was an amalgamation of school boards or dissolution of the governance body of those boards. This is not an amalgamation. There is not one school board that is making up a new legal entity to oversee the education system. The governance structure of the system is changing, but the regional operational units are remaining as legal entities. That was particularly important because it allows us to uphold our obligations to these staff people, which was a big part of our decision making in this regard. That has now been communicated to all employees.
In Question Period, the member also mentioned a meeting that we had scheduled with union leadership. That was a meeting at their request, and if my memory serves me correctly, this was the item that they wanted to discuss first and foremost. I spoke directly to the president of the NSGEU and to Danny Cavanagh of the federation as well and delivered this message directly. We also communicated this to every single staff person who we have in the system in that regard.
MS. CHENDER: I’m glad to hear the minister say that. Again, I have a difference of opinion about the role of legislation. I would prefer redundancy to a lack of clarity. Certainly, the absence of that provision and the government’s unanimous vote against it created that lack of clarity and concern, I would say.
I am going to ask another question which I asked last time. Lest the minister think I am picking on him, it is actually a question for all departments and one that I genuinely would love to find the answer to. Well, I am picking on the minister, but not just on the minister. My question is this - we know that there is litigation outstanding on Bill No. 75, as well as on a number of other pieces of legislation that have been passed by the government. What I am trying to find out is, where in this budget document can I find amounts set aside for unfavourable litigation outcomes?
Presumably, this is a liability for the government in the most basic sense of the word. If litigation does not go the government’s way, the government will be on the hook for a financial amount. I would love for anyone - and maybe the Finance deputy or someone else can help here - to point me to where in the budget I can see that liability, whether it’s in the Education budget, the Justice budget, or elsewhere.
MR. CHURCHILL: Getting into the realm of these questions is more under the purview of the Minister of Labour Relations and is more appropriately asked of that minister, who is the lead in government on labour relations and issues related to the collective bargaining process. I do not want to overstep my bounds and jurisdiction as Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
I will say this. There is disagreement on Bill No. 75. I actually see some benefit to having lawyers discuss that disagreement in court. It allows those folks to deal with that disagreement and allows me, as Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, to focus on what I believe is more important: classroom conditions, outcomes for students, and achievement levels. It also allows my relationship and conversations with the Teachers Union to be completely separate from those legal issues and labour relation concerns so that I can focus on what’s more important. That was a lesson that we learned undergoing what was a very difficult labour negotiation last year. The Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development actually got tied into labour relation questions and wasn’t able to focus her attention on some of the classroom conditions that we were actually trying to address, so I think that’s important to note.
I think it was a good move for our Premier to decide to put labour relations in its own department with its own minister as the lead. That does allow me as Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development to actually focus on the education system and not get tied up in issues related to collective bargaining or labour relations or any litigation resulting from those things. That has really allowed me to focus my energies in areas that I believe are much more important to the public, much more important to our teachers and administrators, and much more important to our students.
That is why I think any further questions in relation to labour relations might be best addressed to the minister responsible.
MS. CHENDER: I am looking forward to my conversation with the Minister of Labour Relations. In the meantime, just to clarify, I think twice today in Question Period, the government referred to our taxpayer dollars in the budget as precious. It seems to me that our precious dollars are of great import to this government and, certainly, to all members of this House.
Just to clarify, in the case of an unfavourable outcome, could the minister comment on whether that amount would come out of the Education budget? I respect that the minister doesn’t want to comment on the process of litigation, and I respect that and can direct those questions elsewhere. I’ll just leave it with that question.
MR. CHURCHILL: If there is a pressure resulting from that hypothetical situation that the member has identified, that pressure would not be met through the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Our dollars are precious.
We do have a difference of opinion here. I know that the Leader of the NDP was in Yarmouth and met with town council, and he made comments along the veins of, it’s just money, and really underplayed the importance of our finances. That is obviously a difference of opinion between the Third Party and our government.
These tax dollars are precious. Money that comes out of people’s pockets is very important to them. We have an obligation to expend those funds in ways that we believe will have the greatest impact on the lives of Nova Scotians, and the education part on the lives of our students particularly. That is why we have invested over $300 million in the education system. That is why we have hired approximately 1,300 teachers over the course of our mandate. That is glaringly different to what happened under previous governments that that member was not a part of. I want to recognize that.
I think that the previous NDP Government would have been very well served by the current member in their government. But the Leader of that Party was, and three members of the front bench were. They voted on budgets that cut $65 million out of the education system: cut teaching positions, Reading Recovery, and teaching supports. The comments of the current Leader of the NDP around it just being money I think speak to the perhaps frivolous nature in which they viewed those education investments and cuts which happened.
There is a striking difference between what previously happened and what is happening under this government. Each and every year, we have increased investments to the tune of $300 million. I believe that those investments, while they haven’t answered all the challenges we have in our system, have established better supports for mental health, better support for special needs. They have hired a lot more teachers, have ensured the teacher-to-student ratio is at an all-time higher load, depending on if you are looking at teachers versus students. I don’t know which is the appropriate way to do that. Do you say a high ratio or a low ratio? (Interruption) Low ratio.
I think over time, the sector and students in particular and parents, will see the value of those investments. No, we don’t plan on diverting any of these funds to pressures that exist outside of the education system and the needs of the classroom.
MS. CHENDER: Those are all points I have heard before. I appreciate the member’s kind words, but I think I have a difference of opinion on some of those statistics. I don’t want to take time from asking questions to get into those now.
I’ll just finish by asking a question about early learning and child care. In 2016, the Auditor General’s Report found the department was not managing grant and subsidy programs to make sure that they achieve what they were intended to. Of course, we in the NDP have called for a more universal early childhood program, perhaps akin to what’s under way in pre-Primary. But since we are maintaining a grant and subsidy program, how is the department monitoring and reporting to make sure those programs have the intended results?
MR. CHURCHILL: That’s a very important question. The Auditor General’s Report was very informative, from our perspective. I will get the details on all the actions that we have taken in our early childhood development team, who have been incredible in terms of executing not only the pre-Primary program effectively but also the major investments that we have seen in child care. Right now, we are in compliance with all the Auditor General’s recommendations. I will have to refresh my memory on what those recommendations were specifically, but we’ll provide that to the member once staff send that information in.
What I will say is that you have seen the largest investments in the child care sector in the history of this province happen over the course of the last three or four years. For the first time, we have brought in a free universal pre-Primary program that, in September, will be open to up to 3,400 four-year-olds. That will be expanding to 100 per cent of four-year- olds in this province.
We are looking at strategically investing in growing the regulated child care sector in areas where there are currently child care deserts. We have enhanced the rules around accountability and quality to make sure that parents can be sure that they’re getting the best service possible from the regulated child care sector.
I’ll remind the member that, before these investments, only one in four kids in our province had access to child care or early learning opportunities. We have had a major capacity issue. Thanks to investments from the federal government making this not only more accessible in different regions but more affordable for parents, we have expanded the income threshold from around $20,000 to approximately $35,000, I believe, of family income. They are now eligible for the highest-level subsidy. Of course, we have brought that in on a scale all the way up to $70,000 of household income. Every single parent and family in Nova Scotia now has more affordable child care and will, by the end of our mandate, have more options for child care in this province. This is one area where I’m very proud of what we have been able to accomplish.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Time has expired for the NDP caucus for this hour. We’ll move on to questions from the PC caucus.
The honourable member for Dartmouth East.
MR. TIM HALMAN: I would like to discuss a little bit the teacher shortage that is taking place in our province. As you are aware, Minister, in some areas, the teacher shortage is impacting program delivery. In particular, from what I’m hearing, it’s the delivery of French immersion. It’s very difficult to find qualified French immersion specialists. Yesterday, we discussed that there is an ongoing review of the B.Ed. program - I think that’s fantastic - certainly making it more in line with the day-to-day realities of our classrooms.
I’m just going through the estimates, in particular the Centre for Learning Excellence. As you know, it is responsible for teacher education, certification, recruitment, and so forth. I’m wondering, does the department have any plans to change the rules around certification in order to alleviate the teacher shortage that we’re having now and the shortage we’re anticipating possibly in the years ahead?
MR. CHURCHILL: Just in terms of the general statement that there is a teacher shortage overall, I would challenge that notion. There is a shortage in certain areas. French is one, and math is another. These are national challenges that every single jurisdiction outside of Quebec is actually experiencing right now. This is a national phenomenon.
There hasn’t been a shortage of people who have taken on full-time positions in the system. As I mentioned earlier, we have hired approximately 1,300 people over the course of our tenure in government to take on new positions that we have created in the system for math and literacy supports, for specialized supports, and also to implement class caps and the attendance policy project.
When you look at the fact that, under the previous government, we actually saw an exodus of people - I don’t want to say an exodus of people because I don’t know if that’s true or not. What I did hear was that a lot of substitutes or trained professionals in teaching were not actually able to find jobs even subbing in this province because there was an over- supply of teachers to the demands in the system. That was also resulting from teaching positions that were cut under the previous government as well.
Now we have actually seen a different thing happen, where more teachers are being hired full-time. That has created a substitute pressure in the system because a lot of these folks are now working full time. We are working to address that. We actually do have a tripartite agreement that I believe has been signed with the union and HRSB to work together to address that.
To the member’s point, we do have a very specific shortage in French-speaking teachers and also in math. We’re currently working with our B.Ed. providers and all those training educators to make sure that we are recruiting French-speaking teachers in the system so that they know that is a priority and that there is a need in the system. If they’re graduating with those certifications and can teach in French, there are a lot of jobs waiting for them. The same goes for math.
We’re really trying to align the training that’s happening with our B.Ed. providers, which hasn’t happened to date. That has been a problem in this province as well. We have not aligned the training with the needs of the system. To this point, we have an over- abundance of teaching professionals who are graduating who haven’t been able to find work and aren’t necessarily being trained in the areas where there is a need. Of course, that has created a supply and demand issue in the system from a human resources perspective. We are currently working with our partners there to make sure we’re training people with the skill sets that the system actually needs.
The inclusion commission also recommended that we do a better job in terms of professional development for teachers so they are getting additional skills that are required to deal with complex classrooms and the diverse needs that we find in those classrooms. We’re not asking teachers to do that alone, however. We are also putting additional behavioural specialist supports into the system to help our teachers. There is currently a shortage of those positions as well, however.
We have a lot of work to do to actually realign the system so that we’re producing graduates and professionals who are going to be able to get the jobs in the system because there is a need for these. We have not aligned those things yet in Nova Scotia, and that’s one of the ongoing challenges.
The French teaching shortage has also been a priority for the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, my colleagues across the country. This has come up at that table. Again, every jurisdiction outside of Quebec is faced with that challenge right now. We are working together as a country to come up with strategies to address that, but we’re also trying to gain some strategic advantages here for recruitment and training in Nova Scotia to get us ahead of the pack.
MR. HALMAN: Still looking at the sub-department of the Centre for Learning Excellence within the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, I’m wondering if the minister could outline any new initiatives the department has in place that are planned for leadership development.
It has been outlined by this government that leadership excellence is critical in student success. I believe that’s a variable in leading to student success, among many variables. What are some new initiatives for leadership development of our administrators and area supervisors within Nova Scotia?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of leadership excellence, not only is it one of the factors that impacts students, it is the second-greatest factor that impacts student achievement, outside of teaching excellence - leadership excellence. That is one of the reasons why we have looked at creating a professional association for our administrators.
Right now, in the union’s belief statements, leadership excellence is not even listed. We have also heard from principals - many principals, not all of them - who believe that their priorities were not being properly addressed by the union. We believe that having a professional association that will focus on their needs and on leadership excellence will really help us support our administrators in a more effective and better way than we previously have in relation to this - recognizing that it is the second-most significant factor and determinant for student achievement.
We have also brought principals directly to the table at the minister’s level through the Principals Forum and Principals in Focus process. Principals now have a direct line of communication with me and the deputy minister and senior offices within the department, which did not exist before.
I want to thank Jared Purdy on the record. He was chosen by his peers in that group to chair and facilitate the operations of that organization. He and the team on the Principals Forum are doing really important work on behalf of their peers across the province. They are going to come forward with recommendations for us to consider helping them do their job and to help provide more supports to them. Their work will actually be fundamental in terms of establishing a professional association permanently for principals as well.
In terms of leadership excellence, we have recognized as a government that there has been a gap in supports and structures in place for those critical people on our system. We recognize that we need to do a better job supporting them and giving them agency to support themselves and their peers in a way that they have not had before in this province. I’m very excited about what we will be able to achieve there.
We will also be establishing, as I have mentioned, not only teaching standards of excellence, working collaboratively with the union, but standards of leadership excellence as well, so that we can define those ideals that are necessary to achieve the very best from a leadership perspective and make sure that the appropriate structures and systems are in place to help our principals, our VPs, our senior management teams, and our boards do their very best in our system because we know that is going to have an impact on our kids and their success.
MR. HALMAN: My next question is within the budget, specifically Student Equity and Support Services. I suspect that once I ask the question, it is going to require a fairly detailed answer, and then I’ll be handing it over to the member for Inverness.
What are the new initiatives for African-Canadian services and Mi’kmaq services, in particular for the support workers in our junior highs and high schools, those roles? Could the minister outline the department’s initiatives for these positions? Essentially, what are the plans moving forward to Student Equity and Support Services?
What are the plans moving forward for these positions within our schools? Are there new initiatives that the public should be aware of in support services, in particular for African-Canadian services and Mi’kmaq services?
MR. CHURCHILL: Our regional offices have enhanced those positions, the role of those positions in the system. What we’re focused on right now as a department is making sure that those folks are better coordinated from one end of the province to the other. We’re going to be doing that by having executive director positions in the department focused specifically on African Nova Scotian- and Mi’kmaq-related educational issues.
It’s also beyond those positions as well. I want to make that clear. It’s also about ensuring that our teaching workforce is better prepared to take on some of these challenges as well. Culturally responsive pedagogy is paramount. We have been in the process of ensuring that that is happening on the professional development level and also trying to create incentives for diversity when it comes to teacher training. The Premier has been very clear that this is a priority for him, that we want our diverse students to see themselves in their educators. We know that that’s important, so we’re looking at incentives to actually ensure that we have a more diverse workforce in Nova Scotia because that is an area where we need to see improvements as well.
MR. HALMAN: I would like to thank the minister for his response. Perhaps we can chat about that further. It’s a very important topic. I know we would agree that that is a very important topic.
I’ll pass it to the member for Victoria-The Lakes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Victoria-The Lakes.
MR. KEITH BAIN: I have just a couple of questions before I turn the floor over as well. The first one is concerning the elimination of school boards. It’s the understanding that the school board members will be paid from now until October 2020. Can you provide us with the cost of that for from now until October 2020?
MR. CHURCHILL: The cost is over $2.3 million for the payout. That will be in a one-time payment. That will not be a recurring paycheque that is delivered over the course of the next 30 months of that term. It will be a one-time payment to those folks. We thought that was very important, recognizing that, getting into this position, there obviously was the assumption that they would fulfill their term and be compensated for that term, so we believe that this is fair. Recognizing the challenge that we have created for these 97 folks in the system, we believe it is critical that we provide them with fair compensation for their work, for the time that they have served, and for the duration of the 30 months, had they completed their terms.
MR. BAIN: You say they will be paid within the next 30 months. Is there any indication as to when exactly that one-time payment might take place?
MR. CHURCHILL: We are targeting April. We expect that most board members will receive their payout by April.
MR. BAIN: We’re talking next month, April? Okay. Great.
I’m just going to switch for a second then. It’s concerning pre-Primary and the effects that are occurring on daycares or nursery schools. I am going to reference, if I could, the nursery school that’s in Baddeck Academy.
Presently, the school is operating with three- and four-year-olds in the school over the years. Initially, they were in the Baddeck Fire Hall, but they ran out of space, so they moved down to the school and did renovations. With the pre-Primary programming coming now to Baddeck Academy, the space that was allotted for the nursery school is no longer available. They are taking that over for the pre-Primary.
It also has an effect on whether or not the nursery school will even exist. The low number of three-year-olds in the Baddeck area probably would not make them eligible for any funding. They could get funding when it was three- and four-year-olds, but that challenge is there now.
Also, they took out a loan, at one point, to do renovations to the classroom they are using. There was a forgivable portion of the loan provided they kept the lease up for 10 years. Of course, if they are not operating, the lease, which was to expire in 2023, wouldn’t be any good. But it wasn’t really them who gave up the lease - it was the board. I wonder if you could comment on that.
MR. CHURCHILL: I know the Progressive Conservative Party has been opposed to the pre-Primary program. I know the Party voted against the establishment of that program and one of the leadership candidates had said that had he been minister of education, there would not be a pre-Primary program. I do appreciate the positioning of the Progressive Conservatives in regard to this program, but we do disagree fundamentally with their position on this.
We recognize that there is an economic impact to the regulated child care sector. I want to talk about that for a couple of minutes. First, we need to recognize that the taxpayers actually do subsidize the regulated sector significantly to the tune of historically approximately $50 million per year, which is the same cost actually that a free universal pre-Primary program will be - around $50 million per year when we have all 250 spaces available. We do that because it is important. The regulated child care sector is important. But in Nova Scotia, despite these major investments - by the way, that has increased in this year’s budget up to $64 million. We have actually increased investments in the regulated child care sector.
The problem we are trying to overcome in Nova Scotia is that only one in four of our kids from zero to four, preschool-aged children, have had access to child care, have had access to early learning opportunities. We know that is a problem for families, particularly for single mothers, for working families, or single fathers who are working. It has been a problem for families from different perspectives - an access point - not even actually being able to get child care in certain regions of the province.
Secondly, from an affordability standpoint, we know that some families have a hard time affording child care. Not every family benefits from the situation my wife and I find ourselves in in terms of the amount of family support that we get to take care of our daughter. Despite the fact that we have put these significant dollars into subsidizing the regulated child care sector, we still have this problem of access and affordability.
We are approaching that challenge in two key ways. One is to develop a free universal pre-Primary program for four-year-olds. We know that early learning matters from a scientific standpoint, to the development of our young people, in terms of their academic achievement once they get into the academic learning environment. It helps from an emotional standpoint, a mental health standpoint, and a behavioural standpoint. Its impacts are profound and lasting. Only one in four kids accessing that is a problem, in the opinion of this government, although I do know the Progressive Conservatives disagree with that.
We now have up to 3,400 four-year-olds who will be able to access this program beginning in September. We have 800 who accessed it last year. By the time this is done, every single four-year-old in the province will have access to this key program.
We recognize that not only does this have an economic impact on some regulated child care businesses or not-for-profits, but we also have to expand the regulated child care sector as well. We are thankful that we have $35 million over five years that has been given to us by the federal government. That is helping us achieve that within the confines of our budget. We have also invested significant dollars in the expansion of child care as well.
We are actually in the process of creating 1,000 new child care spaces in this province in areas where families currently don’t have access to these important services. We have also expanded the subsidy for families so that it’s more affordable for families. Recognizing the challenge to certain business models of the regulated child care sector, we also have space conversion grants and money available for them to adapt their business models to the new reality of pre-Primary. We’re also subsidizing part-time daycare, which is a first that has happened in this province as well.
Right now, the regulated child care sector is able to access significant dollars to help them bring on infants, as an example. That costs the most, from a child care perspective, taking on infants. We are now providing money to child care centres and subsidizing infant care, which this province has not done before, to assist these organizations in adapting to losing four-year-olds, if in fact they are. We are also helping them with funding to assist them in developing more inclusive spaces and program materials for students with diverse needs.
These major investments will continue. We have actually enhanced the investment in the regulated child care sector from $53 million last year to close to $65 million this year. That’s in recognition of the important role that they play in Nova Scotia when it comes to supports for families and our kids.
Yes, pre-Primary does impact the business model, but it’s necessary. It’s important from many perspectives for the success of our children and for options made available to families. We’re also helping the sector adapt to this new reality. We’re investing in them to help them expand their services from one end of this province to the other. We really do have to work together to make sure that every single family in Nova Scotia - not just one out of four - has access to these key programs, because we have been failing so far with our investment dollars.
The strategy that previous governments have had has not been working in ensuring there is more access and affordable child care in this province. We recognized as a government that we need to do better, and I’m proud to say that we are.
MR. BAIN: The question is not who is in favour of pre-Primary or who is not. I did bring up the issue of Baddeck Nursery School as a particular situation. I think the nursery school has pretty much accepted the fact that they will no longer be able to offer the service that they did because of the numbers they’re going to have and the fact that they were in the facility in the school, in Baddeck Academy anyway.
Their main concern and their main fear at this point is that the lease has been broken, through no fault of theirs. The question they’re going to be asking or are already asking is, are they going to be responsible for that forgivable portion of their loan? Can the minister offer assurance that, because it was actually the school board that broke the lease and not the nursery school, they don’t have to worry about that forgivable portion?
MR. CHURCHILL: I’m sorry I didn’t get to the specific issue that the member had previously asked me about. I’m happy to say that our staff have actually met with the operator of that program, I believe today, to talk about the challenges that they have from a business perspective. We are looking to assist them in developing before-and-after programming for pre-Primary four-year-olds and also looking at the space challenges that they currently have.
I have been told that staff believe there is a path forward to assist them in a way that’s going to help them get through this current challenge. We recognize that there are going to be other specific challenges like this. We will work with each and every operator that’s willing, to help them overcome this, whether it’s helping them take on infants, whether it’s helping them take on more children with special needs, whether it’s helping them convert their space, whether it’s helping them recruit and retain staff, or whether it’s helping them market to families.
There’s a lot of key ways we are working with the sector. Also, in some areas where space is an issue for pre-Primary delivery, what the member will see is partnerships that actually develop with the regulated child care sector. That’s not going to happen in every community because our priority is to get them in schools. We know the evidence says if four-year-olds are doing pre-Primary in a school, it’s going to make that transition to the academic learning environment better. In areas where space is a challenge and there’s not space in our schools, we will be looking at partnerships with the regulated child care sector. We’re currently engaged in a pilot project in Kings County that we’ll be moving forward in the coming weeks and months. We’ll also be looking at other opportunities to do that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage on an introduction.
MS. BARBARA ADAMS: Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to draw the House’s attention to the west gallery. We have an amazing set of teachers up there. I know there were some who were here earlier. I’ll just read them all off again. They are Jennifer Bragg, Jodi Robinson, Allison Wilton, and Trevor Pierce; and program assistants, Sandra Smith and Tammy Munroe; and all of the amazing students from Eastern Passage Education Centre. Could they all rise and be recognized. (Applause)
MR. CHAIRMAN: Welcome to the Legislature.
The honourable member for Victoria-The Lakes.
MR. BAIN: I guess that’s our future up there, isn’t it, when you look at it?
My latest conversation with the nursery school was last evening. I’m correct in assuming that, since then, there has been conversation ongoing with the nursery school in Baddeck Academy. Is there assurance given to that group that they don’t have to worry about that forgivable loan? Has it been given or will it be given?
MR. CHURCHILL: I appreciate the member’s concern for that group. Staff have met with them today, and we have provided them with options to consider in terms of looking at their business model and ensuring that it’s sustainable over the course of the long run. I have not spoken directly to our early learning staff after that meeting. I haven’t spoken with the nursery operators specifically, but I’m being told the meeting was positive. Sorry - that meeting happened yesterday, not today. I want to correct that with the member. The deputy just corrected me.
I’m told that there have been options given and that, according to staff, the department believes that there are viable options for them to consider moving forward that will assist them with their current challenges.
MR. BAIN: I don’t want to belabour this because I know other people want to speak about it. The fact that the meeting took place yesterday - it was after yesterday’s meeting that I received the call from the people in the nursery school. Again, I know that they want to work things out with the government. But that cloud, if I can say that, the fear of that forgivable loan is over their shoulders. That’s the only thing at this point I think they’re concerned about, whether or not they move forward.
MR. CHURCHILL: I appreciate the concern. That loan specifically is with the housing corporation. We do not have the authority to waive that. The best that we can do is provide them with options. Presumably, based on the investments that we’re making, those will include funding potential as well. The assessment I’m getting from staff is that there are options that can be helpful.
We do recognize that for many of the regulated child care centres, the installation of pre-Primary creates a challenge to the business model. It’s important to recognize that the current business model and the regulated child care sector are being heavily subsidized by Nova Scotians. We’re not achieving the goals that we need to achieve from an access standpoint and from an affordability standpoint. Therefore, these changes are necessary to give families and kids access to affordable child care and early learning opportunities.
Recognizing that we are creating some business challenges for the regulated child care sector, we’re working very closely with them to help them overcome those challenges. We have engaged in an extensive consultation with the sector not only to identify areas of concern that they have, but also to identify opportunities for partnership, areas where funding is needed. In fact, we were lucky the criteria provided by the federal government in terms of allocation of those new federal dollars - that $35 million that we now have - was very much in line with what the sector is looking for in terms of investments to assist them.
That bodes very well for me. While we’re going to have some challenges, at the end of the day, from a policy perspective, an outcomes perspective, and an investment perspective, we are going to have a more robust, higher-quality, more inclusive, more accessible, more affordable child care sector in this province. On top of that, we’re going to have a free universal pre-Primary program. The biggest challenge we have had with pre-Primary is keeping up with demand. Parents want this, and we know our kids need it.
MR. BAIN: I know that the loan is with housing - I found that out yesterday - which is another story in itself, I think, if we check into it. I can’t stress enough that whether or not the nursery program that they have goes forward in whatever form it might be, at the end of the day, there is a lease that has been signed with the school board and the nursery. The lease has been broken by - it’s not the school board anymore. It has been broken by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
My final question to the minister is, will your department negotiate with the housing corporation to make sure that the forgivable loan is, indeed, forgivable?
MR. CHURCHILL: To clarify, those operational decisions are still happening at the regional level, as they always have been. Although the governance structure of the boards has changed, these are not areas boards voted on or passed resolutions on in terms of operational expenses. They vote on the overall budget. This would have been negotiated with operational staff.
What I can do is look into this in the department personally. I’ll commit to that for the member and to providing him with an update on where staff believe we’re at and providing the member with an assessment of what our options can be. I’ll make sure that staff provide me with that update so I can pass that on to the member. I can appreciate, as a good constituency MLA, that it’s incumbent upon all of us to respond to these concerns that come forward into our offices. I want to help the member at least evaluate all the options that are available and see what can be done. I will follow up with the member by the end of the day today.
MR. BAIN: Thank you to the minister for that. I know we’ll have continuing dialogue on it, and the fact that you will do a follow-up on it is very much appreciated.
I know I have taken up a lot of time on that one particular issue, and I apologize to those who might want to be asking some other questions. I’m going to turn it over now to the member for Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg.
HON. ALFIE MACLEOD: Thank you to the minister and staff for the opportunity to ask a few questions.
I don’t have a lot of questions that I want to talk to you about, Minister, but there’s a subject that has been on the minds of a lot of Nova Scotians over the period of the last year or so, and that is inclusion. It’s about how we move forward. As you have identified in the past, and I appreciate the very fact that you have, there are many different needs in the population of our schools, and we want to try to address them as best we can.
In particular, I know that the inclusion report came out on Monday. There are some aspects of it that I think are going to be helpful towards what we need to get accomplished for our students. At the end of the day, I think the one thing that you and I will always agree on is that the most important outcome of this is what’s best for the young people of this province.
My concern is about a student who is exceptional in a different way. The parents in this particular case have worked hard to try to get their son through the ordinary system, and it didn’t work for various reasons. Again, I think you are aware of some of the issues behind that. As we move forward, we’ve been trying to find a way to make the system work for Eric.
I’m curious as to what the minister sees in the inclusion report that might help Eric out. I think it’s important that we put on the record that you were indeed gracious enough to meet with the parent of this child, our Education Critic, and myself to talk about trying to find a solution for him. At this point, we still haven’t found something that seems to be satisfactory for the child. I do appreciate the fact that you do that, that you have done it in the past, and that you have some knowledge of this case. I’m wondering what you see came out of the inclusion report that might be something we could put towards Eric’s situation.
MR. CHURCHILL: I really appreciate the question. The story of Eric was a very moving one. I know the member has been an advocate for that student and that family for the entire period that I’ve been Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development. It was an enlightening conversation that I had with Eric’s mother, who of course, just wants the best for her son and wants to have a system that better meets his needs. I actually see some great opportunity to support Eric and other students who have similar challenges and other challenges in the education system, by following through on the recommendations from the inclusion report.
Maybe we won’t speak directly to that particular case but more in generalities. This report has recognized that the system is failing about 10 per cent of our student population in different ways. Not entirely failing - I don’t want to say that. Perhaps I should change that and say we are not doing our very best for these students in many ways. This report has recognized that, for 90 per cent of our students, the classroom is the best place for them to be and learn. They will achieve their very best in the classroom with additional supports in the classroom and additional professional development being provided for teachers. For 10 per cent of the student body, smaller group learning is absolutely critical to ensuring that they achieve their very best.
For an even smaller number of students - 3 per cent, according to the inclusion commission - individualized, intensive intervention is what will be required. I would suggest that students who are not getting what they need from a regular classroom will benefit from a new tiered model. There will be these other two options available whereby they will be able to learn in smaller group settings, which is particularly good, based on what I have read, for students who do have certain anxieties around being in the classroom. For those specific cases where individualized support is needed, that will be made available for them.
The reason this report is important for Eric and all students in the system is because it fundamentally changes how we are looking at the education system from where we have tried to fit students in spaces, to actually trying to find spaces that fit the needs of students. That will be a fundamental shift in how we deliver inclusive education in the Province of Nova Scotia.
That requires investments in a lot of supports that currently are not there now in the system. Behavioural supports, autism specialists, psychologists, speech pathologists - in all these important areas of expertise where there are gaps in the system, we will be spending money to train these folks and make sure that they are recruited and retained in the education system.
The inclusion commission has also challenged us to break down the silos of government and reach beyond the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development itself and the education system itself, into other areas where there are supports that should be made available for students. The Health and Wellness Department is a key example.
We have begun that work through the SchoolsPlus program. We have created a referral network through SchoolsPlus where students and families can be connected to supports within the education system that will be helpful for their particular cases, but also for supports outside the system, be it Justice, Community Services, Health and Wellness, or otherwise. We are looking at providing a more holistic approach not only to teaching our kids and providing supports for them in the system, but also ensuring that all the supports that government can bring to bear to certain situations are made available to these people.
I believe that, over the course of the next number of years, once we are able to train and hire these behavioural specialists and the other specialists we need in the system, teachers, students, and families will start seeing some major improvements in the way that we are delivering education and in achievement levels and well-being outcomes of our students.
MR. MACLEOD: I guess the thing that concerns me is that, in your answer, you said that over the next number of years, these will lead to improvements for the 10 per cent of the population.
I do respect and understand that. However, in this particular case, we don’t have a number of years. The situation of this one individual, and I’m sure there are others out there that I may not be aware of, is that the family has actually found a route that has worked for their son in this case. As you acknowledged earlier, Minister, the thing that we all want is what’s best for our children here. They found a solution. They have been trying to deal with that solution, but the long-term effect on the family life, family resources, and where they are going is coming to a head.
I believe, and I hope to convince you, that there is no cookie-cutter solution for all these types of problems. I don’t think I have to do much convincing to get you to that point. What I do encourage is that you try to find a way to help this particular family now - not in the length of the inclusion report or the time it will take to implement the tiered system. We need some help now.
I would not expect, and I don’t believe the family would expect, any more than what is invested into each child across Nova Scotia, the investment for a year, the $7,200 amount, or whatever the current number is. I would ask you to find a way to help this family keep this young man in the area where he is excelling now compared to where he was and, at the same time, help remove the burden from the family. If not, we could have a situation where we have a whole family needing assistance from the government where a small gesture on the part of the government could help remedy this situation.
I know that’s a hard place to go and probably almost impossible for you to answer on short notice. My request of you as the minister is to please take into consideration what you know, what I have mentioned to you, and see if we can find a solution for Eric in the very near future.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. I would just remind the honourable member, a former Speaker of this House, and all members that the word “you” is not quite appropriate. I will show great lenience today, as the conversation is a good one that is going on back and forth between the members and the minister. I would just encourage you all to keep that in mind.
MR. MACLEOD: Mr. Chairman, as an old sheep farmer, sometimes it’s hard not to use the word “you.”
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
MR. CHURCHILL: Again, I really do appreciate the member’s advocacy for the student and the family. I can empathize deeply with the challenge that that family faces. I believe there are immediate actions taking place within the system that will allow us to address those concerns in a meaningful way.
I did use the words “a few years” because the implementation plan will be rolled out over the course of a few years, but we’re taking immediate action in this regard particularly around the tiered system. The inclusion commission has asked us to evaluate that system for half a year with the plan to implement as early as next year, so these things are happening right away.
I’ll remind the honourable member that, specifically for the report on inclusive education, we have $15 million budgeted that we will be expensing in this year. We are taking immediate action from this report. We’re moving as quickly as we can.
We have been ambitious with every single strategic pillar that our government has moved forward with. We have done that with pre-Primary. I know that the Progressive Conservatives asked us to slow down with that program, but we were ambitious with that. We were ambitious in moving forward with Dr. Glaze’s recommendations, another area where we were told to slow down but which we thought it was important to move forward with and be ambitious with.
We will not slow down with the implementation of this report. We are moving forward immediately with meaningful actions that will have an impact as early as September. On the tiered model, it will most likely be the later half of the academic year when we begin to implement that.
The challenge as minister is in looking at these specific cases where personally, obviously, you have a lot of empathy and sympathy for people that are in these situations. When you’re looking at these individual cases that rightfully pull on your heart strings and give you a better understanding of some of the individual challenges that people are facing, you also have to make decisions that are best for the system.
The challenge in terms of funding private schools that don’t meet the criteria for funding from a system perspective is actually quite important, and they are precious dollars that we spend in our education system. The schools that meet the criteria for those grants are such that they need to be focused on special need supports.
The challenge of this individual case is that that school does not meet the criteria. I hope the member can understand that the integrity of the criteria is actually important from a system perspective. By allowing an exception to the criteria, we actually create other challenges for students in the system in other areas. It’s never easy trying to find the balance of making sure that each and every person is getting the solution they want and ensuring that you uphold the integrity of the system itself and don’t create challenges from a system perspective. That’s never easy, particularly when you’re looking someone in the eyes and know the very real challenges and struggles that they are facing.
As minister, I do have to uphold the integrity of the criteria for that grant program. It is important, not just from a financial perspective but also ensuring that those dollars are being spent for the intended purpose.
I do believe, based on what I understand about this case in particular, that the changes we are moving forward with as quick as next year will have an impact on the learning environment for the member’s constituent and the learning environment for many more students in the system. We are going to get there and as quickly as possible.
MR. MACLEOD: I guess I’ll leave you with this one thought. There is a former Premier of this province who used to say on a regular basis that it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing, and the right thing for Eric is sooner than later.
With that, I am going to turn it over to my colleague, the member for Inverness. I thank you again for your time, Minister.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Inverness.
MR. ALLAN MACMASTER: I have just a little time here. I have three questions. I’m going to try to get them in. They are around the boards - ultimately, they are actually around the question of what say parents will have going forward in the education of their children.
The reason I am asking these questions is because I think it’s important for parents to have some say, input, into their children’s education so they also take ownership of it, so that they don’t send their children off to school and expect the school to do it all. I think if parents don’t have meaningful say in their children’s education, they are not going to take the same kind of ownership of it. I think it should be a shared ownership in the sense that parents are involved in the school, involved in their children’s education, and supportive of what’s going on in the school.
The first question I would ask the minister is, has the department given consideration to what control parents should have? The boards are eliminated. Traditionally, one could say parents could elect a school board representative, they could bring issues to them, and they could decide at a school board meeting. What control should parents have over their children’s education?
MR. CHURCHILL: That’s an important question. In fact, we as a government recognize, as has the Commission on Inclusive Education, the critical role that parents play in their children’s success in school and in life. Of course, the level of support or the situation at home does vary from household to household and child to child. As minister, I recognize the importance of the education system to be there to provide whatever supports are necessary so that all our students, no matter their situation at home, have the best chance in school and in life.
Specifically, in terms of parental engagement, the inclusion commission has recognized that that is absolutely key and that parents do need to be engaged in the education of their children, recognizing that we don’t necessarily have control over the level of that engagement.
We are trying to enhance the voice and role of parents, community members, teachers and principals in the system on the front lines through enhanced role of the SACs. The feedback I receive from SACs around the change in governance structure and dissolution of the boards did vary from room to room I was in. Obviously, some parents and some SAC members felt very supported by the school board members. Others felt very disconnected from the school board office, so there was a variance there.
Based on the voices I heard, it was probably 60-40 in terms of more people feeling that they didn’t really have a say over board offices and felt a level of frustration. I think that frustration particularly exists during school closures in particular, which is always a challenging decision for anybody to make.
There was a lot of optimism amongst the SACs to look at a new role that they can play in a different structure. All of them pretty much made it very clear they did not want to take on additional governance responsibilities outside what they’re doing now as volunteers. We have recognized that and, essentially, how we’re enhancing their role and their voice in this system is in two ways.
One is providing funding to them, albeit, as I mentioned yesterday, relatively small amounts of funding that will be based on the eventual savings that we receive from the change of the governance structure. They were very pleased to have some say over some dollars that are spent in their schools.
Also, reallocating resources in the regions to actually have dedicated human resources for SACs, which there currently isn’t, which will not only help them coordinate help with their training and help in their effectiveness, but also create a direct line of communication into the regional offices. There will be staff people in our regions who will provide that direct conduit between SAC chairmen and the regional offices - and it will be incumbent upon the regional offices to be responsive to those concerns as they come in.
We are also looking at having an opportunity for SACs to actually meet with the minister at least once a year. It most likely will be once a year where we either host the conference provincially or look at having regional meetings to actually make sure that they are able to get in front of the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, whomever that is, and voice their concerns and opinions to the minister as well. I see that as at least giving them more access and more direct lines of communication with top decision makers, not burdening them with more decision-making powers which they didn’t want. There was pretty much consensus on that point; they did not want to have broader decision- making powers or any governance role in the system other than having more control over some funds that are invested in their schools, but they did want to have better access to the decision makers, so I think we are developing a model that’s going to work.
A challenge with SACs, however, is that parent and community involvement does differ from community to community and does differ from grade level to grade level, so usually very high engagement at the elementary level and that starts to peter off as you get in junior high and high school. That is a challenge that we have, so we are in the process of meeting with the most effective SACs in the province, learning from their experience, their examples, to help us develop strategies to increase engagement and involvement, and we’re looking at alternative options if we can’t get a critical mass of people for a specific school, to actually have a wider family of schools perhaps that we can have a pool of people to pick from to make sure there’s a group in place to provide this important role in the system.
MR. MACMASTER: Mr. Chairman, to the minister, I guess some of the things I think about for parents is: do they have any control over the curriculum, over the course selection offered to them in schools? Especially in rural areas, there may be basic science courses that students might need for university and they’re offset with other courses which may seem trivial in comparison, because when that student is trying to prepare for university and needs those courses, it could be science courses, choices for extra help in school, a say in what is happening in the school, extracurricular activities and such.
I will leave the minister with this thought - and I hope these councils work but I’m concerned that they’re not going to be accountable. I won’t say the school boards were the best model either, but my concern is that if parents don’t have a say in some of these things or feel like they have a say they will not really be interested in participating, and I think that’s kind of what we’ve seen with low voter turnouts for the school boards. I think even with things like . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the Progressive Conservative caucus has expired.
We’ll now move to the New Democratic Party caucus. (Interruption) Yes, we can certainly take a short recess.
[2:05 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[2:12 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. I call the committee back to order.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
MS. CLAUDIA CHENDER: Mr. Chairman, I’d like to start off this round of questioning asking about the recent report on inclusion.
We were told before the release of the report that the government has budgeted $15 million. We were told upon the release of the report that that number and its allocation would be flexible. I’ve heard from the minister that the main reason for that is the labour force issues, lack of specialists, the potential of needing to change collective bargaining which, in this case, seems to present a challenge to government although, in some cases in the past, it has not.
My question is, where will that $15 million be spent? Understanding that there are labour force issues but also understanding that in the report, I mean I can barely make it through for stage one of implementation which runs through this fiscal, there are in excess of 30 recommendations. Many have to do with the labour force, but there are also capital considerations and many other cost centres in those recommendations outside of skilled labour or new skilled labour positions.
I would love if the minister could provide me with the breakdown of where that $15 million will go.
MR. CHURCHILL: The $15 million will be spent to execute on the supports the recommendations have asked us to bring into the classroom. This money will be spent on behavioural supports on the specialists for autism, for instance psych assessments, all the specialists they identified will be first and foremost spent to bring those folks into the system and provide those additional resources to our classrooms, teachers, and students.
Where the flexibility is required is that as the member stated and which I’ve stated several times, we do have a supply and demand issue where we have a higher demand than we have a supply of those professionals. The dollars will first and foremost be spent on hiring those specialists that the inclusion commission has asked us to hire to put additional resources into the classroom. The dollars that aren’t spent doing that will be directed towards training of those professionals.
This first round of spending, the $15 million, will all be about getting more resources into the classroom as quickly as possible. That happens through hiring and that happens through training.
MS. CHENDER: Mr. Chairman, I hope that at some point we’ll see more of an accounting of that, and I must say I have a number of questions.
Supports in the classroom, again, as I mentioned in my previous question, are part of this comprehensive and very well-researched document that we’ve all been presented with, but there are many others. In fact, I think this points to one of the challenges - one of the criticisms or concerns we’ve heard about this report which is, while the commission has continually said that this report does not, in any way, support streaming students, the reality is in this new MTSS delivery we have three tiers.
We know that Tiers 2 and 3 will be accessed exclusively, if not predominantly, by children with labels who have gone through a psych-ed or another kind of assessment and who are deemed to need that support or to move through those tiers of support to get a full education. The challenge is that Tier 1 is also important and it is important for all learners.
When we talk about the inclusive education system, I think all of us in the Chamber slip into talking about those children or the special children or the differently abled children, but in fact I think the linchpin of inclusive education is that it is all children and that all children - we have to have a more holistic view of how we educate all children.
With that in mind, I think it is extremely important that Tier 1, 2, and 3 supports all be funded in equal measure and that the actions and recommendations related to those three tiers are funded at the same time, and that would include professional development.
I understand there are collective bargaining issues with professional development, but as the minister has gone to pains to point out, in their consultation with teachers, a number of them pointed out that they did not feel supported enough in the classroom to deal with the diverse needs in those classrooms.
My question is, what piece of this budget is going to ensure that this universal design for learning and differentiation, which is the linchpin of Tier 1, will also receive the funding and attention of the government at the same time as the very important specialists, many of whom we know are not yet available, to take us through Tier 2 and Tier 3?
MR. CHURCHILL: In fact, the commission has actually recommended that we approach this in a “stage” manner; that is very specific to their recommendation and that will allow the department time to be thoughtful and practical in terms of our application.
I do want to be clear that - and the commission was very explicit about this - this was not to stream students into fixed bases permanently. This tiered structure will be fluid and will ensure that whatever the individual needs are of those students, they are able to access the appropriate supports throughout the tiered model to help them succeed.
This isn’t about putting students in Tier 2 or in a fixed space permanently - or Tier 1 - it’s about ensuring that we have these different options available for students that can be used in a fluid manner so that when it is practical, makes sense, and is helpful for the student to be in the classroom, that they are there and receive the supports that they need. When it makes more sense for a student or group of students to be in a smaller group setting for learning around perhaps a specific subject, that it happens, and when there are times that intervention is needed, that we have the resources there to allow that to happen.
These dollars will be spent on human resources that are needed to make sure that we can execute this plan, and we will be following the commission’s recommendations in terms of implementing this in a staged way.
I do want to get to some answers to the member’s previous questions. I know that we are talking about a different topic right now, but I do want to quickly talk about the meetings that I’ve had, to make sure it is on the record for Hansard and for the public who are listening. I will provide the list of meetings I’ve had with those groups that the members have asked for.
On September 12, 2017, I met with the NSSBA; on September 19, 2017 - and these are all in 2017 - I met with MK; October 11th I met with the chairmen and superintendents; November 4th I met with CAISE; November 6th I met with the South Shore Regional School Board, whom I neglected to mention; November 8th I met with CSAP, whom I forgot to mention; November 9th I met with the Digby Settlement Committee; November 14th I met with the Delmore Buddy Daye Institute; November 15th I met with the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board; November 20th I met with the Tri-County Regional School Board; November 21st I met with the Black Educators Association; and December 12, 2017, I met with the Halifax Regional School Board chairman.
In 2018: January 26th I met with the Black Cultural Centre; January 24th I met with superintendents; January 24th I also met with the NSSBA and board chairmen; February 7th I met with CAISE; February 7th I also met with the BEA; February 8th I met with board chairmen; February 12th I met with the Tri-County Regional School Board; February 13th I met with the Halifax Regional School Board; February 14th I met with the Strait Regional School Board; February 15th I met with Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board; February 16th I met with the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board; February 16th I met with the NSSBA; February 20th I met with the CSAP; February 23rd I met with the South Shore Regional School Board; February 26th I met with Chignecto-Central Regional School Board; and March 28th I met with the Digby Settlement Committee again.
Again, just to get on the record, in terms of the member’s previous question in relation to the AG’s recommendations on child care - we are in compliance, I believe, with just about all of these. Recommendation 1 around compliance and enforcement standards - standards were implemented on September 1, 2017. Recommendation 1.4, complaint guidelines - complaint guidelines were implemented on July 10, 2017. Since then, a total of 62 complaints have been reviewed and/or investigated in accordance with the new guidelines.
Recommendation 1.5, performance measures regarding affordability and accessibility, on July 16th, new subsidy per diems were introduced to close the gap between the subsidy rates and the actual cost of child care. The department also requires provincially funded child care centres to minimize parent fee increases to a maximum of 3 per cent annually, and fees can only be increased once a year. This is in line with Recommendation 1.5.
We’ve also moved on the AG’s recommendation of a centralized intake process, which has been introduced, as well as an online application providing improved client service to families. The turning point for the subsidy program has increased from an annual family income of $25,000 to $35,000. This is the second increase since June 2016, which has enabled more than 1,000 families to access the maximum subsidy of the program. The sliding scale has also been updated, enabling more than 600 families, in addition to that, to receive a higher subsidy rate.
The subsidy program has also been expanded so that families accessing part-day child care can now apply for support, and through the bilateral agreement with the Government of Canada, the Strategic Growth Process will be implemented to ensure child care is there in communities that need it.
In terms of Recommendation 1.2 on quality assurance, that recommendation is complete. We have a peer-reviewed case study, and peer review visits have begun already.
Recommendation 1.3, inspecting approved family homes, amendments will need to be made to the Day Care Act. Our policy staff is currently working on that. So, Recommendation 1.3 is outstanding; however, work to fulfill that is there.
I just wanted to make sure these are on the record because I was not able to answer in full to the member during our previous exchange. Thank you for your time. I tried to be as quick as I could.
MS. CHENDER: I would appreciate it if the minister could table that information just so we could see it. We won’t have Hansard available for these estimates for some time.
To go back to the conversation about inclusion, the minister did point out that the commission suggested a staged approach, and on Page 115 of their report they point out stage one. I want to point out that the hiring of these specialists is one of the recommendations, along with the funding of the psych-ed assessments, which is another of the recommendations, which appear in stage two of implementation, in fact, which is slated to begin September 2018.
In stage one, the recommendation is to establish the Nova Scotia Institute - presumably that has a price tag - to appoint the executive director; same - to appoint various representatives; to develop a policy framework; to develop the Cape Breton and Halifax intensive treatment programs - presumably those have a price tag; to improve TIENET and reduce teachers’ paperwork because we know there’s more work coming for them; to work with his ministerial counterparts in Health and Wellness, DCS, Justice, something we’re watching very closely; and enact those funding agreements. That’s a huge piece of work and, again, presumably it has a price tag.
Noting that the commission does have a recommended staging of implementation, is the government committing to implementing this report in the stages recommended by the commissioners?
MR. CHURCHILL: We are pursuing all the objectives of the report. Our focus for September is on ensuring there are enhanced supports in our school system for our kids. We believe that’s the most important thing we can do for September.
In terms of some of the other recommendations for stage one, government is already moving forward on those things. The Council to Improve Classroom Conditions has been working on assessments and we’ve actually engaged Internal Services to help us with that, and ask the user survey process to actually reach out to teachers directly to assist us in reducing their paperwork and ensuring that the data being collected is the most impactful and informative data that we need to make the decisions. That work has been ongoing.
SchoolsPlus has been the venue for which we’ve been trying to break down some of the silos that do exist in government departments in terms of providing services in our schools, but having wraparound services in schools is a key priority for government - and that work has been ongoing and will continue.
The one which I can’t say at this point we will follow through to the letter is the institute and the hiring of an executive director for that institute. I interpret the objectives of that to be helping us ensure there is accountability and that we’re succeeding in terms of implementation of the plan. I don’t know, as minister, if having a separate institute is the best way to do that or the best use of resources, to be honest.
I mentioned this yesterday, but I also worry about the establishment of another third party in kind of the advisory structure in the education system because we are trying to break down silos and integrate the system. Recognizing that we do have a lot of parties right now that are providing advice and feedback to the department, the Principals Forum, the Council on Classroom Conditions, the new Provincial Advisory Council, SACs, CAISE, the BEA, MK - the list goes on. We need to develop a strategy around that to make sure there’s a little more integration at that level.
In terms of the objective of ensuring accountability and measurement, we will be doing that. We might be able to achieve that through a third-party auditing process, for example, as opposed to setting up a new bureaucracy. We’re in the process of costing out these recommendations right now. The commission did not fully cost out although they gave us an assumption on what the costs would be so the department right now and Mr. Potter here is leading the charge, helping us cost out what these measures look like. That will better enable us to make a fully informed decision on where our priorities are going to be in terms of implementation.
I will tell the member that our chief priority is getting more resources in the classroom and getting more specialists, particularly around behaviour supports and autism supports in our schools because we think that is absolutely necessary, and we’re taking immediate action to do just that.
MS. CHENDER: Although there is a tiered suggested implementation it sounds as though the government will determine, based on their understanding of the report, which pieces of these recommendations will be implemented at specific times.
I note that the Cape Breton and Halifax intensive treatment programs also are noted both in this implementation framework but also throughout the report as key necessities. We know we’ve heard a lot from that 5 per cent to 10 per cent of students who might need that - or 3 per cent to 5 per cent, whatever it is - is it anticipated that the government will be establishing these?
MR. CHURCHILL: I want to be clear, we will be following the recommendations of the report. I do believe that the commission’s wisdom around having a staged approach is good and we will be following those recommendations. The commission’s priority, as well as our government’s priority, is around getting more resources in the classroom as soon as possible.
Many of the other recommendations that the member has listed in Phase I, we are already in the process of moving on those. There has been work undergoing, in some cases for over a year in relation to some of these recommendations. The steering committee on the B.Ed. program and training is one; the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions is looking at assessments; and the one that the member mentioned which, you know, I will openly and frankly put a question mark by is the institute, because we have not decided as a government whether that is the best mechanism to achieve the objective of accountability and measurement. But, of course, we will be communicating to the public as soon as we do reach a decision point on that because we want to make sure the dollars are spent in the most effective way possible.
We want the majority of the money that we’re spending in our education system to be for our students in the classrooms and for training and for hiring and, at this point, we don’t know if diverting some of those funds for an institute is the best way to achieve the objectives of accountability or measurement, but we will reach a decision point on that and the work that our finance group is doing around costing will help inform that decision.
We’ve only had this report for a number of days. That’s a different situation than we are in with Dr. Glaze where we did have it for close to a month, which allowed us to do a little more in-depth analysis on those recommendations. But the work is ongoing; this is a priority for us and we plan on executing on the recommendations of this report.
MS. CHENDER: Mr. Chairman, just to draw the minister’s attention to the specific initiative I was asking about just then, which was the Cape Breton and Halifax intensive treatment programs.
MR. CHURCHILL: That is one of the recommendations that we’re currently costing out right now.
MS. CHENDER: Thank you. The commission recommends standard pay for teacher assistants - I believe they call them “paraprofessionals” in the report - across the province. Can the minister tell me what the current range is for rates of pay for these paraprofessionals in our schools?
MR. CHURCHILL: The scale is between $25,000 and $32,000. The contracts do vary from region to region because there are regional collective agreements with these staff people, which the member mentioned earlier. Those collective agreements will stand under the new structure, but the range is between $25,000 and $32,000.
MS. CHENDER: Mr. Chairman, the commission reports - and I mentioned this earlier in my comments - that many schools identified capital needs as a barrier to offering inclusive programming; in fact, the commission went on to point to universal design for learning or UDL as core to providing truly inclusive education, again, with the idea that the optimal scenario is all children supported to learn in the same classroom wherever feasible.
Can the minister tell me how much has been allocated either in that $15 million or in this budget, and I understand this is something, an area of jurisdiction that the minister shares with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, but I would like to get an answer to what we’re doing in terms of school capital costs when these capital issues have been specifically communicated as a barrier to inclusion in the classroom.
MR. CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, in terms of the capital budget the member will find that in the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development budget, not in Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. They do work with us in terms of executing on the contractual aspects of the capital process and do oversee the renovations and constructions, so the member will see over $11 million for this year’s budget for capital investments, and that can include A&As or new builds. In terms of retrofits that will create more inclusive spaces, the dollars will be found in that capital budget line and also for new builds as well.
I will add that we are in the process of developing a more longer-term capital planning program which would be in line with recommendations that have come forth from the Auditor General and Dr. Glaze.
The member will see some regulations coming out in advance of our announcement this summer that will outline what that process will look like in the future, and we will have our capital list prepared for June.
The reason it is taking so long is to accommodate, to the best of our ability, some of the recommendations from the AG and from Dr. Glaze, and recognizing the change in the governance model as well, ensuring that we’ve wrapped our heads around what this process looks like moving forward. Part of that is ensuring a way that the community voice will be central in terms of informing those decisions, so we are in the process of developing that as we speak.
MS. CHENDER: I’m happy to hear that and I may have the opportunity to ask a few more questions along those lines later, but in the meantime is it the commitment of the minister or of this government that those universal design-for-learning renovations will be part of the immediate priority of the government in terms of implementing these recommendations, again, recognizing that for many students, teachers, and schools the barrier to having a truly inclusive classroom is, in fact, physical - that they just don’t have the right space?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of ensuring through the capital process that our schools are fully accessible, that does happen now. We are currently reviewing the recommendation to make sure that we have the appropriate learning spaces in our schools and to identify the best way that we can accomplish that recommendation. I think it is an important one and we’ve seen some really, I think, forward-thinking designs that have come forward in recent years.
I mentioned yesterday that I was at the grand opening in Bible Hill for the new elementary school there. The member for Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River was in attendance as well and we both did a tour of that facility. This is an example of a new modern school that really does have good design aspects around shared learning spaces, but of course we want to make sure that all the spaces we need to best provide for an inclusive learning environment are there, and that will be embedded, I am certain, in the tendering process and design process as we move forward.
MS. CHENDER: The report from the commission talks about the need for equitable access to service and supports. Both in the conversations around Bill No. 72 and in discussions around inclusion, we have talked about the need for equal access to services across the province, but equality is different than equity.
Pardon my semantics, but in this case equality would be to give every student, at the risk of a silly example, in the province a wheelchair. Well, not everybody - the minister may currently need a wheelchair, but not everybody - not every student in our classrooms does.
Equity, which I think is what we are seeking and what many advocates for the differently abled are also seeking, means everyone gets what they need in order to be able to participate fully, and I think that is consistent with the focus on student needs.
My question is, how will the department identify local needs and assess that equity? For instance, we know or have at least seen information - I’m sorry I don’t have it here, I can get it - that there is a significantly higher instance of certain special needs being identified in certain school districts, or in what were school boards. I think Cape Breton is one example of that in the CBRM.
We also know that historically in the Halifax Regional Municipality, in the HRSB, we also have a higher, I think, incidence at times of students in the classroom and part of that is historic, I think, some families did move into capital regions to access supports that were not available. All that being said, how will we identify those? I know that the funding formula is going to change in three years, but in the meantime, how do we make sure that every school and every region is getting the specific supports they need versus everyone getting exactly the same thing when in fact that might not be what is required?
MR. CHURCHILL: This is an area where the member and myself will find ourselves in full agreement in terms of how resources are disbursed within the system. Right now, the education system is funded on a formula that is entirely based on enrolment figures. While there are some grants available through the department for special needs, we do not have anything embedded in the formula itself to accommodate for those needs, from a financial perspective and an assistant funding perspective.
This is a brave new world for us to enter, where we actually don’t need a formula necessarily to fund the education system now. With an integrated system, we can now fund it in a way how we believe will have the best impact on students. I will agree with the member fully that funding on enrolment solely does not make sense based on our current modern understanding of the impact that needs and supports have on our school budgets.
I don’t have an answer in terms of what that looks like because this is yet again a transformative moment that will lead to a totally new way of looking at how we fund our schools. I believe our staff right now are working with regional staff to identify the best options that we should consider moving forward. I’m really excited about the opportunity this presents, and another reason why I do believe these changes will prove to be helpful in allowing us to be more responsive to the needs of our schools and our students.
MS. CHENDER: This may not be possible since it’s a work in progress but I’m specifically interested in how those decisions, or even the formation of the policy, how is that being made? I know traditionally a lot of that knowledge resided in the local school boards. What is the data and information being used to drive that policy development and those specific allocations?
MR. CHURCHILL: We are actually going to be leading the country in this regard. Jurisdictions across this country currently operate under enrolment funding formulas, so we’re going to lead the way and pave the new way for how this looks in the country.
What we will benefit from in terms of reaching a decision point on what this looks like is the work that has happened within the operational regions, because the boards do conduct a needs-based assessment, assists them with their disbursement of funds regionally, so the data that has been collected will help us apply a rationale to how this looks provincially now.
This is also an area where I believe the provincial advisory council will have a role to play in terms of helping us assess our options and best practices for disbursement of those funds. I do want to update the member on what that process is going to look like.
We’ve been lucky that in each of our elected boards, either the chairman, vice-chairman, or an alternative member of those elected boards has actually agreed to work on our transition team to help set the terms of reference and scope of the provincial advisory council and help us ensure that we have a good solid regional representation there, along with representation from other important areas in the system as well.
I do want to commend them on their commitment to do that. I know this has been a very tough time for those folks. We’ll also have a representative from the CSAP and the NSSBA. I believe right now Dave Wright - whom I know the member knows and has commented on his skill set and commitment - last I heard, Mr. Wright has agreed to work on the transition team as well, which is helpful because this actually speaks to the importance of having that sort of challenge culture in decision making that I know is important for the member and is important for me. I do want to take a moment to commend those individuals.
We’ll also have strong representation from the African Nova Scotian caucus and Mi’kmaq caucus as well. I believe we’re looking at three representatives who have been put forward by the African Nova Scotian school board caucus, and also a representative from CAISE and a representative from the Black Educators Association. We’re looking at a similar number of representatives from MK that will assist us with the representation question.
I do want to take the time, on the record, to thank those folks for maintaining their commitment to student success during a time that I know is personally very difficult for them, during a time where they, for the most part, fundamentally disagree with government direction, but the fact that they have said we don’t like where you’re going, but we’re willing to put our opinions on the matter aside and focus on helping you as minister develop the best possible outcome for the advisory council, I think is really commendable. Their desire to assist me and the government in that regard is very meaningful to me. It’s moving on a number of levels, and I think will actually help us ensure we have a good, solid advisory council with the right scope of focus. I think one of the areas where they will help us is advising on funding options that should be considered.
MS. CHENDER: Just to be clear, my question was about equity in funding for inclusive education around the province which, based on this report, likely may have been the purview of the Nova Scotia Institute for Inclusive Education, which may or may not come into existence, but the minister is saying that it may be this provincial advisory council that takes on some of that role?
MR. CHURCHILL: It may be. I mean, we’re really going to lean on the transition team to help us define the terms of reference and scope of that group so that it can be as effective as possible, but that may be an area where they provide some advisory assistance to us in terms of funding.
I think it’s also important though to seek advice from other groups as well. The Council on African Canadian Education, for example, their opinion in funding is really important, especially considering the achievement gap, allocation of resources I think is going to be critical in terms of addressing that, along with the representatives from the Mi’kmaq community. I think we have to seek a variety of input on that, and of course in forming that is also the recommendations from the inclusion report and having ongoing advice from experts in that field as well.
MS. CHENDER: Just to come back around a last time to an issue that again has been raised with us by advocates, which is the possibility that in spite of the clear intent of the commission there is a risk that people are seeing in this, particularly if it’s not implemented in the staging suggested, that students with specific disability labels will be linked to specific tiers based on that label, not perhaps based on the actual ability of that student with full support.
I want to ask the minister, what protections and policies will the government put in place to ensure that Tiers 2 and 3 are not the default placements for students with a specific label, which as we all know does turn the clock back to a previous system that I think we’ve all rejected in this House.
MR. CHURCHILL: I’m in full agreement with the member. The intention is not to revert to an old system. The commission was very clear on what the recommendation is in this regard. The recommendation has been specific to the department developing policies in this regard in Phase I to help ensure that exact situation that the member identified does not happen.
Those policies have not been created; we just received these recommendations a few days ago, but we will be creating those policies to ensure that the tiers are fluid and that this isn’t about labelling; it’s not about streaming. It’s about ensuring that each and every student has their needs met to the best of our ability in the education system.
MS. CHENDER: I was a little bit surprised to hear the minister say after the release of the report of the commission, and in the press release, something to the effect of the fact that having pre-Primary having been established in our schools offers us the opportunity for early identification of issues. This was the first I had heard of this, so I’m following up to ask whether this view of inclusive education is a pre-Primary through Grade 12 view. These pre-Primary students are in our schools, will the same principles of universal design - I mean, I understand pre-Primary is a play-based program and I support that, but in that structure whether the same basic principles and supports and assessments and access to everything else that’s laid out in this will be available in pre-Primary?
MR. CHURCHILL: The establishment of pre-Primary is absolutely essential. I’m not sure why the member would be surprised that I’ve spoken to that, because I spoke about it previously in this House that these early assessment opportunities will actually help us better prepare for the transition of these students into the academic learning environment. The evidence behind early learning demonstrates the validity of this point.
The commission’s recommendations are specific from the P-12 system - not the pre-Primary program, but we currently are providing an inclusive learning environment for diverse learners, diversity of learners. We currently have, I believe, in Phase I of pre-Primary, approximately 40 children who have been diagnosed special needs. The feedback that we’ve received from parents has been very positive in terms of the supports they’re getting in that program. It is different because, as the member mentioned, it’s a play-based program and the supports are primarily around having additional in a supervisory capacity and human resource support for those students, but the ability to have those ECEs provide some early assessments on what’s needed is going to go a long way in terms of improving student outcomes academically as they transition into the P-12 system.
MS. CHENDER: My surprise was not at the theory behind having pre-Primary; that’s understood, and I’ve heard the minister talk about that several times. It’s about the word “assessment.” I understand that diverse learners are welcome in a pre-Primary classroom. My question is, what specific supports are provided in the pre-Primary system? If the minister can point to any budget allocations that are connected to those supports, that would be even better.
MR. CHURCHILL: Just not to confuse the situation because I know that the word “assessment” in the education sector does have specific connotations. I’m using that word generally and that can happen at this level from observation. There can be official assessments when that’s necessary or assessments that aren’t official, so we’re not looking at testing or anything for pre-Primary learners. The benefit we have is that we do have experts who are trained in early learning who can provide assessments at different levels and primarily through observation, and that will help inform an education plan for these students as they enter into the P-12 system.
MS. CHENDER: Beyond well-trained early childhood educators, are there other supports the minister can point to that are available for diverse learners in pre-Primary classrooms?
MR. CHURCHILL: The member will find those supports budgeted in Human Resources. It’s additional people in those classrooms who can assist, obviously, with supervision and support of those students. That’s primarily where you will see the allocation of those resources. Also, in terms of the purchasing of materials for classrooms, that’s another area. If there are specific needs a student has, specific learning tools required, there are options for the EC to purchase those for their classes.
MS. CHENDER: I have a specific question in this regard and specifically for autistic students. We currently know there is a backlog, and this is a Department of Health and Wellness issue, in EIBI assessments and while the department has commendably committed to making sure all children have access to the EIBI - Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention - prior to entering school, because of the backlog for many, many students this means that their entering school is delayed by a year. We also know that that EIBI program is not currently synced with the academic year.
What this will mean practically is that although it’s great that in pre-Primary students can have access to EIBI while they move through the pre-Primary system, many families will be in a situation where they then have another year because of the delayed timetable, where my understanding is that families have been told their child may not repeat pre-Primary, but they don’t have child care. Of course, particularly once pre- Primary does become universal across the province, but even now there are fewer and fewer child care opportunities for children ages four to six, and especially children ages four to six who express a disability or a different ability, like autism.
My question to the minister is whether he has considered this. I think short term my hope would be that a student in that situation would be able to repeat pre-Primary, longer term my hope would be that the minister could work with his counterpart in Health and Wellness to actually change the timetable of the EIBI program to sync up with school now that the government is offering this free universal pre-Primary program that actually seems much more realistic than when we were first talking with advocates about this idea nine months ago. We have a year when hopefully the majority of students in the province will be in public education, eligible for this program and able to receive it. I would welcome any thoughts the minister has on that.
MR. CHURCHILL: A very important question. While EIBI is under the purview and jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Wellness, I am not able to speak directly to the implementation of that program - I am happy to confirm what the member said, that those in pre-Primary will be able to avail themselves of those services.
However, we do provide a grant of $5 million annually to the Nova Scotia Early Childhood Development Intervention Services, which provides province-wide specialized services to families with young children - that’s from birth to school - who either have a biological risk or a diagnosis of a developmental delay. Currently, that program has supported over 1,600 kids. We do recognize that as a challenge for the system, and we do provide funding to assist.
Questions related to the EIBI program, just to get more informed answers for the member, it would be better directed to the Minister of Health and Wellness.
MS. CHENDER: I’ll just ask the minister, can a child who begins to receive that EIBI program in the middle of their pre-Primary year, thus delaying their start to school - and again, those learners are the ones for whom that transition is actually great, it’s great that they can be in - I don’t actually feel that way about all students, and I disagree with the minister on that point, but for these students it’s actually great, because they do get to ease themselves into that transition into a school building, so it is then doubly challenging if they enter that school building, leave it for a year, and then come back. Can they repeat the program? That is my first question.
My second question is, recognizing that this report calls for the breaking down of silos, calls for inter-agency collaboration - we know, based on the interim report that this has begun - will the minister commit to having a conversation with his counterpart in the Department of Health and Wellness about this?
MR. CHURCHILL: To answer the second part of the question first, those conversations are ongoing, and the Premier is actually leading the charge on that for our government, which is necessary because there is one person in our government who is responsible for every department.
I am very pleased to have the support of our Premier in that regard, in helping us break down these silos, but also, we wouldn’t even have this program if it wasn’t for the leadership of our Premier, and his dedication and commitment to ensuring we have dollars to invest in this area. We wouldn’t have dollars to invest in this area if it wasn’t for the Premier’s commitment to financial responsibility and saying no in certain areas that aren’t part of our strategic investment plan for the province, and early learning is one.
For the first part of the question, which is an important one, families are not eligible to receive the program twice; however, families can choose which year they participate in the program. If delay becomes an issue because of an EIBI assessment, families can choose to enter into the program a year before the child is able to transition into the academic learning environment. I think that is important for families to know, and I’m glad the member has asked me that.
The program is only going to be designed for a one-time entry, and that’s so that other four-year-olds can get into the program, because we want to touch as many lives as possible.
Also, recognizing that child care is an issue for families, and if pre-Primary isn’t available for their children the year before they choose to enter the program, I do want to remind the member that we are expanding child care in the province, making it more accessible to families, and also recognizing the affordability issue. I believe the families the member would be most concerned about are those who cannot or might not necessarily have the extra dollars to invest in child care.
I will recognize that we will also increase the subsidy significantly. That was made possible because of investments through the federal government. We are looking at creating more regulated child care spaces, more affordable spaces, more inclusive spaces in the regulated child care sector, and giving parents flexibility in terms of deciding which year they choose to enter pre-Primary and, of course, as the member noted, I think it would make the most sense for those parents to choose in the year leading up to the transition into the academic learning environment.
MS. CHENDER: I have to confess, I’m not 100 per cent familiar with the process, but I suspect that many families don’t potentially have six or eight months’ notice of when their child, in fact, will get to the top of the waiting list and be eligible for EIBI, so it may be that families wouldn’t know in advance whether or not to hold their child. We can leave it at that, but I would just urge the minister to consider that these children are in a very specific and different situation than almost any other child in the province, which is that that year becomes interrupted for them due to medical necessity. I would urge the minister to consider allowing those children to repeat that program.
I want to move on and ask a couple of questions, in the time remaining, about classroom conditions. In the minister’s opening statements yesterday, he said something to the effect that the department needs to work hard, needs to work with teachers, but that he needs help from teachers, that teachers also need to come to the table, and with respect, I think that’s a really challenging point of view. I mean, it’s true, yes, teachers need to come to the table, but I hope the minister understands that there is a power dynamic at play.
Teachers feel disrespected. They feel that their rights and that their position in the labour force has been twice now legislated instead of negotiated, and they’re rightfully upset. I hope that the minister and that the government is serious about respectful dialogue with the teachers, making amends with the teachers, and I would go so far as to say I do think the onus is on government to do that.
Of course, teachers need to participate. I have no doubt that teachers, that the children in their classroom are foremost in their minds, and I think a little love will go a long way in that regard, in terms of everything that we’re talking about here today.
With that being said, I’ve heard from a number of teachers who are talking about leaving the profession or principals who are talking about going back into the classroom. I’m wondering, does the department do any exit interviews or collect information on why teachers in Nova Scotia choose to leave the profession or leave the province in that matter?
MR. CHURCHILL: Before I move on to the last question, I do want to tell the member that her comments around the specific challenges with students that are accessing the EIBI program - I want the member to know that I’ve noted that. That is a challenge. I think that’s probably real for some families, so that’s something that we need to keep an eye on.
Our focus right now is obviously on implementation. We have not had full implementation of pre-Primary, so the resources in the department will be geared towards getting this thing up and running at full capacity, making sure that we have staff hired to have these classes opened. Once this program is established and we have universal access, conversations around enhancements will be ongoing from different perspectives - from the perspective that was shared, from a transportation perspective.
Once this thing is established - I hope and wouldn’t think that any government coming in after us would get rid of this program, even though the Progressive Conservatives have committed to doing that. I think they’re beginning to see the wisdom of this program, and they’re hearing from their voters that they want this. I do think that there will be opportunities for enhancement. This is one area where I believe - and I appreciate the member pointing out that challenge for us.
In terms of the conversation of trying to get teachers at the table, I would actually argue that they’re there. We have, despite the fact that there’s been disagreement, despite the level of rhetoric that has existed, we actually have teachers that are at the table for the first time in our provincial history making decisions on policy development, and making decisions on resource allocation to the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. I agree with the member, teachers need to be at the table - and they currently are.
Even during this last dispute that we had with the union, those teachers and the parent and the student and the guidance counsellor on that commission, remained committed to their work, because they know how important it is, and they did that despite some of the pressures that I’m sure they are receiving in their various staff rooms, to not participate.
Despite the fact that the union did walk away from the table, which I believed was unfortunate, although I’m happy to tell the member the union is back co-chairing the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, and that demonstrates to me that, although we can have moments of disagreement - they’re going to be there - we have an obligation as government to make decisions that we believe are in the best interests, and those decisions, in my opinion, cannot always be dictated by unions.
I would argue that we have an obligation to the broader public to make decisions that we believe are in their best interests. I would characterize - and I don’t do this disparagingly - but we would characterize that as, there are a number of special interest communities that have continually impacted decisions that are made by this Chamber, and that does create a challenge in terms of decision making, because you enter into periods of conflict. But you have to make decisions that you believe are in the broad interest.
We are willing to take on those challenges when they arise, and manage them to the best of our ability, but we are doing it because we believe we have to, and we believe it is important for the success of this province, and in this case, we believe it is important to have dollars to invest in areas of education.
In terms of teachers leaving the province, I have not seen real evidence that that is happening. I believe, if there are exit interviews that have happened to date, they would have happened regionally, because technically, they are employees of the regions.
I don’t know what those practices have been from region to region, but that is an important area to look at as we integrate the system. The fact that we’ve actually hired 1,300 teachers over the course of our mandate tells me that despite the frustration that’s out there, and despite the anger amongst many in the profession around the legislation of their contract and, among some, Bill No. 72, the fact that we are still hiring that many teachers tells me that this is a good place to teach, and it is a good place to work, in this province, and that people are still finding meaning in their work each and every day.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Time for the New Democratic Party caucus has expired. We will now move to the Progressive Conservative caucus.
The honourable member for Kings North.
MR. JOHN LOHR: I am pleased to be able to be here this afternoon and ask the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development a few questions.
My concerns - I realize that the minister has covered a lot of different topics, and I do want to just ask some specific questions on the Annapolis Valley or Kings North.
Of course, we have a number of schools in the province that are P3 schools and Northeast Kings is one of them - Northeast Kings Education Centre - and I just want to ask the minister, what is the plan for that P3 school? I don’t believe the province has yet purchased it. Can the minister tell me when that will happen, or what is the plan going forward for Northeast Kings Education Centre?
MR. CHURCHILL: We have actually agreed to the purchase. The lease of that school is not up yet, but we’ve given notification to the company that it will be purchased.
MR. LOHR: Thank you, minister. I understand that there is a water problem there, and I am wondering if that is going to be fixed before the province purchases it, or will the province inherit that challenge?
MR. CHURCHILL: We would expect all our schools to be in the best condition, at optimal condition, before we assume responsibility over them and complete that purchase.
MR. LOHR: I hear you saying that the water issue will be addressed before it is purchased, then?
MR. CHURCHILL: That would be our expectation.
MR. LOHR: Horton High School is a P3 school and I believe that has already been purchased. I understand there is a cost issue associated with running the air-conditioning system, and I’m just wondering if the minister has any insight into that.
Of course, most of our schools don’t have air-conditioning; very few do, and I can tell you that Northeast Kings is like an oven in June - but Horton has air-conditioning. I’m just wondering, can you let me know what the plan is for that air-conditioning system?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the operational decisions that are happening at the local level that the member is discussing right now, those do fall under the jurisdiction of the operational units. I do not have an update from those folks on what the status is of their air-conditioning unit. This is the first I’ve heard that there is an issue there. I can either direct the member to contact the operational lead in his region, or we can endeavour to get an answer for the member.
I will tell the member that despite the fact that I used to play basketball for the Yarmouth Vikings and we lost to the Horton Griffins in regionals, we’ll do our very best to make sure that the facilities are well taken care of. I can get beyond my own bias in that regard.
MR. LOHR: I appreciate the answer and I’m very interested in your sports program. I wish I could still play basketball myself. I understand one of the issues is that the air-conditioning system is very expensive to run and there’s a concern there that if it was not - it’s sort of an air cleaning system - if it was not running, there would be a possible mould issue. The quality of the air is of great concern to the students there. I’m pleased to hear you say that you will deal with that, and I trust that the programs will do fine.
I want to just ask about SchoolsPlus, and I know that - I guess I’ve heard a concern with SchoolsPlus. Most of the messaging on SchoolsPlus is very positive. In my school, Northeast Kings Education Centre, I’ve heard that it’s really not addressing the issues, and I was kind of surprised to hear that because I had heard only positive comments.
The reason it wasn’t is because when a teacher requested a SchoolsPlus appointment for the student, it was two, three, four months down the road - it wasn’t timely. There was what I would say is a resourcing issue with SchoolsPlus in Northeast Kings Education Centre, and I’m wondering if the minister has heard of those issues.
MR. CHURCHILL: Before we move beyond the discussion around P3 schools in the member’s riding, I do want to also inform the member that in each of our P3 schools there is a reserve fund that can be applied to any maintenance issues to the schools before the lease is taken over. Not only is it our expectation that those facilities be at optimal operational standard, but there are also funds that are in reserve that will assist the schools in addressing any of those as well.
In terms of the inconsistencies that the member is hearing about in relation to SchoolsPlus and its effectiveness - I have been made aware of those issues. I heard that when I was on the road meeting with teachers and administrators. Also, Dr. Glaze noted this in her report, as well as the committee on inclusive education, so this is another one of those examples of inconsistent application of a program that’s actually achieving different results from school to school and region to region. Both Dr. Glaze and the committee on inclusive education diagnosed that it is a challenge in the structure and that the policies impacting SchoolsPlus vary from board to board.
Now that we are moving to a new integrated structure, that will give the department an ability to make sure best practices are being applied across the board, so that the SchoolsPlus program is having the greatest impact possible in each and every school.
MR. LOHR: I will say to the minister that the word on the street on SchoolsPlus from further down the Valley - all within the AVRSB catchment - is very positive. It isn’t the fact that SchoolsPlus was being implemented differently from school board to school board. This was internal to the school board, the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board - and maybe there are other factors. This is starting to get 50 to 100 miles away and maybe there’s simply an issue with staff resourcing. I’m just wondering if the minister is aware of those issues.
MR. CHURCHILL: Very much so, and I’m happy that the information that’s getting to the member is consistent with what’s getting to me and the department, and consistent with the diagnosis that both Dr. Glaze and the committee on inclusive education came up with as well. We do have an opportunity now, under a new integrated model, to ensure that best practices are being applied, that the program is being executed consistently to optimum results for our students.
MR. LOHR: What I would like to ask is, how is SchoolsPlus budgeted in your budget? Do you allocate - what is the resource that the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development is putting specifically into SchoolsPlus, in each jurisdiction?
MR. CHURCHILL: The member will find in the budget documents $9.8 million budgeted for SchoolsPlus, $1.6 million of which is new funding, and SchoolsPlus has now been expanded to 76 per cent of our schools. Our plan is to expand that over the next year to 100 per cent of our schools.
MR. LOHR: I understand that it is a family of schools, essentially, that are kind of implementing SchoolsPlus together, and I realize there are a number of different health care professionals and the Department of Community Services, so there are other departments that would not be charging their time to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. How do you decide which - is there a clarity on the amount of money that your department is spending in SchoolsPlus in one county versus another, or in one school versus another? Is that information released or known?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of what the funding looks like, the department funds the hubs, and the regions are responsible for the subsequent staffing and application. That funding is recognized in our budget to the tune of $9.8 million.
The Health Authority also budgets, you’ll find in the Health Authority’s budget, funding for their supports for the SchoolsPlus program as well.
MR. LOHR: What I hear you saying is your department is funding the hub, and also funding the staffing within schools for SchoolsPlus. Is that correct?
MR. CHURCHILL: Just to be clear, in the Valley, for example, we have $770,000 that funds the hubs of SchoolsPlus, and there are seven FTEs from mental health in the Valley. I was mistaken when I said that the member would find that in the NSHA budget - the member will actually find that in our budget. That is a pressure that we absorb in the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development - those are FTEs from mental health. I was mistaken when I said the member would find that in the NSHA budget because that is actually reflected in our budget, that pressure.
MR. LOHR: I know there’s SchoolsPlus further down the Valley, and it has been very well received down there. In Northeast Kings, the teachers that I talk to are frustrated with SchoolsPlus because they have a student with a mental health issue, and it’s a two-, three-, four-month wait to get it looked at. How is it that your department is allocating where the FTEs are? How is that done? Can you tell me which hub, which part of the SchoolsPlus, is getting this? There’s a certain amount of FTEs that are associated with a certain amount of students, or is it simply that you have more here and less there?
MR. CHURCHILL: The member is identifying one of the challenges we have under our current structure. We’re seeing that play out with the implementation of SchoolsPlus, where the feedback on its effectiveness does differ, primarily from region to region. That is an issue we want to address.
This is also consistent with other challenges we’ve seen in terms of student achievement differing from region to region, special needs supports differing, and to different levels of success from region to region. The member is actually speaking to evidence and rationale behind some of the transformations we are making in the education system in the Province of Nova Scotia.
In terms of the allocation of the mental health resources, I will note that we have invested dollars to put more mental health clinicians into the system, but for SchoolsPlus, the Health Authority to date has worked with the regional boards to disperse those professionals in the system. The operational units moving forward will still be the lead in terms of identifying that, but they will be operating on a consistent, province-wide policy that will ensure optimum impact of the SchoolsPlus program from region to region, so that we can overcome some of the challenges that the member is highlighting in his comments.
MR. LOHR: I thank the minister for that answer. What I would like to ask the minister is, I think of a school - I understand that just to take averages doesn’t really speak to the problem, there would be differences in the schools in terms of mental health needs - I understand that some schools would have bigger needs than others for socio-economic factors, but what I’m wondering is, does his department have a set number of FTEs per thousand students?
I think of Northeast Kings Education Centre. There are 1,100 students in that school, and I’m just wondering, how many FTEs of mental health would SchoolsPlus - or maybe it’s not even a full FTE, I don’t know the answer to that - what are the FTEs per his guideline plan? How many FTEs of mental health providers are there per thousand students, for example? Does he have the guideline and is he following that?
MR. CHURCHILL: To fund these supports on enrolment, as the member suggested, would actually be counter to the recommendations from the report on inclusive education. The recommendations that were being given by those experts is to fund based on need, not enrolment.
MR. LOHR: How many FTEs based on need, then? I was just wondering if there is a number. I’m saying that my teachers are telling me the program is not adequately staffed if they’re having a problem getting their students in in a timely fashion. I’ll accept it on that basis, too, but what is the guideline?
MR. CHURCHILL: We’re in a process now, as I’ve mentioned previously, of actually transforming how we fund the entire education system. That funding, to date, has been on enrolment-focused criteria that I would argue has not resulted in optimum investments when it comes to addressing needs in our system. Dr. Glaze, and now the committee on inclusive education, are challenging us to totally relook at how we fund education in this province. That is going to take some time to get right, because it’s a brand-new world for us and we’re not necessarily going to be tied to funding formulas anymore, either.
I very much look forward to working with our partners in identifying the best way we can fund education. The feedback I’ve been getting from teachers is a lot of encouragement in terms of getting rid of the Hogg formula and looking at new ways of funding our education system, because the member has accurately pointed out that needs vary from region to region, from school to school, and from student to student. We need to find a better way of identifying that need in the system and making sure the dollars are following those needs, and being invested in a way that’s going to have the greatest impact on our kids.
MR. LOHR: I’m still a little bit confused about SchoolsPlus funding and full-time equivalents and the number, how you’re going to address that. I’m telling you, Mr. Minister, that while I hear great things about SchoolsPlus in general, in the school that I’m most closely associated with, there’s enormous frustration because of the long delay in getting students seen in SchoolsPlus. So, clearly, within what was the AVRSB, there are considerable differences in the way SchoolsPlus is being implemented. Just from the outside point of view, it looks like there’s the A plan and the B plan, and I’m wondering if maybe NKEC is on the - Northeast Kings is not having the same level of service having stepped in a year or two later, I believe, than some of the other schools. What is the plan to bring the SchoolsPlus level of service for Northeast Kings up to the standard that other schools have, that has resulted in such good success with SchoolsPlus?
MR. CHURCHILL: Thank you for the question. The member will see in this year’s 2018-19 budget funding for additional supports to the Annapolis Valley in relation to SchoolsPlus. You’ll see funding for four new FTEs, two for community outreach workers, and two additional mental health clinicians. These are additional supports in that member’s educational region that will be applied. Of course, we want to make sure that in every single school this program is being executed in a way that’s going to have the greatest impact.
There is a lot of demand on the mental health system in our hospitals, so that, too, impacts the system in certain ways, but government is also investing in that regard through the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. I hope the member will recognize the important additional resources that are going to be coming from mental health to FTEs for mental health clinicians, and that we’re increasing the amount of mental health clinicians across the province and two community outreach workers.
If there are specific concerns around - if it’s just one school that is having these concerns in the member’s riding, I would ask that he provide those concerns to me in writing so that we can conduct an official investigation into what’s happening there and ensure that the program is well supported in that school.
MR. LOHR: Thank you for that, minister, I will do that.
Mr. Minister, I would like to ask about Central Kings. I understand it’s getting a skills trades centre, that there’s a tender out. I’m wondering if you can tell me what trades will be taught at this skills trades centre.
MR. CHURCHILL: Skills trades centres, that’s an area where we want to keep expanding supports and making sure those opportunities are available to more students. In this year’s budget, the member will see that we are funding four additional skills trades centres in the province and expanding that program. Our plan is to continue to expand that.
I believe the Commission on Inclusive Education had a recommendation to bring that number up to 15. I stand to be corrected in case my memory is not accurate in that regard, but that is a program that we do want to continually expand to make sure that our students, who would benefit from skilled trades training, are able to do so at the high school level.
MR. LOHR: Mr. Minister, one of the things I noticed when I met with the AVRSB school board, who I had a number of meetings with over the last four years - one of the things the actual elected officials in the school board were doing was they had a committee - a subcommittee of not every school board member but a subcommittee of school board members - who were dealing with the really difficult discipline cases.
When a student had discipline issues that had gone through and frustrated the vice-principal and then maybe the principal, got up to the school board level, one of the things that a subcommittee of the actual school board members was dealing with were these very difficult cases.
I’m just wondering, with the loss of the school board, what is the plan going forward to deal with the very difficult cases that the school board elected members themselves were actually dealing with?
MR. CHURCHILL: A very similar process would continue. Our goal through the report on inclusive education is actually to provide more behavioural supports to our students, to our classrooms. The best way you can deal with these issues is actually doing a better job helping our kids. That is a provincial focus of ours, behavioural supports - it will be key in terms of investments that we are making. Having interventions is also key.
In relation to attendance, because attendance is a major concern when it comes to discipline, I’ll remind the member that now we actually have a province-wide attendance policy for the first time in our history, directed through the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, and that has been very well received. Broadly speaking, in every part of this province, we’ve actually seen attendance rates vastly improve.
I know in the tri-county area - and I think key to that is also having the additional attendance worker supports where they are not truant officers, as I’ve heard explained in the media, but they are actually intervention workers. They work with students to understand what the challenges are that they are facing, the obstacles they are facing in terms of getting to school and learning. I am really pleased with the success we’ve had so far, and I believe that pilot project will prove, at the end of the day, to be successful and will be expanded on a permanent basis.
The best thing we can do for kids and students is to understand the factors that might be contributing to negative behaviour, and make sure that we have resources in place to help them deal with the fundamental issues that they are dealing with.
MR. LOHR: Thank you, minister, for that answer. As you may know, in Kings North we have a couple elementary schools - four of them, actually - and they are all full, essentially. In fact, some of them have had unexpectedly increased enrolment. I’m just wondering, in that environment of fairly full elementary schools, can you tell me how pre-Primary will be implemented, and what the citizens of Kings North can expect to see with that?
MR. CHURCHILL: The primary objective of the pre-Primary program is to have these classes available in schools because the evidence tells us that it provides the optimum results in terms of transitioning into the academic learning environment. We are currently conducting, or will be commencing - and I don’t know if it’s begun already - a space audit from one end of the province to the other to see where we are going to have space issues, and that will help inform our strategy in terms of pre-Primary implementation in certain areas.
Kings is one area where there is going to be a space issue, which is why it is the first area where we are going to be pursuing a pilot project with the regulated child care sector, to see if we can successfully deliver the pre-Primary, play-based curriculum through the regulated child care sector. I expect that pilot project to prove successful, and you will start seeing in areas where we don’t have space in our schools, these sorts of partnerships that occur. I very much look forward to the success that we can see in that regard because we have to recognize the number one goal is to give families and four-year-olds access to this program. It’s strategic to have that program delivered in schools, but in the event that is not possible, we still want to make sure that the program is available. In those cases, you will see partnerships with the regulated child care sector.
MR. LOHR: What I would like to ask - and maybe I’m asking something the minister doesn’t know - I’m wondering where the location for the pre-Primary will be. I realize you may not know that, but will it be a requirement that it be relatively adjacent to the school? That’s one question.
The second question is, will parents be - if it isn’t relatively adjacent to the school, parents, I presume, will be required to drop off their children, or would there be busing available? That’s the question.
MR. CHURCHILL: Obviously, we want to have space that is as close to the school as possible, but more importantly, we also want to make sure there are connections between our four-year-olds and the schools they are going to be attending.
We are looking at creating, particularly in the areas where we are not able to have a pre-Primary class in the school, connection opportunities - having reading partners, for example, with some of the older students to get them onsite and engaged with students.
In terms of transportation, the province currently is not mandating transportation through the bus system for pre-Primary. It is a voluntary program. Much like the regulated child care sector, parents would be required to drop off and pick up. There will be some exceptions to that, because in the CSAP programs, which we are currently transitioning into the pre-Primary program, they are providing that busing right now, so in the case of the CSAP, that will continue. For most communities, recognizing this is a volunteer program for families, it’s an option for them to consider if it works for them.
It is modelled after the regulated child care sector in terms of drop-off and pick-ups, but we’re actually working with the child care sector as well to have before-and-after pre-Primary program support, because that’s an area where I think there’s a market for them where we can have additional partnerships with that sector. If dropping off at the appropriate time is a challenge, or picking up at the appropriate time is a challenge for the parent, then we do have this option with the regulated child care sector as well. I look forward to some hopefully great opportunities in that regard as well.
MR. LOHR: I thank the minister for that answer. I guess one of the questions I have about this - and not to get into it, but I know there are issues in our school system with not enough substitutes. I’m wondering, what will the qualifications be for someone to work in pre-Primary? Have you set those qualification requirements yet - what will they be? What level of training will be required for someone to be an employee in a pre-Primary setting?
MR. CHURCHILL: All pre-Primary leads are required to have their early childhood education certification. That’s a post-secondary credential offered through Mount Saint Vincent University and also offered through the NSCC.
The designation of early childhood education that is required to host or to fill those lead positions are a Level 2 or a Level 3. Support staff can come in at Level 1 with the ECE training, because we recognize that the qualifications and expertise of early childhood educators is actually key to the success of this program.
I do know that the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, for example, has taken exception to the fact that we’re using early childhood educators. They’d rather see teachers that are conducting this program, but we know, based on the evidence, that no one can do a better job than ECEs. That’s why we’ve framed this program in such a way, and it’s also creating great opportunities for early childhood educators.
Right now, I think we’ve had - if you actually look at the number of people who are registered early childhood educators in Nova Scotia, I think we’re at around 2,700, only 1,100 of whom have actually been able to pursue a career in that field. That’s been a shame, I think, and perhaps in some cases, has been a real loss of talent for the sector.
What’s really exciting about this is that we’re creating opportunities for these folks to actually pursue careers in their field of study and their expertise, and we’re also seeing an uptick in terms of taking ECE programming at the NSCC and Mount Saint Vincent University. That’s also a really exciting outcome of this process, as more people are going to be employed in what I believe to be a really critical role in our society.
MR. LOHR: Well, thank you, Mr. Minister. At this point, I will turn it over to my colleague, the member for Pictou East. I appreciate the answers and thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou East.
MR. TIM HOUSTON: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I thank the minister for his responses today. I wonder if the department has the statistics for - what’s the graduation rate in the province, for the year that’s just ended?
MR. CHURCHILL: The latest information we have on graduation rates is from the 2016-17 year, obviously because the 2017-18 year hasn’t been completed. That graduation rate is 92.3 per cent.
MR. HOUSTON: Thank you. Does the department track statistics on where the grads go? Do a certain percentage go on to university, a certain percentage go to the workforce? Is that a statistic that we track - where they are going when they finish with the school system?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the responsibility of the department, it is very specific to the time they enter the public education system, beginning with four-year-olds through the play-based pre-Primary program and to Grade 12.
While we do collect that data through that period, and do track the graduation rates, it is not the role of the department to track post-graduation endeavours. The member could ask, for example, the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education in terms of intake into our post-secondary institutions. I believe that department would have that data.
I also know that we do have data outside of the department on graduate retention rates as well. I do believe there are data points out there that the member can access, but those data points are outside the jurisdiction of our department.
MR. HOUSTON: I was wondering about that in terms of the question of whether the education system is preparing students for the world, and I wondered how the department would assess whether they are or not. In terms of where they go when they finish the school system, I thought, might be an indicator of that, but it is not something that the department looks at, I guess.
MR. CHURCHILL: Absolutely. Preparing our students for post-graduation success is the whole point of the secondary education system. We do work with our partners in Labour and Advanced Education and our business partners, to ensure that we are doing our very best in that regard.
That work does happen at the curriculum level, primarily to ensure that our curriculum is reflective of what the post-graduate needs are going to be of our students, and what the skill set is going to be for them to succeed, and also ensuring that we have the supports in place for special needs students or for any other students, to make sure that they are prepared. Life skills are also really important for that as well, so we do continually evaluate our success in that regard.
MR. HOUSTON: Is it something that the minister thinks should be tracked going forward? It’s one thing to say 92.3 per cent of the students graduate, but it’s a whole other question as to what they are prepared to do when they - is it something in the future the department should be interested in, do you think?
MR. CHURCHILL: Post-graduation success is key to everything that we do. We work with our partners to ensure we are providing the best supports and curriculum possible to make sure our kids and our grads are successful.
The housing of certain data that the member has asked for is in other areas outside of the department. That does not mean that we don’t work with those partners to help us tailor our programming. The Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, for example, is one area that does track the success rates. I know the universities do as well, the Department of Labour and Advanced Education does as well, and we work very closely, obviously, with those partners to make sure we are doing our very best.
MR. HOUSTON: How many staff work in the department and the former boards, combined? How many staff work in education who are paid by the province?
MR. CHURCHILL: To break down the amount of employees under the purview of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, we’re looking at over 13,000: 9,300 of which are teachers and administrators, and 4,000 would be all the other positions. That would include department positions, board office positions, custodial services, transportation, and fleet team - that would include everybody.
All in all, under the purview of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, there are over 13,000 employees province-wide, 9,300 of which are educators.
MR HOUSTON: How many school-aged children are there in the province? Somewhere around 120,000, I think I heard.
MR. CHURCHILL: Our public school enrolment is at 118,000.
MR. HOUSTON: Is the department aware of the French teaching needs by subject? How many French teachers do you need for math? How many do you need for science? Is that something that you would have? Do you track that by subject?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the specifics around hiring pressures, that does fall under the purview of the region and that will continue. They’re the operational aids. They conduct the hiring of our teachers and administrators, so they would house that information. That is something we can get for the member, though. I don’t know if I’ll receive that information by the end of the day, because we do need to get out to the regions.
I can say, broadly speaking, I’m aware of a shortage of French-speaking teachers in the province. Again, that is a national challenge right now in all jurisdictions outside of Quebec. It is particularly an issue in terms of math teachers as well.
Those are the two areas of key focus in terms of recruitment, where there is not the supply to meet demand, and that’s in French language and mathematics. We are currently working with our B.Ed. programs to ensure that we are incentivizing enrolment in those programs at the B.Ed. level and producing graduates that will help us meet that need in the system.
MR. HOUSTON: There could very well be teachers in the system that have a minor in French. Is the department trying to identify those teachers and help them get the training they need for the specialized content of the courses?
MR. CHURCHILL: There are a variety of elements to the strategy to fill that complement of teachers, and so the regions are aware of French-speaking teachers that don’t have a French assignment, and of course, ensuring that there are opportunities for them available is key. Also, the NSTU does have a lot of control over those assignments because it is a seniority-based system. That has been something that has been negotiated by the NSTU, so seniority also does matter in terms of filling these assignments. It’s a little more complicated than simply finding the bodies and putting them where they’re needed. The role that seniority plays in the system, albeit important, does create certain challenges in terms of filling assignments.
MR. HOUSTON: Will it be possible under the new system to second an administrator back to a classroom? Would it be possible to take a VP and put them back in the classroom for a specific content with the recent changes?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the practice of VPs having mixed assignments - administrative versus teaching - that practice will continue. We are asking all those who fit under the new definition of administrator to take on at least 50 per cent of their assignments in the administrative realm. For example, there are some assignments where VPs have 100 per cent teaching assignments, there are examples where VPs have 80 per cent teaching assignments. In all those cases, those positions would be required to have at least 50 per cent - or no more than 50 per cent - of their assignment to be teaching, the other 50 per cent would be administrative, but they will still be able to enter into the classroom upon need.
We’ve identified that that change in the system will also have an impact on FTEs. They are actually looking at hiring an additional 30 FTEs in the system to accommodate that policy change. So, there will be more teachers who are actually hired as a result of this, there will be 30 of them.
MR. HOUSTON: Will there be more VPs working in the classroom as a result of it as well?
MR. CHURCHILL: There will probably be around the same number of VPs that are taking on teaching assignments. However, for those who have more than 50 per cent of their assignment in the classroom, that assignment will be reduced to 50 per cent. Subsequently, there will be an FTE hired to accommodate the pressure that that creates on the teaching assignment side. This is to ensure that the leaders in our system are focused on leadership and are focused on administration, because we believe that is key. Literature demonstrates that that is absolutely necessary in terms of improving student achievement. There are some great references I can point the member to, if he’s interested, but this is all about ensuring that leadership in our schools is really focused and have the structure in place to support leadership capacity and leadership excellence.
MR. HOUSTON: Is there anything in the budget for this year to provide mental health first aid training to all teachers in the province?
MR. CHURCHILL: There are two areas where the member will see funding for additional mental health supports. The member will see that in the SchoolsPlus funding, which is now up to $9.8 million, that is to hire more mental health clinicians in our schools.
The $15 million in the budget - and again, there’s a total of $80 million new spending this year in the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, which I’m very thankful for - of that $15 million, there will be a significant amount of money invested into professional development in this regard for our teaching force.
While I can’t break down that number right now because we don’t know what the supply-and-demand situation is yet, I can tell the member that I think it will be substantial, in terms of training.
MR. HOUSTON: It would be your expectation that much of that professional development would go to mental health first aid or drug awareness. Who would determine that? Would that be the NSTU that would determine that, or who would determine where that professional development focus is?
MR. CHURCHILL: We need to work with the NSTU. Professional development is an area of collective bargaining. Its terms are dictated in Article 60. We obviously believe that a key lens to look at, as we invest in the professional development of our employees, is the needs of our students, and ensuring they have the training and expertise and professional development options available to them to enhance their capacity to meet the needs of students.
That’s important because two-thirds of the commission found, in the process of their discoveries, that two-thirds of our teachers indicated through a survey they did not feel adequately trained to meet the needs of students in the diverse and complex classroom. That’s extremely problematic from my perspective, so I think we need to ensure that professional development funds are targeted in such a way that it will have optimal impact on students, will best prepare our teachers to meet the needs of students, but we will need a willing partner in the union to help us accomplish that.
I do think there’s great room for partnership here, especially considering that the majority of the NSTU’s membership has indicated that this is, in fact, a challenge. This is an area where the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions is being brought into the conversation as well.
I am also happy to inform the member that the union has come back to the table with the council. They are now co-chairing that council so that provides a great opportunity for the department to enter into meaningful conversations around professional development with the teachers who are representing their peers on the council, and also the union itself. I very much look forward to that conversation continuing with our partners, because it’s important and there’s a gap right now in terms of training and professional development that teachers themselves have identified.
MR. HOUSTON: Frank H. MacDonald Elementary School is adjacent to the highway, a very busy highway. There’s a fence that separates the school from the highway, and the fence is not quite long enough. There are some students there who are running, they are runners. There’s a flight risk there at Frank H. MacDonald school.
I’d just like the minister’s commitment to chat about it. Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal is saying, we’ve done enough, the fence is long enough, we’re not doing any more. The staff at the school is concerned about that. Maybe that’s something the minister and I can visit offline. It’s a safety issue for sure, and it’s something that school administration would like raised.
MR. CHURCHILL: This is a school in the member’s riding? I’d like to get the details of that. That is something that I’ll definitely have to look into. Any issues of safety that are out there that need my attention, I’m very pleased to receive that information from the members opposite. If the member could provide me - in writing is easiest, just so we can then track progress on the file. If the member is willing to send it in writing outlining what that challenge is, we can then follow up with the regional office and see if there is a safety issue there that needs to be addressed.
MR. HOUSTON: With the inclusion report that came out this week, the minister had expressed some concern about the ability to recruit specialists to fill the roles necessary to implement on the inclusion report - just the recruitment of specialists was raised as a concern, I think, by the minister this week.
I wonder if the minister can shed some light on how that will be overcome. Is there any consideration to maybe working with the community college or one of our universities to try to have a plan to overcome the concern around the ability to staff appropriately?
MR. CHURCHILL: Before I answer that question, Mr. Potter has just brought to my attention that there is currently an ongoing A&A with the school that the member referenced, so there might very well be an opportunity to tie in that issue with the dollars that are being invested in that school for renovations. We’re going to take that back and have a look and see if that’s possible.
I don’t know the details in terms of where the dollars have been allocated in terms of the A&A, or if there’s some flexibility to deal with that issue, but there might be an opportunity to deal with that fairly quickly. We’re going to follow up. I’m going to leave that in Mr. Potter’s hands, or the deputy’s hands, to make sure that the appropriate staff person looks into that on our behalf because we want our schools to be safe.
In terms of the challenge that we currently have from a supply-and-demand perspective on the experts and specialists that we need in our education system for behaviour, for autism, for other needs, psychological needs, there are a number of ways we need to tackle that. Obviously, recruitment marking for those positions is important, training is important for the long run.
We currently have a steering committee, I’ll inform the member, with our B.Ed. programs, to ensure that we’re doing our very best to produce grads that we need for the system.
Another option that I think needs to be considered is actually bringing in these experts from outside the education system as well. We did that to great success with the backlog of psychological assessments that resulted from the work-to-rule last year. We actually brought in experts from Mount Saint Vincent University that helped us clear out a big portion of that backlog, so I think there are opportunities for us to look at bringing in outside experts who aren’t teachers, to help fill the gap.
The challenges - the union would prefer that those positions all be teachers, however, so that does create an additional challenge in terms of making sure that the bodies we have available to us can help meet the needs. That’s an ongoing conversation that we have to have with the union. I believe we can accomplish some of this if we go outside of the teaching profession to get these additional supports, but right now, I believe that the union and I might be in disagreement on that.
MR. HOUSTON: I think the minister is right to be concerned about the ability to staff those positions, especially having sat in the Legislature and watched his colleagues in the Department of Health and Wellness do such a bang-up job recruiting doctors and such over the last few years - it’s good to be concerned about where the people come from.
What I’d like to say is we’ve seen a number of reports in the province. We had the Autism Management Advisory Team Report. We had Choosing Now: Investing in Nova Scotians Living with Autism, and I could go down and list a whole series of reports. What does the minister say to those people that say, I’m concerned this isn’t going to go anywhere? The Glaze report came out. Then, right away, there was some action on it. This report has come out and they’re seeing some hesitancy. I mean, there’s some money in the budget, but nobody really knows how that will be used or if it will be used. What does the minister say to those families that are concerned that this will be a report that gets on a shelf somewhere and doesn’t really get implemented?
MR. CHURCHILL: I would point anybody concerned in that regard to the actual response that our government has taken with this report, and I would point those folks to the actions that this government has taken on every single report that’s come through. We’ve been very ambitious, so ambitious at times that that member and members of the Progressive Conservative Party, and members of the Opposition, have told us to actually slow down in terms of implementation.
We took swift action on the Myra Freeman report, developed an action plan, which has informed some of the reports that we’re now acting on. We moved swiftly on the implementation of pre-Primary, which is something that I know the member and his caucus voted against. We did not take their advice to slow down on implementation of that, which I’m very thankful for, because now we’re at the point of this year having up to 3,400 four-year-olds that will be enrolled in that program, a program that has been implemented successfully today.
We moved swiftly on the implementation of Dr. Glaze’s report because we felt it was necessary, particularly because the report of the Commission on Inclusive Education was coming and we knew we needed to do a better job addressing the administrative and governance challenges in our education system to properly implement the supports and recommendations in this report. We’re moving immediately on the recommendation of the inclusion report.
Some of the work the recommendations that they’ve made for Stage 1, we’ve already been working on for months - in some cases, a year now, in terms of working with our B.Ed. programs, tackling the issue of training. We already have money invested in our budget that’s consistent with the amount that the commission has thought was appropriate for Stage 1 implementation, and we’ve actually been very clear in terms of where the $15 million is going to be spent. It’s going to be spent in getting resources into the classroom, in hiring specialists. We don’t know, to date, how the breakdown of that money will happen, because we have to know who we’re able to hire first, and then the additional money will be invested in training. Training and hiring are what those dollars will be spent for.
The member need not fear that we do not move forward as ambitiously - and I would argue, as effectively - as we have in previous reports, because our plan is to do just that. I’ll also note that that member and other members of his party have actually been the ones that have told us to slow down, take a breath, and not move as quickly as we felt we needed to, and not move with a sense of urgency that we felt we had to.
I’ll point out that the urgency is there from the government’s perspective. We have demonstrated our commitment to this education system. We’ve done that in numerous ways, in changing our curriculum, in modernizing it, ensuring that coding, robotics, mathematics, all the skills that our kids will need for jobs of today and tomorrow are in our system.
We’ve hired 1,300 teachers. We are the first government in 20 years to look at the model of inclusion and actually have honest conversation with Nova Scotians about it and act on it. We are the first government to actually look at the administrative and governance model, which is tough, it’s difficult, but we’ve had the courage to do that.
We’ve implemented the first pre-Primary program. At every single juncture, we have moved with a sense of urgency and a sense of commitment and a focus on what our end goals are, and that is to improve the system for the better so our kids are doing better, from an achievement perspective, and to the member for Dartmouth South’s point, from a well-being perspective.
MR. HOUSTON: I know the minister likes to try to rewrite the record a little bit, but I’ll clarify it. I was concerned about the implementation of pre-Primary because there wasn’t a real plan to staff it, to have supports for children. At the time my position was, let’s try to address some of the real issues in the school system before we add thousands more children to the school system.
Guess what? I hate to say it, Mr. Chairman, but we were right, our concerns were very well-founded. The same issues that exist in the school system exist in pre-Primary, to the point that we have families all across this province pulling their kids out of pre-Primary because it’s not set up to support their children.
I know the minister is expressing a bit of concern over that, but I’d leave with him and the department staff to do an analysis of the kids enrolled, and the kids that maybe their families withdrew them, because it is a real issue and we have to get it right. I hope the minister takes . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Time has expired for the PC caucus. We’ll move to the NDP caucus, with just under 19 minutes to go.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
MS. CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I will provide the minister a few minutes at the end wrap-up, so I’m hoping we can get through my remaining questions. I would like to also start by asking a few questions about pre-Primary.
We’ve expressed concern from the beginning about the impact of the implementation of pre-Primary and the regulated child care sector. I understand that that sector is currently being given an infusion of federal funds, which is great, but we do still have questions, now that it is implemented, about what we are learning and understanding from that implementation.
The first question, and this is a question I have across government broadly - we introduced a bill to that effect - is about the demographics of the children enrolled in pre-Primary. Is the department tracking income of the family, gender, race, language, and all these statistics around children enrolled in pre-Primary? If not, is there a plan to?
MR. CHURCHILL: Right now, there is no data being collected directly based on income or demographic information for the pre-Primary program. There’s indirect information that we do receive, primarily around income, based on the subsidy levels for the child care sector that the department does have, but profiles aren’t being developed for the students who are entering into the pre-Primary program.
MS. CHENDER: I would urge the minister to consider collecting that data both in pre-Primary and across the province. I think if you talk to people around things like the social determinants of health, they will tell you that having that kind of information is important.
Similarly, in the commission on inclusion, we saw a real emphasis on evaluation, which was really good to see, that is built into the implementation. Is there a similar commitment to evaluation for pre-Primary, is there a plan for evaluation of the program, and are there criteria that will be used for that? Anything the minister could tell me about that would be helpful.
MR. CHURCHILL: I’ll take the member’s suggestion under advisement. I’m happy to get some more information from her on where she thinks the data points are important to collect and how those will impact the decision making and why they’re important - so very happy to get some more information and insight from the member in terms of that recommendation.
In terms of assessment for pre-Primary success, where the goal and intention of pre-Primary is to assist our kids in achieving higher levels in the academic learning environment, that’s where the data is collected, that’s where we’ll be assessing our success. We’ll know the kids who enter in the pre-Primary program and we’ll be able to track their success throughout the school system as we do now. That is where I think our intention is to achieve success in helping them do better academically, from a behavioural standpoint and from a well-being standpoint; pre-Primary is going to be very helpful for that.
I would argue - I know members disagree with me, I don’t believe the member for Dartmouth South disagrees with this, but I think early learning has been something that has been missing in our public education system and having these opportunities. We know early learning actually matters more in terms of outcomes for many students than the actual system itself. This is more in response to the comments that were made by the previous speaker.
In terms of evaluation, that data is collected throughout the academic P-12 system, and it’s my opinion that we will see good outcomes from those students who enter into the pre-Primary program.
MS. CHENDER: I certainly agree with the minister on the importance of access to affordable and consistent child care and early learning - play-based learning - and to that end, can the minister tell us how many of the children currently enrolled in pre-Primary were previously enrolled in other forms of regulated child care preschool programming and knowing that there has been an impact on that sector, which we’ve talked about, what funding is there in this budget that addresses the financial impact of pre-Primary on the regulated child care system and specific providers?
MR. CHURCHILL: Also, to follow up with the member’s previous question, we also do conduct a parental survey to get feedback from parents directly on their experience with the pre-Primary program, so that’s also important to inform us in terms of how the program is doing. To date, the vast majority of surveys that have been conducted have been positive and the feedback has been very positive.
We do not collect data on any of our students that were previously in a child care centre. If they were accessing that, that’s not data that we collect.
In terms of dollars available for the sector to assist them in adapting their business models, in this budget the member will see $2 million for space conversion grants to help those organizations take on infants, provide before- and after-care service or to ensure that they can take on children with more diverse needs. That’s where the member will see dollars being expensed in that regard, and that is consistent with information that we had from the consultation in terms of where the sector wanted those dollars to be.
MS. CHENDER: I want to confirm my understanding of these space improvement grants; I don’t know the exact terminology. My understanding was that those were federal dollars flowing through and that there was a very tight timeline to apply for those dollars, which may, in fact, be almost up now. Could the minister confirm that understanding, and if that is the case, is there some plan for small daycare providers who just don’t have the capacity to apply for the grant in a very short timeline and who may need some other form of support?
MR. CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, I’m very privileged to have people who support me in the department who are much more knowledgeable than myself in certain areas, so I do have to correct myself in terms of data that’s collected. The deputy has actually informed me that there will be pre-Primary and early learning sites, demographic information, attendance information, and family surveys that will be conducted. There is demographic information that is being collected. I’m sorry for us giving you the wrong information on that. And a more in-depth study at a few of our pre-Primary sites will help us understand how implementation is going, and that’s going to be done through interviews with the principal, the ECEs, staff, family, and community partners.
There is extensive input that’s going to be coming in in relation to this because we do want this to work and evaluation is important, so all the partners, including in the cases where there is going to be a regulated child care partner, surveys will be conducted and data will be collected, and we are collecting data on demographic information. I wanted to make sure I corrected myself - and I know the member had another question that has slipped my mind. (Interruption) Oh, right, the application.
In fact, we had a whole bunch of applications come in very quickly from the sector. Our staff work with the regulated child care sector if they do have a challenge in terms of filling out paperwork or getting those applications in time. I can tell the member at this point I believe those dollars will be maxed out and those dollars will be invested in key areas for the regulated child care sector. I also noted it did seem like a really tight timeline, but we did inform the sector and give them a heads-up that this would be happening. It’s been part of the conversation that our staff have had with them. There’s been continuous direct contact between early learning staff and the regulated child care sector on new funding that is becoming available and, of course, we’re just coming out of a major consultation with them as well.
The sector was very well aware of that and I think this was an option that was going to be made available and we have seen a really high amount of applications come in, and I’ll speak frankly, we won’t be able to meet - there’s not enough money to meet the demand of all the applications that have come in, but we set criteria in terms of eligibility that I think is important and we’re going to look at other opportunities to invest in that sector to help them grow, help them adapt, and be successful because we need them. They’re part of the equation for a holistic child care program in this province and we’ve invested heavily, heavily, into early learning and child care - we’ve increased subsidies for families, we’re increasing spaces, and we’re also increasing quality and opportunities for inclusive spaces.
MS. CHENDER: Mr. Chairman, I mentioned this is my last question, but I’ll ask specifically - my understanding is that those were federal dollars and I wonder if the minister can specify for me specific budget items or lines that include federal transfers and, for those programs, like the breakdown of federal-provincial funds, so an example is the line for early childhood development - how much of that comes from a federal transfer?
MR. CHURCHILL: There’s $35 million that we are receiving from the federal government that will be applied over five years - over three years, my apologies. I can give the member a breakdown of that. We actually don’t differentiate between the funds that are going out in the department between federal and provincial. It’s a full pot that the member will see budgeted, but over the next three years, $35 million of the budget that you will see for early learning will be federal funding which we are very happy for, and I know other provinces are very happy for. It has been an area of focus for the federal government as well, and I’m very happy that we’re very much in line with their strategic objectives in this regard too.
I’ll point the member’s attention to the budget, which is currently at $64.5 million. Close to $27 million of that is for the family subsidy, and that reflects the increase in subsidy levels to families, the increase in the eligibility criteria for full subsidy, and the scaling increase of the subsidy which, I think, impacts over 1,600 families in the province - so that’s close to $27 million.
There’s close to $29 million for the wage support grants to bring the wages of our early childhood educators in the regulated child care sectors up to a competitive level, up to the national average. For too long early childhood educators were struggling to make ends meet in this province because their wages were below the national average. We’ve been the first government to actually increase those wages, which is really critical to make that a viable career option for so many people. It’s reflective of how important that job is - $29 million for that. The member will see close to $9 million for inclusion grants as well. That’s the breakdown the member will see in the budget - family subsidy, wage increase, and inclusion grants.
MS. CHENDER: Thank you to the minister for answering my questions. I have several more but I do want to be conscious to give the minister a couple of minutes to wrap up. I’d like to thank the caucus research staff - the minister said some kind words in particular about my preparedness for Education and Early Childhood Development in this Chamber and a great deal of that is due to the hard work of our staff and in particular our education researcher, Joanne Hussey, so thank you to her.
With the last little bit of time I have I do want to ask the minister about school capital. I know there’s a new capital planning process. The minister has mentioned that we’ll see it in the summer. Maybe as the minister moves into his closing remarks, if there’s an opportunity, he can address how that will ensure transparency, accountability, and community engagement in these important decisions.
Thank you again to the minister, and the staff, for your time.
MR. CHURCHILL: I want to thank the member and all members very much for their informed questions. I felt we had a really quality level of conversation in estimates and I want to thank you all for that.
I do feel it’s important to recognize - I know the member for Pictou East suggested there was evidence that there were parents pulling their kids out of the pre-Primary program. We’ve checked with staff and there is no evidence of that; in fact, enrolment numbers are increasing, demand is increasing for that program. It’s important for me to get that on the record.
In terms of the capital process, the reason this is delayed is so we come up with a process that considers the recommendations from the Auditor General and from Dr. Glaze. I do think the member will see a process there that she can have confidence in and the public can have confidence in.
With that said, Mr. Chairman, again I do want to thank the members opposite for this respectful discourse that we’ve achieved here.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E5 stand?
Resolution E5 stands.
We’ll wrap up shortly for the day but you have 1 minute and 35 seconds if you’d like any further closing comments.
MR. CHURCHILL: I do want to thank our dedicated staff in the department and in our regions for their work. Again, the commitment of that staff, their ability to execute and deliver quick and responsive answers to the members opposite in helping me deliver those answers is absolutely fundamental for this being a productive process. Of course, ministers don’t have all the answers to the questions that are asked and Mr. Potter and his associates are always good at getting to that point in this massive budget document to get an answer as quickly as possible, and staff in the gallery manage to get answers in quickly that we don’t have in our budget documents. I just really want to thank all those folks whom I know are watching in the department to help me answer these important questions from the members opposite.
I do want to welcome our new deputy whom I’m very excited to have on board. Her leadership, her experience, her expertise in student achievement and inclusive education is going to be key to help our government achieve our strategic objectives to improve supports for students and outcomes for them. From a well-being and achievement perspective, we are very lucky to have this individual. She is from Ontario - I do not see that as a bad thing. I’m very much excited to benefit from her experience and the success that they’ve had in that province in terms of student achievement and outcomes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Time for debate on the estimates today has expired.
The honourable Deputy Government House Leader.
MR. KEITH IRVING: Mr. Chairman, 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 4:33 p.m.]