HALIFAX, TUESDAY, MARCH 3, 2020
SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
THE CHAIR: The Subcommittee of the Whole on Supply is meeting tonight to consider the Estimates for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, as outlined in Resolution E5.
We have the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, the honourable Zach Churchill, who will be starting with his first remarks.
Resolution E5 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $1,479,302,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, pursuant to the Estimate.
THE CHAIR: The honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
HON. ZACH CHURCHILL: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. I am very pleased to be here with everybody tonight to begin the Estimates for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. I am very pleased to speak about our commitment and investments in our early years and public education systems, investments that will support children, students, and their families this year.
In 2020-21 we will hold steadfast in our commitments to ensure that Nova Scotians have access to a comprehensive early years system that gives children the best start in life and ensures that our public education system is ready to meet the varied needs of our students so that they have the best chance of succeeding once they enter the academic learning environment.
Before I begin, I would like to introduce those joining me today from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. At the table we have Associate Deputy Minister Karen Gatien and Executive Director of Finance - I gave him a promotion - David Potter. We are also joined by Sue Taylor-Foley, Sara Halliday and Tony Kiritsis, as well.
Karen and David will assist me in answering questions that I am not able to answer. If there are any questions we can’t answer, we do have staff listening back at the department, prepared to send information as quickly as they can.
The Budget 2020-21 is focused on the success of children and students. This year we will invest an additional $50 million more than last year, which represents a 3.5 per cent increase, a total of $373 million, or approximately a 33 per cent increase in additional budget for the department since 2013-2014. That’s how much we’ve increased the budget for education. That will bring our total budget for this year to almost $1.48 billion. These have been the largest per student funding increases to our education system in living memory.
Before our children step foot into our classrooms we want to ensure they have the foundation to succeed. That foundation is access to early learning opportunities within their communities. We believe that one of the best ways to prepare our children is to have a comprehensive approach to early learning and care. That is why over the last several years we have invested heavily in creating a comprehensive, early years system in our province. This is a system that over the years we have refined and adapted as the needs of children, families and communities have changed.
The changes we have made are a direct result of what we heard from families and the best evidence out there that we can access. We have improved affordability, quality, and access to early learning opportunities in our pre-Primary and regulated child care sector.
I recently joined the Premier at Chebucto Heights Elementary school, where we announced the final phase of pre-Primary implementation. This is a milestone moment in my career, and I believe a milestone moment for our government and, indeed, for our province. In September 2020, every four-year-old in our province will have access to the option of a play-based early learning program the year before they start school.
We will invest an additional $17.5 million this year as part of the final phase to bring the program to the remaining 48 school communities that have not yet had access to pre-Primary. This is in addition to the almost $34 million we will continue to invest to maintain the existing pre-Primary locations across the province.
Our total annual commitment for pre-Primary is $51.4 million and that will support the program in 253 school communities across Nova Scotia. Money invested in programs that help children and make life easier for families is money well spent, and here is how and why: In 2016, only one in four pre-school-age children and their families were able to access child care and early learning opportunities in regulated child care. Since 2017, when we introduced pre-Primary, our commitment was to provide a universal, free program that would provide meaningful and long-lasting benefits to all Nova Scotians. We know that pre-Primary supports children in their development at a critical time in their lives, as well as supporting them and their families to transition to their school community.
It also helps us to identify, at an early age, what additional supports children may need to succeed when they begin school and throughout their lives. It also gives all four-year-olds and their families equal opportunities at a quality, play-based, early learning option. Truly, a better start provides a brighter future for our children.
We believe our investment is working, Madam Chair. We have heard from principals, teachers, parents and the children about the difference pre-Primary is making in their lives. Consider the story from Craig Myra, principal at Chebucto Heights Elementary school, who calls pre-Primary a game changer. Craig says, I have never had a cohort of Grade Primaries performing better than we’ve had this year. I am more than happy with the progress these kids are making.
We also have heard from parents like Anna McCurdy, whose son participated in pre-Primary last year. Anna told us that by the time her child was ready for Primary he already knew what the class bells meant, how to be independent in a crowd of peers and he settled into the school routine with ease. Pre-Primary is an excellent program, according to Anna, for getting children used to the school environment. In fact, national organizations, like the Conference Board of Canada, and the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation, support pre-Primary in offering universal early-learning opportunities to four-year-olds.
The Conference Board of Canada’s recent study on the impact of early childhood education on Atlantic Canada’s economy concluded that expansion in early childhood education, like universal pre-Primary, improved child outcomes, particularly for children living in families experiencing socio-economic challenges. The study also concluded that early learning education helps to support women to participate in the labour market and reduces inequality overall. Very exciting findings, Madam Chair.
Early childhood education enrolment for pre-school children is lower in Atlantic Canada, compared to the national average. We are bridging this gap by leading the way in Nova Scotia with universal pre-Primary, which, again, is an opportunity for all four-year-olds. These findings are echoed in the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation’s recent report, Early Years Study 4: Thriving Kids, Thriving Society, which shows how universal early childhood education programs like pre-Primary are a game-changer for children, families, and communities, and that $1 invested in early childhood education yields $6 in economic benefits over the lifetime of that child.
By creating this opportunity for children, we know we create opportunities for stronger, more vibrant communities and families. To ensure the success of this program we understand that we need to support all communities and families, especially those living in rural areas. Families have told us that transportation will make it easier for them to access pre-Primary so we as a government are making the funds available to bus these children in this year’s budget. We’ve committed an additional $4 million to provide busing service for eligible pre-Primary children, beginning in September.
Investments in pre-Primary also mean more Nova Scotians have the chance to pursue careers in early childhood education. In fact, to date, about 630 early childhood educators have been hired for pre-Primary across the province, a massive expansion in employment opportunities for people pursuing a career in early learning.
By the time all pre-Primary programs open in September, we will have created more than 800 early childhood education jobs in our province. That’s more than we originally anticipated.
Our investment in pre-Primary also means more Nova Scotians have expressed interest in pursuing this important and meaningful career. To support them, we added 195 new seats in early childhood education programs at the Nova Scotia Community College over the past two years, and over the next year we are expecting to graduate 250 new grads, who will be graduating as early childhood educators.
There was a time not long ago, Madam Chair, when many of these seats in this program were actually vacant. We now are working to eliminate a wait-list of people who are trying to get into these programs, and to offer more training opportunities in communities across the province.
Pre-Primary is having a positive impact in our communities and we are not done yet, as we continue to explore how we can reduce barriers and increase access to this program. Although our focus this year is on the implementation of pre-Primary, it is also about giving families access to early learning opportunities, whether it’s in our pre-Primary program or whether that’s in the regulated child care sector. We need both to have a robust, early learning framework for kids in this province. It’s about creating access to options that work best for families in the best interests of children.
Along with pre-Primary, the regulated child care sector will continue to receive millions of dollars in direct funding to support the provision of high-quality, inclusive programs, training, professional development, wages, and reducing the cost of care for families for the child care subsidy program. In fact, Madam Chair, I’ll remind the table here that we have increased funding to the regulated child care sector by approximately $30 million, with support of our federal government. That brings the annual subsidy for regulated child care - and that includes a subsidy for parents and investments into the businesses themselves - up to approximately $80 million.
As I mentioned, the regulated child care sector will continue to receive these dollars in direct funding. We have made significant progress in addressing affordability for families. Changes to the child care subsidy program in 2016 and 2018 mean that more families are eligible for the program or will receive more subsidy than before.
As part of the most recent changes to the program, we removed child support payments from the income threshold so that single parents can access more subsidy dollars. We removed the 18-month application wait time for temporary residents. Newcomers are now eligible to apply for subsidy upon arrival in our province. Very exciting for those folks.
We expanded a subsidy to cover extended hours care for up to 18 hours in a single day. In terms of what the increase in the subsidy looks like for parents, we increased the maximum threshold of financial criteria of household income from approximately $35,000 to $70,000. We doubled that, which is opening up the doors for subsidies for thousands more families in the province.
We have to continue to open opportunities for growth in the regulated child care sector. We’ve invested in increasing the number of regulated child care spaces across the province and we’ve created more than 2,200 new and enhanced spaces for children and families in the regulated child care sector. We’re growing that sector at the same time that we are bringing in pre-Primary.
Through innovative initiatives like space conversion grants, operators have been given opportunities to adjust their business models, with our support, to meet the changing needs of families and children in their communities. We’ve invested in infant spaces by offering an infant incentive to operators to open those spaces so that more families can have access.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the exceptional work of our early childhood educators across our province. They are the backbone of early learning and child care in Nova Scotia. We continue to support them and Nova Scotians who want to pursue a career in childhood education.
In 2016 we introduced the minimum hourly wage for early childhood educators, and I want to thank the former Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development for bringing this in. This brought Nova Scotia in line with the national average, and in 2018 a new funding model provided $26.5 million in grants to the regulated child care sector to help supplement wages for staff. This funding is used to ensure that trained staff required to meet the staff/children ratios earn at least the wage floor or above.
When early childhood educators approached me last Fall to find solutions to issues they were facing in relation to the implementation of pre-Primary and other challenges that the sector has faced every single year, we came together to develop the Early Childhood Educators’ Working Group. This group was diverse and had representation from the regulated child care sector from across the province and, of course, representatives from government.
The group met several times throughout the Fall and early Winter to develop a report. For myself, that included some excellent insight and ideas related to the key issues they identified, such as benefits, continuous support for wages and training, and accountability and quality in the sector. Department staff are currently exploring those ideas and are looking at the resources, funding, and stakeholder participation required to make these ideas a reality.
No decisions have been made yet, but I look forward to meeting again with the group in the next few weeks to discuss a way forward, so that together we can continue to support the long-term success and sustainability of the early learning and child care programs in our province.
We are also supporting the profession by increasing opportunities for Nova Scotians to pursue a career in early childhood education. In 2019, we launched a pilot program that gave 16 Mi’kmaw early childhood educators a culturally relevant, early childhood education diploma program. We also offered bursaries for Nova Scotians from Indigenous, African Nova Scotian, Acadian, francophone and immigrant communities who are interested in becoming early childhood educators.
When child care employees told us they faced barriers to obtaining the training they needed, we listened to them, Madam Chair. We recently launched a level one training program pilot. This pilot program supports child care and pre-Primary employees with the course work they need to obtain a level one classification. About 80 people who currently work in a licensed child care centre or pre-Primary will obtain post-secondary early learning childhood development training, free of charge. This creates a stronger workforce, increases the earning potential for these employees and provides more opportunities for early childhood educators to have a successful career here in Nova Scotia.
Supporting our children in their formative years means continuing to support them throughout their academic career, as well. Our schools welcome more than 123,000 students every day, from pre-Primary to Grade 12. To ensure our students have quality learning experiences, we have added 978 new teaching positions and 535 non-teaching, student-support positions since 2013-14.
Our students come from various socio-economic, cultural, religious and familial backgrounds. They bring with them to school every day various perspectives and, with that, various needs. One of our key goals is to bring equity and inclusion to our education system and to improve outcomes and well-being for all our children. We want to get more resources to where they are needed, to improve the learning experience of all students and the teaching conditions for educators.
The government is committed to creating a more inclusive education system for all students in Nova Scotia, one that provides a better start and a brighter future for our kids. Our work has just begun. In the past two years, we’ve invested an unprecedented $30 million into the system, to bring 364 additional teachers, education workers and specialists into our classrooms in school communities. These people - like autism specialists, guidance counsellors, African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaw student support workers, behaviour support specialists, and child and youth care practitioners, along with teaching assistants, nurses and more positions, as well - have already helped thousands of children and their families in our education system. More investments and supports are on their way, Madam Chair. I am very happy to tell the group that today.
In Budget 2020-21 the province is investing an additional $15 million to continue implementing the recommendations from the Commission on Inclusive Education, bringing the total provincial investment to $45 million for inclusive education supports, in line with the recommendations from the commission’s report.
Already we’re hearing from educators, parents, and students that the impacts of our efforts and investments are beginning to make a difference. We are hearing that students and parents are more connected to their educational communities, and that specialists are supporting teachers and making positive impacts in our classrooms and in the lives of students every day.
Consider this voice from a student in Trenton who moved to the new, alternative high school and is now thriving: I cannot stress enough that coming here has been the best school decision I have ever made - the best. When I was welcomed by a small, friendly environment on my first day here, almost all my anxieties were lifted and I got caught up in no time.
We remain proud of our transformative work to make our education system inclusive for all and we remain strongly committed to our five-year plan, Madam Chair. The changes in investment we are making in this area will help us raise the bar and close the achievement gap for our students, which has been our intended purpose the whole time. We will continue to work with our Regional Centres for Education and the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial to ensure this investment is made in an impactful way for the most benefit of our students.
It is still early days and there is still much work left to be done. We recognize that. Our next steps will also be guided by an evaluation report we will receive in the coming months from researchers Andy Hargreaves and Jessica Whitley. In 2009, Mr. Hargreaves and Ms. Whitley were hired to lead an evaluation into the implementation of inclusive education in Nova Scotia. Their report will help us gain a deeper understanding of what is working and what may need to be adjusted to better support the needs of students.
I’ll also mention that we’ve been working with Inclusive Education Canada on the rollout of our inclusive education supports, as well, and their guidance has been very helpful. I do want to thank Dr. Gordon Porter for his support on these important program enhancements that we’re making.
This year, like last year, Madam Chair, we will also be investing a Technology Advantage Program. This is a program that we are very excited about, as well. Students in this hands-on learning program will enter their second year of study in September. As they advance through this pilot program, they will acquire the skills they need to step into careers in Nova Scotia’s growing technology sector. This program is innovative, unique and designed to help students succeed.
We are doing this in partnership with IBM, which has had successful programs in areas in the United States where there is a challenge with labour market attachment, with grads. The success they’ve had, I think in places like Brooklyn, has been really encouraging and the experiences that our students are having is really exciting. This is a program that begins in Grade 9. Students receive a specialized technology curriculum and we have teachers who are trained to deliver this - our teachers. We then cover their first two years of post-secondary education at the NSCC to continue their learning in tech, and we connect them with an employer afterwards.
This is a really incredible program. I believe that the pilot we’re running will prove to be effective and useful and that this program will be enhanced over the course of the next number of years.
Our commitment to experiential learning opportunities also means that skilled trades learning will be available to more students across the province. In November 2019, I announced the new School Capital Plan. That plan included five schools that will receive skilled trades centres, and that’s on top of the other trades centres that we’ve already invested in. Nova Scotia’s School Capital Plan is focused on building a strong and modern public education system from the ground up that meets the needs of our students.
Other projects from the plan that I’m excited about include a new, alternative high school in the Annapolis Valley and a new high school here in Halifax. As we look forward to the year ahead and the important investments we will make, success for children and students is at the core of our decisions.
Before I close I want to thank the children, students, their parents and guardians and families, the early childhood educators, teachers, principals, administrators and education workers for their efforts to make the best possible education system we can have in our province. We’ve got an incredible workforce that is dedicated to helping our kids and it’s important that we all recognize the work they do, as much as we can.
Of course, there is more work to be done but I know that together we can create the best possible start for Nova Scotians so that they can have the best possible future here in our province or wherever they choose to live and grow their lives.
Madam Chair, with that, I will end my opening comments. Thank you very much.
THE CHAIR: Thank you very much. We now move to the PC Party with Mr. Halman, for the first hour.
TIM HALMAN: Thank you for your opening remarks, minister, and thank you, staff, for your ongoing work within the department to support our students in Nova Scotia.
Minister, despite our differences on policy, I want you to know that I have never doubted your desire to support students and that at the end of the day, when we get past all these questions that we are going to be asking, I know we are united on that - maximizing student learning and supporting our students.
I do apologize for missing part of your opening remarks - Dad duty, which I am sure you can appreciate, and my colleague from Dartmouth South - parent duty. We just got a rabbit, a bunny, the other day, so the kids are pretty excited about that. I’m just trying to settle this thing in.
There are a number of topics I’d like to discuss with you over the course of the next few hours. I’d like to start with inclusion. In the 13 years I had the privilege of spending in the classroom, I certainly saw a number of issues emerge with our inclusion model. I am firmly committed to the principles of inclusion, as I know you are, minister and staff.
Seeing these investments, I’ve certainly been in support of those investments; however, I have some questions around the implementation of the investments, how the investments are being tracked and monitored, and so forth. I do have concerns that at times they may not be properly tracked and monitored and we need to know the effectiveness of these investments in supporting our diverse learners in Nova Scotia.
My first question, minister, I’m curious: how many people from the department and from senior management within the RCEs have been redeployed, in order to provide direct services to students in schools?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Thanks very much, member, thanks for the questions. I hope you are teaching the girls how to prepare that rabbit for dinner. Did you catch it in your backyard?
In terms of new staff that have been deployed through hires, I did have the specific numbers in my opening statement, but it’s approximately 1,500. So, that’s close to 1,000 new teachers that have been hired. That has primarily been to implement the class cap that my predecessor brought into the system, at the recommendation of the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. We currently have 364 new teaching and non-teaching supports that have been deployed in our system for the purpose of enhancing our efforts to improve inclusive education. We’re looking at another round of hires this year as the result of an additional $15 million that has been invested into the system.
TIM HALMAN: Do you have a number on how many people from the departments and from senior management in the RCEs have been sent back into our schools to support the inclusion model? Do you have a number on that?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We can get you the specific number on that. I think the member is referencing the Avis Glaze recommendation, if I understand correctly, to redeploy staffing in the regional centres to have more hours in the classroom. We’ll check in with the regions and get that number back. I can tell you that it will probably be based on the change in hours in the classrooms because that’s what the directive was at the time.
TIM HALMAN: What part of the department would track information like that?
ZACH CHURCHILL: That would be senior management. That would include senior management in the department and also the Regional Centres for Education.
TIM HALMAN: How many classroom teachers have been redeployed so as to fill the targeted 50 per cent of the department’s curriculum positions?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We’ll get that number for you. None of us has that at our fingertips right now.
TIM HALMAN: Certainly, under the new governance model, which essentially has been in existence now for two years, we have the role of a regional education officer. Minister, could you outline what the responsibilities are of a regional education officer?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The REOs play a liaison function in the system, between the department and regions. They also play a role with a connection between the department and the home and school community, as well as with private schools.
TIM HALMAN: How do they support student learning?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Through helping us ensure that there is consistent application of policy decisions and programming decisions, and response to parent concerns, as well.
TIM HALMAN: Based on that definition, am I correct in saying that they are the eyes and ears of the minister?
ZACH CHURCHILL: No, I wouldn’t say that. If you want to quote me directly, I said that they liaise between the department and our Regional Centres for Education, the CSAP, as well, and the home and school community, as well as private school connections that we have. They also play a really important role in terms of helping us be responsive to the concerns of parents and SACs, as well.
TIM HALMAN: If a position doesn’t support student learning, do you think it should be eliminated?
ZACH CHURCHILL: I think the majority of our positions are designed to support student learning. Of course, in a system as large as the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development - it’s a close to $1.5 billion system with 10,000 employees - there is, of course, some administrative and operational work that does need to happen at a wide range of levels, whether it’s folks who are dealing with operations in our schools - I think of the ever-important custodial services that we have - to the administrative support for our principals, our Regional Centres for Education and, of course, in the department itself.
There are a number of positions within the system, I would say, that are critical to its functionality that might not have a direct impact on student learning per se but that have a direct impact on student learning because they help the system function.
TIM HALMAN: I appreciate that, minister. That’s the main theme I’m getting at, student learning. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, I know we’re all very much united with that, to ensure that we’re maximizing student learning, student supports.
Over the years, I’ve heard the reference from Dr. Glaze - all hands on deck - which was a statement used quite frequently two years ago and that was often used with respect to our inclusion model.
If the current approach is described as all hands on deck when it comes to student learning, I’m curious as to what amount of direct, differentiated instruction is being provided in our system by vice-principals and principals.
ZACH CHURCHILL: I’m happy to hear that the member has come around to supporting the Avis Glaze report and its recommendations to help us improve teaching and learning in our education system. The member’s comments do sound a bit different today than they did two years ago, when we entered into those critical changes to our governance structure and administrative structure.
Under the new system, administrators are able to spend up to 50 per cent of their assignment for teaching and student support. Of course, that’s what they do with the rest of their time, as well, as administrators. For direct time in the classroom it’s up to 50 per cent.
TIM HALMAN: Certainly, I remain opposed to many of the initiatives. Just because I’m quoting from that report doesn’t indicate my support. It was a term that was used quite frequently two years ago, all hands on deck.
I am curious now, two years later, if that is being tracked, if we have any hard data, any quantified data on how much differentiated instruction is occurring, with respect to our vice-principals and principals being redeployed and seeing that differentiated instruction.
ZACH CHURCHILL: That would be tracked at the regional level. I’m sorry to hear that the member hasn’t come around to seeing the benefits of Avis Glaze. He left me with the wrong impression there, with his other comment.
I do want to assure him that the feedback we’re getting from the system, in relation to those changes, are, for the most part, positive. Of course, not universally positive, but governance really matters in the delivery of any program and functionality of any system. I can say we’ve brought the governance of our education system into the modern era, to a certain degree, with these changes.
We’ve empowered our administrative leaders, our educational leaders in the system, with their own body that can represent their interests, which they didn’t have under the previous arrangement with the union, where they made up only 10 per cent of the union membership. Now our principals, our administrators, have a much more direct line of communication into the regional centres, into the department.
Also, we dealt with some major conflicts of interest that existed in the system, as well, with HR people who were members of the union and negotiating local collective agreements with the union. There’s an obvious conflict of interest there, and a conflict when it comes to even pursuing the objectives of administrators when it came to a number of job responsibilities they have in the system, either with discipline of their staff or supporting their staff to grow, as well, in their positions.
The feedback has been really good. We’ve got a great relationship built up with our administrators from the centres to the administrators in our schools, where they have a much more direct line of communication with the minister that they have never had before. The principals that are engaged through PSAANS and the Principals’ Forum have expressed that appreciation. Some of them have been employed in the education system for a very long time and have never, ever had one single audience with the Minister of Education and now they’re actually providing advice on a fairly regular basis.
That’s a really important change and I do think that over time the member will see the benefits of that. Also, when you look at having a fractured system with nine different, independent authorities, the evidence was made very clear after three independent reports that that was a problem, that the variance in student achievement levels and well-being, the variance in how we approach inclusive education from region to region was contributing to negative outcomes for kids.
I’m quite proud of the changes that we’ve made. They’ve been important and I think that over time the data will demonstrate that, as well.
TIM HALMAN: Over the past few months I’ve travelled around the province and I’ve heard a lot from teachers and program assistants and specialists. One of the common themes I’m hearing is that the government has put new positions into schools to support inclusion; however, in many cases those positions are just renaming positions already in the schools. In some cases, there are no real additional teachers. This is what I’m hearing.
We know that the Commission on Inclusive Education concluded that more resources are required for inclusion within the multi-tiered system, as outlined in the inclusion report.
Given that the monitoring, assessing and evaluating of inclusion of the previous model was challenging - and certainly I can attest to that, as being part of the system before being elected - I’m curious, what’s in place now to guarantee robust monitoring of these investments in inclusion? How are we tracking? How are we monitoring these investments?
ZACH CHURCHILL: To answer a previous question about secondments into the department for curriculum, that number is 28.
In reference to the positions in the system: close to 1,500 now. Those are all net, new positions to the system. That’s reflected in our budget, that’s reflected in our hiring numbers. These are all new positions to the system. These are not changes in positions with different titles. These are new people - not in every case new people, but in every case a net new position to the system. We spent a lot of money to hire these folks.
I’ve heard concerns, as well, from certain schools that - well, I didn’t get a new FTE this year or we received only a half-FTE. That happens every year and that’s in relation to two primary factors. One is enrolment changes from school to school every year. That impacts the number of FTEs at a given school. The other factor is the needs of the kids. The need level in certain school communities might be greater that given year, depending on the composition of the school, from a student body perspective.
There are FTEs that move around from school to school each year. That has always happened. That is a result of the assessments done on enrolment and on the needs of kids. In terms of the new hires that we have, those are all net new positions and that’s all net new dollars to the system. The member missed this, I think, in the opening comments, but it has been over $373 million, net new dollars, into the system. That’s the highest per student funding increase that this province has seen in a very, very long time.
TIM HALMAN: How are we monitoring those investments?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Thanks for reminding me about the second part of your question. In terms of inclusion investments, we’re approaching oversight and rollout in a couple of different ways that will help us with monitoring and evaluation. We’re working with Dr. Gordon Porter and Inclusive Education Canada on the rollout, working with him to make sure that where we’re putting the dollars is in line with our goals to improve inclusive education in the province.
We are also, of course, checking in with Dr. Sarah Shea, the chairperson of the Commission on Inclusive Education, who has endorsed all the investments in programming changes that we brought in every year since she has written her report. We lean on her advice when we’re rolling out the programs every year.
On the back end for evaluation, we’ve actually hired two independent academics to do independent evaluations of what we’re doing. They would be Dr. Andy Hargreaves and Dr. Jessica Whitley. Their first report will be coming out this Spring. This is an independent, third-party report. Of course, the findings of that report will be critical to help inform us if we have to make any adjustments. It will help inform us if what we’re doing is having an intended impact, where it is having an intended impact and where it’s not and if adjustments need to be made.
I very much look forward to receiving that first report this year. There will also be two more reports that they’ll be producing over the course of the next couple of years.
The ADM has also informed me that there is a system and school plans in place right now to monitor progress and the focus is entirely on how the children are doing. We do have internal monitoring happening with the rollout, which helps us monitor the progress, and we also have an independent third party doing an independent evaluation.
TIM HALMAN: With respect to Dr. Hargreaves and Dr. Whitley, you’ve outlined that this is an independent third party. How much did the province pay to get this independent assessment?
ZACH CHURCHILL: It’s approximately $300,000 and it’s a contract through the University of Ottawa. We will get the exact figure, but it is approximately $300,000.
TIM HALMAN: Thank you for that clarification. With respect to the ADM’s clarification that internal monitoring is happening, the genesis of this question is, as you know, the inclusion report recommended an institute - that recommendation was not accepted by the government. I’m curious, what specific entity within the department monitors, assesses and evaluates these investments with inclusion?
Certainly, the term “internal monitoring happening” - that doesn’t cut the grade. Could you be more specific?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The specific branch would be the Student Services branch within the department, which includes the African Nova Scotian learning branch, as well as the Mi'kmaq learning branch. The Student Services branch, it’s their responsibility to conduct the departmental monitoring of the system.
Of course, that’s also happening with inclusive education, in partnership with Inclusive Education Canada. We felt that was a better option for us than having an institute on inclusive education. I think there are a lot of good reasons for that. The primary reason why we didn’t - we did consider it, but the primary reason why we decided not to have an institute was because of the estimated cost, which was approximately $1 million a year.
We also thought that the work of that institute might be redundant, where we do have the partnership opportunity with Inclusive Education Canada, which doesn’t just bring provincial stakeholders to the table but utilizes a national institution that has access to national data and understands how inclusive education is working, from one end of the country to the other.
Also, there are some risks in having an institute with the makeup that was suggested. Any time you bring special interest stakeholders to a table you can risk losing track of the evidence and have it end up being a group that works on finding compromises between positions of self-interest. We’ve seen that happen before.
We think this is actually a better way to go, primarily from a financial perspective because those dollars would be better spent hiring more people in the system, I think. We’ve heard from teachers who are members of the union suggest that we should have an institute, but when I’m out in schools I haven’t heard from one teacher that that’s something they’re looking for. That’s not something we’ve heard from parents. Quite frankly, we think we’ve got a better option that’s more cost-effective and that will be more focused on data and evidence.
TIM HALMAN: What is the strategic plan to build up that capacity, to be able to get those quantified numbers with our inclusion model, to get that hard data? If I’m understanding you correctly, it sounds like a foundation is being built to track that. What is the strategic plan moving forward? Obviously, in order to get the best practice, as you know, we need to have these numbers, in terms of the extent to which they’re hitting their intended outcomes.
ZACH CHURCHILL: There are two areas where we would be collecting data. First and foremost, on student achievement. The member would be familiar with student achievement data in the system. I am sure he has done his fair share of inputting data into PowerSchool and TIENET during his time in the classroom. We’ve made some adjustments there, as well, but that will obviously be a primary source of data for us. We want to see our achievement levels increase. We’ve been below the national average for a long time and we think that we should be competing with the best and brightest in the country, and we think we can compete. We want to see that achievement data go up.
The other main source of data will be around well-being and that’s primarily achieved through student surveys that are conducted annually and reported on annually.
TIM HALMAN: With respect to African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaq communities, certainly looking at the budget, if I have understood it correctly, the numbers remain basically the same for supports for African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaq communities. Do you believe we are doing enough to support those learners in our schools?
ZACH CHURCHILL: I think the data is concerning on that front. We’ve had an achievement gap for a very long time now with those learners. So no, I don’t think we’re there yet, in terms of achieving what we want to achieve. We have made adjustments in terms of resources.
We do have now a Mi'kmaq Services branch, an African Nova Scotian branch, with executive director leads. That’s the first time that we’ve had that in the department, where we have senior executives whose job it is to focus in these key areas. We’ve hired more Mi'kmaw and African Nova Scotian support workers in the system, as well, so it’s not just happening in the department, but it’s also putting more resources on the front line.
Just having those resources there isn’t going to fix all the challenges there. These are complex issues. There are factors outside the education system that contribute to this. We have to work with other departments to have a holistic approach to it, as well.
Obviously, poverty can be a factor - it doesn’t have to be, but it can be a factor. Socio-economic levels can be a factor. We also know that the number one factor, based on the latest research, is teaching excellence and leadership excellence in our schools. I can get the report for any members who are skeptical of that.
We’ve actually been working co-operatively with the union on developing standards of teaching excellence, which include supports for teachers to help them get to where they want to be, as educators, and to make sure that we’re all doing our very best for the students that are entrusted into our care. I believe those standards have been released to the system this year and I think that once we get those firmly established and get professional development plans for folks in the system, that will have an impact. We know we can teach through socio-economic challenges. We can reach kids who might be faced with various challenges, either at home or in their communities.
We know that we have to do better. I think having these standards of excellence in teaching and working on developing standards of leadership excellence with our administrators, as well, gives us a great opportunity to see some impacts here.
We’re also working with our B.Ed. providers in the province to make sure that the post-secondary system is adjusting to meet the needs of our kids, too. Our deputy, Cathy Montreuil, has been leading a table with the deans from the five schools in Nova Scotia that provide B.Ed. programs.
Those conversations are progressing. Change in large institutions isn’t always easy, but I think we’re getting Bachelor of Education programs better lined up to help us meet the needs of our students. Hopefully, that will have positive implications for African Nova Scotian and Indigenous learners, as well as everybody else in the system.
We’re really going after this thing, from bringing in our early learning program, pre-Primary - I think that also gives us an advantage when it comes to looking at achievement levels and bridging the gap that we’re seeing. All the data around early learning suggests that that gives us a really good advantage in addressing this issue. We’re actually starting to see, even in the first couple of cohorts of pre-Primary kids, that the achievement levels are telling the story that we want it to tell, when it comes to the impact that play-based early learning can have on those kids and getting them into the school environment a year before.
I know I referenced Craig Myra, principal at Chebucto Heights Elementary school, in my opening comments. We actually made the announcement for pre-Primary, the rollout of the final year. I was asked a question by the media on how well the program is doing. I said that generally the day-to-day is relatively good. Principal Myra actually pulled me aside after my scrum and said, I really wanted to jump in there. It’s not just good; I’ve never had a cohort of kids who are doing better. He attributed that directly to pre-Primary. He said this program has been a real game-changer for his kids.
I think that story is being replicated across the province and I think it’s in line with the research on pre-Primary, as well, and on the impacts of early learning.
I got to go to a presentation two Summers ago, when we first started rolling out pre-Primary. The Conference Board of Canada had conducted a study on the impacts of early learning and their report was quite powerful. They found that, specifically, free, universal early learning opportunities improved socio-economic outcomes for people, including a reduction of poverty and income inequality, improved child outcomes, especially for disadvantaged children and, on the economic front, increased female labour market participation. These are all really exciting findings and we’re actually starting to see the first couple of years of data enhancing what this research has told us.
We’re really going after the achievement and well-being levels with our students in a lot of really important ways, from the governance structure changes, which better allow us to direct funding in the system to meet the needs of our kids. Before, we dished out funding based primarily on enrolment-driven criteria. Regions would receive funding based on enrolment almost exclusively. The previous boards were very used to getting cuts in various years if their enrolment changed and laying off people and not hiring new people. We now have the ability to actually assess the needs of our students, from a provincial perspective, not just within the regions. We can do that now, as well, and better direct money to meet the needs of those students.
So, we’ve got early learning. We’ve got a better ability to direct needs-based funding in our system. We have specific resources that are in place for Mi'kmaw and African Nova Scotian learners to help them address some of the specific challenges that they face in the system.
We have a whole new host of mental health and behaviour supports in the system that the system has never had before, from having child and youth care practitioners in our system who are experts in behaviour, to having more school psychologists in the system.
SchoolsPlus is now fully implemented across the province, which opens up doors for our kids and families, not just in the education system but connects them to supports outside the education system, whether it’s for mental health or issues related to social services, the justice system, or whatever.
We’re building new buildings and investing in our school infrastructure in really serious ways. This is something that I’m really excited about and very proud of.
I’ve never been in a department before - and no offence to the other Cabinet Ministers in the room, some of whom have helped in my past portfolios - but I’ve never felt like I’ve had the ability to impact lives in the way that we do in the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. That is because we’ve had a government that has been willing to invest literally hundreds of millions of dollars into our kids and has the courage to change the system in important ways, and has had the courage to actually bring in an early learning program, despite the controversy of it in the beginning and the challenges that we knew it would create in the private sector. We’ve had the willingness to take on all these things and I do have confidence that we’ll succeed over the long term. Whether I’m minister or not, I’m still going to be paying attention to the data and seeing if we achieve what we set out to achieve.
TIM HALMAN: In education we know that prevention emphasizes early detection and intervention. Certainly, being a high school teacher for many years, I saw many cases where students would have benefited enormously from that early detection and intervention. If that happened, often later on it would prevent some learning behavioural challenges that that young person was going through.
Within the context of early learning and supporting student learning, within the context of the investments in inclusion, can you outline what changes have been made to ensure early detection of learning and behavioural challenges?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There are some really exciting things that are happening on this front. Obviously, having kids in a system and being able to evaluate their learning ability and detect learning disabilities early on is beneficial. We’re actually reaching out to other health professionals, as well, to help us with early screening. Staff just had a meeting with a group of optometrists in Nova Scotia who are really interested in our pre-Primary program doing early screening for eyesight.
My wife is an optometrist, she did not ask me to do this. I want to be up front about that. I have not been lobbied by my wife on this. Some of her colleagues are really passionate about this and I’ve learned through them that they’re identifying vision issues with students in high school that have never been detected, that have been there since early on in the lives of those individuals and have contributed to really negative learning outcomes and experiences in our education system.
We’ve had kids who have had a hard time learning and they didn’t know, just because they couldn’t see the blackboard or the whiteboard or read the textbooks that they have. We are in the process of working with optometrists in Nova Scotia right now on getting them in to do some early screening for eye care, as well.
We’ve been discussing doing the same with hearing and maybe even - we just actually had the dental hygienists’ association in our caucus - I think they presented to the other caucuses, as well. We want to have a conversation with them about anything we can do in the pre-Primary around dental care, as well, because we know that all these health factors can contribute to learning outcomes in really consequential ways for individuals.
We’re not there yet, in terms of having the whole host of early screening, but we’re getting there.
TIM HALMAN: I certainly appreciate that, minister. That’s important work that’s being conducted. However, my question is related to learning and behavioural challenges. By way of example, what mechanisms are in place now with the new investments on inclusion, say for example, for early detection of dyslexia? If you could comment on that.
ZACH CHURCHILL: Specifically, we give $5 million annually for the early intervention development folks. They come directly into our pre-Primary classrooms. We also have EIBI, they’re involved with our pre-Primary program, as well. We have pyramid model coaches who come in to assist with those assessments, as well.
We’re looking to enhance those early detections in other key areas. In terms of the learning challenges that these folks do, these are already in place but, as I mentioned, we are also looking at enhancing that with eye care and hearing and dental.
TIM HALMAN: With respect to the positions you outlined within the $5 million annual investment, what are the criteria by which you determine how you deploy those specialists, how you deploy that programming to various schools?
ZACH CHURCHILL: That is funding for a not-for-profit agency, and they get into all of our programs.
TIM HALMAN: I know after a number of years of teaching I learned very quickly that if you want to help students find success you have to differentiate your instruction. An educator differentiates their instruction in response to the diverse needs of their students, their strengths, the areas in which they require improvement, their needs, their interests and, of course, their learning styles.
Does the department keep data on the extent to which teachers in Nova Scotia differentiate their instruction?
ZACH CHURCHILL: I fully agree with the member on this. Differentiated instruction is critical, and it’s part of our inclusive education policy. Deputy Minister Montreuil, whom we’ve recruited from Ontario, is also a very great proponent of this. She has been working with our regions on the implementation of this policy and I think we’ll see some positive impacts here, as well.
TIM HALMAN: Do you believe it’s important to benchmark the degree to which teachers are differentiating their instruction?
ZACH CHURCHILL: That’s not something we currently track.
TIM HALMAN: Has there ever been a survey done, a general survey, just to get a sense of how much differentiation is happening in our schools throughout Nova Scotia?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The closest thing we have is tracking the outcomes. We’re currently not tracking the pedagogy to achieve those outcomes, but we do have directives in terms of how to approach that. Differentiated instruction is part of the inclusive education policy framework and directives coming from the department.
The deputy has informed me that the evaluation might be picking up on some of that, as well, as they meet with teachers. So, the Andy Hargreaves and Jessica Whitley evaluation, we believe they’ll be picking up some data on that, and in conversation with teachers.
TIM HALMAN: Certainly, I appreciate the minister’s remarks on that, pointing out that certainly that’s an area where there is room for improvement. That data is critical. We know that differentiated instruction, as outlined in the inclusion report, is critical.
Just from my own experience of teaching many, many students that required a different approach, I think we should definitely be tracking that in a robust manner. Certainly, if you can be working on that, that’s critical because differentiation is a key component, a key pillar of inclusion.
Continuing with the theme of student learning and early learning and early detections, I’d like to talk about the role of parent navigators. I know the department has created parent navigators. However, I’m hearing from some parents that advocacy has not always been improved. I’ve received many calls, as an MLA, as I am sure you have, minister, from parents still very much frustrated with the system.
I know that Ministers of Education in the past have encouraged parents to advocate but I think that the means of doing so continue to frustrate that advocacy. I support the role of parent navigator, but helping one navigate the system isn’t necessarily the same as being an advocate. Certainly, in Dartmouth I think of an organization like the Scottish Rite, which does a lot of great work with students with dyslexia. Many of the frustrations parents have are around how do we advocate for this student? How do we access the service that’s required?
I’m curious. What’s in place today that will make the experiences parents are having with trying to advocate for their children easier and much more efficient?
ZACH CHURCHILL: To the member’s previous statement around differentiation and how we’re capturing that, as well, the deputy has informed me that the teacher growth and performance metrics under the standards of teaching excellence - that will capture some of that, as well.
In terms of parents who need to advance concerns related to resources for their child, we do have the parent navigator positions. Their job is to help parents get those questions to where they need to go. The same thing that a board member would have done, for example, if they were getting constituency calls related to an issue. That board member, under the previous model, wouldn’t necessarily have been making decisions on the operational resources that are being allocated to that student, but they would get the parent in contact with the appropriate people to conduct that assessment.
Parent navigators, their job is to do that and to also assist parents in identifying other areas where they might be able to gain support, as well. The first point of contact has always been and remains the teacher, as you would know from being a teacher. That’s the first point of contact for parents. Of course, then they go to administration if they’re not getting satisfaction with that initial point of contact.
Then we have the REOs and other staff in the Regional Centres for Education, depending on what the issue is, who look at the issue being pushed by the parent. That’s usually conducting an assessment on the needs of the student and determining if they do need another TA or what other supports might be able to be made available to them. It depends on the nature of those issues, where their queries, questions, concerns will end.
TIM HALMAN: Minister, I’d like you to imagine a Grade 5 classroom with 22 students; six of those students have IPPs in English language arts, six are on an IPP for math, seven other students have adaptations across that curriculum.
Under our new inclusion model now, with all these investments, who is responsible for completing lesson unit plans for students with IPPs?
ZACH CHURCHILL: That primarily rests with teachers, but there is also a program planning group that we have in place to look at those issues, as well.
TIM HALMAN: Within that classroom as I outlined to you, who is responsible for providing for direct, differentiated instruction of the students with IPPs and of the students on adaptations?
ZACH CHURCHILL: That would be the teacher, but of course, this is the reason why we’re hiring as many teaching and non-teaching supports as we can. We have recognized that there has been a lot of pressure and a lot of challenges that teachers face in the classroom. They deal with a lot of complexity that they are not necessarily trained to deal with in a B.Ed. program, so we have hired a lot of different positions in the system - child and youth care practitioners, I mentioned school psychologists, SchoolsPlus. There is a support network there now for teachers, to assist them in addressing the challenges that a complex classroom creates for them. So, while they are the lead, we are looking at and we have developed a system of support for them, so that they are better equipped and supported in making those determinations.
TIM HALMAN: Your statement that it would be the teacher, that gets right to the heart of the matter. To what extent have these changes actually improved classroom conditions? That’s what I’m trying to get at because at the heart of the matter those are the two perennial questions and the response was the teacher.
So, new supports have been put in place. How do we know in a quantified way that those supports are being effective? I know we both agreed that it does fall on the teacher - and the thousands of teachers in our province, as you know, are proud and happy to do that work. It’s their passion, it’s who they are, it’s what they love. How do we know that those new supports are having an impact with our diverse learners?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We evaluate. That’s why the evaluation is so critical. We evaluate by assessing the data on student well-being. We get that through direct student surveys. We assess that based on the achievement data that we collect every year and report on every year.
I can’t speak to the other ways that the independent evaluators will be looking at this because that is an independent evaluation, but we’re trusting them to do their very best to evaluate how we’re doing. Not just while they’re doing these evaluations, but they are also helping us develop a framework for ongoing evaluation once their work and their contract is completed, so that we can continue to assess how we’re doing.
Again, we are motivated to get this right. As I’ve mentioned, our government has invested the largest per student increase in the education system that we’ve seen, I think, since they made the Department of Education back in the 1960s, under the previous Liberal Premier Angus L. Macdonald, so we want these dollars to be effective.
We’re hiring - it’s going to eventually be thousands of new people in the system to provide these supports. We want those resources we’re deploying to be effective and to have the impact on student achievement and well-being that we want it to.
I agree with the member, evaluation is critical. We didn’t want the evaluation to happen internally in the department. That was important for us to make sure that we do have a non-biased assessment happening, that is going to be frank and honest with us and frank and honest with the public. Those evaluations will help us determine whether any course corrections are, indeed, needed or not. If it is determined that we need a course correction in any of the areas where we are investing dollars and deploying resources, we’re going to do it.
TIM HALMAN: Can you remind me, minister, what is the date on which the independent evaluators will be reporting to the department? Can you remind me of that date again?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We don’t have a date, but we are expecting it this Spring, for the first report, the first of three.
TIM HALMAN: Will those be annual reports over the next two or three years?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There will be three reports over the course of the next three years. Again, the evaluation will not stop after that. Part of the contract is for them to develop the framework of ongoing evaluation.
TIM HALMAN: What outcomes are they evaluating? What targets are they looking at? Obviously, you have those targets established. Could you outline for us what those outcomes or targets are? What are the outcomes that they’re evaluating?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Well, it’s going to be up to them to determine a large portion of that. We’re not telling them how to conduct this evaluation. We’re trusting them to do what they do best. They’ve done this in other jurisdictions, as well. They’re internationally known experts in the field of inclusive education and they’ve helped a number of jurisdictions. We’re excited to see what they come up with for us.
The data that I’m interested in, which is the data that I’m familiar with, is achievement data and well-being. That’s what I’m aware of, that’s what I understand best, but they might very well come up with some different criteria that I am not aware of yet.
TIM HALMAN: With the investments in inclusion, what are three or four main end goals or outcomes you hope to achieve with these investments? That’s what I’m a little concerned about, that we’re having this evaluation done, but I’m not getting the sense that you know exactly what the end goal is that you’re trying to achieve with respect to the inclusion outcome.
Could you outline for us three or four outcomes that they’re going to be looking at to see that they’ve met their targets, they’re on track.
ZACH CHURCHILL: I don’t think it’s accurate to say we haven’t been clear about what we’re expecting. I mean, we want our kids to do better. We want our kids to achieve higher levels of success academically. We want to be leading this country when it comes to academic achievement.
We want our kids to feel better while at school. We want our kids to feel safe and included in a learning environment, so the well-being data that we collect is the best criteria to help us determine how we’re doing there.
We want our kids to be doing better in school, we want our kids to feel better while they are at school and we want them to be successful once they graduate.
THE CHAIR: Mr. Halman, I think you have 30 seconds.
TIM HALMAN: On that point, minister, what does doing better look like in Nova Scotia? We’re definitely united on that. We all want that. We want to see those outcomes improved on a lot of different levels.
What does it mean when we say we want our kids to do better? What does “better” look like? I’m concerned that the department may not have a clear sense of what you want them to evaluate, along with not knowing what outcomes you want them to evaluate.
THE CHAIR: Order. The time has elapsed for the PC Party. We will move on to the NDP, starting with Ms. Chender, for an hour.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you very much. Apologies that I’ve touched the microphone, I’ve been told not to do that.
Thank you to the department staff and to the minister for being here to answer questions. I’m going to start with the budget here. On Page 7.5, the amounts budgeted for Child Care and Licensing, we see a decrease in the amounts from the last Estimate to this one.
My understanding is that this is the portion of the budget that covers regulated child care, early intervention, early childhood education and professional development. Can the minister explain why there’s a $15 million reduction in the funding amounts here?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There hasn’t been a reduction in funding from the department. The Estimate has been reduced for a couple of reasons. One is primarily because of the reduction of subsidy grants. That’s a direct result of having a free, universal pre-Primary program, so families that would have been eligible for subsidy for child care for their four-year-old no longer require that subsidy because their kids are in pre-Primary, so the demand for that subsidy has decreased as a result of having the free pre-Primary program.
We just had a provincial-territorial-federal meeting with education and early learning ministers, including the federal minister, where we actually talked about another round of increases from the federal government for this. We have our provincial number at a baseline. That’s because we know there’s less demand for subsidy, but also because we know we have more federal dollars coming, as well.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I have some questions about subsidy. We go here in this bottom pocket, Programs and Services, from $1.474 million to $1.3 million - it’s significant. Early Years Development goes from $78,495,000 to $76,944,000, but that’s with a significant increase of FTEs over five. That looks like a pretty big reduction to me.
I’d like the minister to confirm that that’s just due to reduction in subsidy uptake, and whether or not there’s anything else included there.
ZACH CHURCHILL: There has been no reduction there. If the member looks at the page in its entirety, you’ll see that there is a division of two branches. So, where that all used to be under one branch, it has now been split into two branches. The names of the branches are, again, Early Learning and pre-Primary, and then Child Care and Licensing. Previously that would have all been under one branch, but that figure is now divided. If you look at the whole page, you’ll see that the numbers add up.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Just to be clear, the federal funding that you’re talking about, that would still flow through the province. Wouldn’t that still appear here, or is that just going to show up somewhere else?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We haven’t signed a new bilateral yet. We’ve had assurances that that funding will flow. The number that was used at the conference, which was in January - and I think the federal commitment has been, to date, $7.5 billion to the provinces and territories, but we had indications at that conference that that figure might be even higher.
The bilaterals have not been signed yet and we have yet to receive funding, transitional funding, until we get to those bilaterals. That’s why it’s not reflected in the budget.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thanks for that answer. Back to the subsidies. You mentioned that - I’ll use the informal “you,” since we’re here in this less-formal Chamber - the minister mentioned that eligibility has been greatly expanded for this subsidy, right? So, something like $35,000 before, to $70,000.
Do you have any sense of what the uptake is? How many people in that income threshold who have children enrolled in regulated child care are actually taking advantage of the subsidy?
I ask because, hopefully, as pre-Primary finishes its rollout and the after-school care is added, it will have more universal uptake. Certainly, we know that there are many four-year-olds who, because of the lag in implementation around busing and after-school, are still attending those regulated child care centres.
ZACH CHURCHILL: It’s approximately 75 per cent uptake of eligible four-year-olds into the pre-Primary program. The subsidy figure you requested, we don’t have that here. We’ll get that for you.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you, I appreciate that. I’d also be interested to know just how that data is collected. I look forward to seeing that.
Just to confirm, you talked about a $30 million increase in funding for the regulated child care sector, I believe, in your opening comments. Can you point me to where that shows up? I know you spoke about some of those, but I don’t think you broke it down here.
ZACH CHURCHILL: That’s not a $30 million increase in this year’s budget, that’s $30 million accumulatively since 2013 - approximately $30 million. Since 2013 we’ve increased funding by approximately $30 million, up to $80 million now annually.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Just to confirm, the only new funding in this budget that we see is the four-year-old, pre-Primary addition, in this Early Years piece. Is that accurate?
ZACH CHURCHILL: That’s correct. This is in anticipation of some major federal investments. We are doing our very best to leverage federal investments that are on their way, to ensure we get as much of that as we can.
Once the bilaterals are signed with the provinces, we want to sign them as quickly as possible. The federal government is pretty motivated to sign those. They also indicated that we might receive funding in transition, while we wait for those bilaterals to be signed. We have not had confirmation that that’s happening yet, but we do anticipate a major influx of federal funds that will be utilized for the sector.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Is there a sense of what that would be geared towards?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Broadly speaking, access, affordability, inclusive spaces were three of the dominant themes that we discussed. I know another theme that came up was before and after school care, as well.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Turning to Page 7.6, the budget for the Centre for Equity in Achievement and Well-Being, the description here says that this centre is responsible for teacher education and recruitment. I wonder if the minister is able to provide the total amount budgeted for teacher recruitment and where I’d see that here and what that would be used for specifically.
ZACH CHURCHILL: Where the direct employers of teachers and staff are the Regional Centres for Education, their recruitment funding will be found in the regional budgets, in their HR budgets. You won’t see that explicitly expressed in our budget documents; it’s part of the $1.5 billion that goes to the regional centres.
I’m sure that if the member is interested, we can track down regional recruitment budgets.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: That’s helpful.
ZACH CHURCHILL: If you’re not interested, that will save us some time, too.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I’ll get back to you on that, but you answered my question, which is where it can be found. We were curious if it could be found in this budget. In fact, I may be interested to see all those numbers, but I will let you know.
In the line for Student Assessment and Evaluation here, is the minister able to break down how that money is allocated? Staff, proprietary software testing instruments - what does that include here?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Mr. Potter is going to pull those out of the budget document. Also, if the member is interested in seeing the regional budgets, those are all posted online. So, that is available and that will save my staff some time, in terms of making that available to you. You or your caucus staff can find those in the Regional Centres for Education budgets, all of which are posted on their websites.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Similarly, I am curious, what is this line, also on Page 7.6, for Student Achievement?
ZACH CHURCHILL: That’s primarily for building achievement excellence. Essentially, we’re looking at and working with the regions to look at school planning, to identify schools that are doing really well and that are over-achieving, and evaluate their data and programming approach to see if we can replicate their success in schools where we’re not seeing that same level of success.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Is there a particular staff member who is doing that work, or a particular approach being taken?
ZACH CHURCHILL: That would be the Director of Student Achievement, Kim Matheson. She is in the process, I think, of hiring support staff, as well.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: This is entitled Centre for Equity in Achievement and Well-Being. My question is: How does the equity play in here? Is there an equity lens applied to these programs? How does that work?
I know my colleague asked some questions around educational equity and we’ll have some questions coming up. It’s right in the title here, so I’m just wondering how it fits into this area.
ZACH CHURCHILL: The focus there is on bridging the achievement gap that we’re experiencing. We also do have an executive research lead that’s focused on the African Nova Scotian achievement data. They’re tied in with the executive director of the African Nova Scotian learning branch.
So, yes. The answer is yes to your question. The focus is on equity and bridging the gap.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: To that issue around bridging the gap, I am wondering where in the budget would the investment in school food programs be - school breakfast or lunch. I’m curious about the amount of that investment and a breakdown of how it’s allocated.
ZACH CHURCHILL: That wouldn’t be found in our budget. Nourish Nova Scotia is the lead on that. That budget line is found in the Department of Health and Wellness and/or the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s budget line. Nourish Nova Scotia is the lead on that and that does not come out of our budget.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I wonder, minister, if you hear about issues around food insecurity as related to the achievement gap that you mentioned? You talked earlier about teaching excellence as being the primary function in the achievement gap. We hear a lot about hunger and kids not able to eat enough to sustain them through the day, particularly in afternoons. We know that this leads to behavioural issues, which can lead to things like suspensions, which can lead to things like IPPs. We know that this is happening.
I wonder if the department is looking at this and if there is any consideration of adding this as an item in the departmental budget in the future.
ZACH CHURCHILL: I don’t want the member to think that my comments around teaching excellence - that is, based on some research I have read, the dominant factor and the fact that we can teach through other challenges that students face. Of course, that’s not the only factor.
Yes, of course, hunger is an issue, which is why we’ve invested heavily in the breakfast program. That’s for everybody, it’s not just for anybody who doesn’t get breakfast at home. Those are inclusive programs, they’re for anybody who wants to come to school and have breakfast. Our breakfast program is now - we’re close to 100 per cent coverage. We’re at about 98 per cent coverage for our breakfast program.
We’ve been in conversations with the Principals’ Forum, too, on looking at enhancing our Nourish programs, as well, because we know that some schools, some teachers, some individuals, go above and beyond to give the kids what they need to succeed in their classroom and we’re very thankful for that. We are in conversations with them about how we can look at enhancing the food options.
I have been in close contact with the Department of Agriculture, too. Minister Colwell has been very keen - on blueberries, in particular, to get some into our schools because we know that the health and cognitive benefits of that food in particular are pretty good. Those conversations are ongoing right now with the Department of Agriculture, Nourish Nova Scotia, and school principals.
To date we’ve had great success. We’ve got our breakfast program that’s nearly at 100 per cent - 98 per cent right now, I think, if memory serves me correctly. We also have food available for our pre-Primary program, as well, and are looking for opportunities to potentially enhance this.
We’ve got some data here that I can share, as well. Over 6.3 million breakfasts were served during the 2018-19 year and there’s food also provided at 94 per cent of our before- and after-school programs, as well. Most schools are offering that five days a week.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I thank you for that answer. We are very aware of Nourish’s programs. I have had the chance to meet with them several times, and their small but mighty complement of staff out in Bedford.
Despite the fact that there has been an almost universal rollout of these programs, in terms of schools, our understanding is that they still rely entirely on volunteers and that in many school communities that’s actually really challenging. To us, it’s a “something is better than nothing” situation. It’s great that kids can take advantage of that and it’s also great that it is, for the most part, stigma-free. I know that at my kids’ school the breakfast program is three days a week and everyone who’s at school early goes to the breakfast program and there’s no stigma about who goes or who doesn’t go, and that’s as it should be. But it does rely on volunteers. I’ve met with lots of parents and educators over the years who are perilously close to the edge of burnout because they take it upon themselves, which is wonderful. We rely on those volunteers in our community, but in this situation I think it’s not sufficient.
I’m wondering if you’re aware of any staff in this department, or any other staff, that are funded to work on school food and, if not, if there are plans for that.
ZACH CHURCHILL: The member won’t see any funding directly to volunteers or staff that conduct the breakfast programs, but of course, some people are going above and beyond what we pay them to do this. They’ve had a lot of success, as well. Having even over 90 per cent coverage I think is something that is really encouraging. The fact that a lot of this has been driven at the local level, with support of Nourish Nova Scotia and funding from them is something that our school communities should be very proud of.
There are some school communities that are running pilots right now on lunch programs, so we are looking at opportunities to expand accessibility to food and to lunch because we know that we’ve got growing kids and they’re always hungry, whether they’ve got food in their bellies or not.
I think there are definitely opportunities there for growth that we’re exploring, and some school communities are already running pilots.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: That’s good to hear. I would be remiss if I didn’t say I am also happy to hear about the partnership with the Department of Agriculture. We’ve heard from a lot of not just school food champions but local school food champions who are really looking at getting healthy, affordable - ideally free - food into schools for kids, particularly in Nova Scotia’s agricultural regions. We hear a lot about this on the South Shore and in the Valley, where there is sometimes more ready access to that produce. I would urge the department to continue down that path of looking at that.
Now I want to turn to page 7.11. I want to ask about the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority. I think the budget has been reduced by about 75 per cent. Is there a reason?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There has been a budget reduction there that has been at the request of APSEA. I do have a letter here that I can read for the member:
To Whom it May Concern: Please accept this correspondence as official notification that the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority, APSEA, is aware of a plan by the Province of Nova Scotia to draw down $7.5 million of Nova Scotia APSEA’s accumulated surplus for the 2020-21 fiscal year. There is sufficient accumulated surplus available to the Province of Nova Scotia to offset this approach.
Furthermore, APSEA can confirm that this plan will not have any negative impact on the 2021 operations, and the students we serve in all Atlantic provinces will continue to receive the same high level of programming. APSEA values the Province of Nova Scotia as a critical partner and looks forward to continued success in 2021 and beyond.
That is signed by Lisa Doucet, Superintendent. The reason for this is because APSEA runs a surplus every year and they built up sufficient surplus that will fund that portion that we’ve reduced for this year. They are helping us to be fiscally prudent in the department and this will not have an impact on their operations and the programming supports they provide to students.
The deputy is informing me that the other three Atlantic provinces have already done this, as well.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Can you remind the table just what APSEA does and how they would have built up a $7.5 million surplus?
ZACH CHURCHILL: APSEA’s focus is on delivering programming supports to students with visual and hearing impairments. They are funded fully by the four Atlantic provinces and through their budgeting process, which I am not entirely familiar with, they have built the surplus. They are drawing down on that surplus to fund their operations because that’s the best use of that money.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Okay, that’s helpful. You said the other provinces had done that. Did each province draw down by the same amount, that same reduction? Or is it just different?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Yes, in proportion to their share of the investment.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Just a couple of other questions from your opening comments on regulated child care before I move on to some stuff around pre-Primary. You mentioned that there had been an increase in regulated child care spaces - 2,200 new spaces. Do we know that all of those spaces are, in fact, in use?
One of the things we’ve heard is about centres that have used those capital grants to create new spaces. So let’s say they could accommodate 70 kids but they have only 50 because they can’t staff their centres. Do we know how many of those spaces are occupied by students, by children?
ZACH CHURCHILL: My assumption is that, obviously, those spaces are in use, but we’ll check with the branch to see if I’m correct in that assumption.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I’m also wondering - you talked about the ECE Working Group. You said there was a report developed, staff were exploring the ideas. Can you share some of what those ideas are? Did the department hear anything new and more helpful? Whatever you can share about that would be great.
ZACH CHURCHILL: I’ll provide some of the broad strokes. That group was brought together with the intention of, primarily, looking at the issue around remuneration. We invest heavily in subsidizing wages. Everyone is supposed to be utilizing, I think, about 80 per cent of their funding to support competitive wages in the regulated sector and keeping the wages at or above the wage floor that Minister Casey had set out.
Some of the concerns we were hearing from the sector in terms of recruitment and retention of their staff were on the remuneration front, particularly around the pension benefits that exist in the public sector, which is something that I think is to the chagrin of many private sector employers - that component to public sector employment.
One of the challenges that sector faces is that it’s not organized in such a way where they can easily work together to develop enough critical mass of folks that can invest in private pension options, so we’re looking at helping them organize themselves in such a way that they can accomplish that. There are some ideas that they’ve given to the department that we are currently assessing in relation to that, primarily. I think there might be some other areas, too.
I have not seen the report yet, I haven’t read the report yet. I do have a meeting scheduled, I believe in the coming weeks, with the working group to chat with them about it and their ideas. Staff is currently assessing the report and I’ll most likely read the report when staff has concluded that. It’s primarily around how we remain competitive with pre-Primary, particularly on the pension front.
Also, we have made the offer to the sector to look at their books. If anybody is having any issues with meeting the wage floor or is interested in finding lines in their own budget that can be applied to remuneration, we’re willing to do that with them, as well, and enlist the support of a third party expert that can help them with that.
We’ll have more to say on that once the staff assessment is done.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Yes, I appreciate that. I would suggest that some of the many people in the private sector who are upset about public sector pensions could also institute pensions. Probably not the not-for-profit child care sector. Of course, it’s not all not-for-profit, but many of these are small not-for-profits, so they don’t have that opportunity.
We’ve heard as much from the sector about benefits, honestly, as we have about pensions, particularly dental and extended health and that kind of thing, which also come as part of that package, I would assume. Just to flag that I don’t think it’s solely about money.
The other thing we hear, which I think you touched on at the end of your comments, is the disparity between the pay in pre-Primary and the pay in regulated child care. Part of that is because they can’t raise the fees and they have the wage floor.
Now, you said there are grants available to help with that, and other places to look, so that’s great, but I wonder whether the benefits piece is something that the department is looking at.
ZACH CHURCHILL: That is actually part of the conversation that the working group has had, as well. It’s also the fact that they are not just competing with pre-Primary and pre-Primary programs. In discussing the retention issue with representatives from the sector, they are competing with other jobs, as well.
I was talking to folks that were outside Province House - I believe that was in the Fall session. They said we just lost people to the airport. If you look at the amount of trained ECEs that we actually have in Nova Scotia, that are certified, who aren’t participating in that sector, who haven’t pursued lifelong careers in that sector, I think that is the legacy of the low wages that they’ve had in that sector, and the lack of job opportunities because it wasn’t available everywhere in the province. Only one in four families had access to these sorts of programs and we were far below the national average when it came to wages.
That landscape is changing drastically. The report, that I know you were at, from an ECE group that seemed to have some partners - ties, anyway - to the NDP and also some ties to CUPE, as well. They made some recommendations on increases to wages and we’re already above those recommendations. I think we’re above $18 and I think the recommendation, if memory serves me correctly, was below that, so we take that very seriously.
Minister Karen Casey took that seriously when she brought in the wage floor. Today we’ve created over 630 jobs in that sector, with competitive wages, with competitive pensions and benefits. We’re working with the sector to look at the issues surrounding their challenges in trying to keep affordable fees in place, in line with provincial directives, and pay their staff. That’s a legitimate issue.
I think the member would agree with me that from our perspective that’s how we want it. I’m sure our parties would be in agreement there. We want affordable child care, we want high wages, but that does create a crunch for businesses and not-for-profits, so we want to work with them to figure out ways that we can address that.
It’s really exciting what’s happening in that sector, too. You create hundreds of new jobs, you are going to create some really rapidly. I mean, it has been three years and we’ve created over 630 jobs. Usually when governments do that, they get a lot of praise for it.
What we’re experiencing is labour market pressure as a result of that. It’s inevitable when you have that level of expansion in a sector to have labour market pressures but I think we are responding in an effective way that’s pretty comprehensive. I mean, a big focus on - of course we’re trying to recruit those back to the sector that left it - investing heavily in training opportunities.
The Minister of Immigration is here. We have an immigration stream dedicated to early childhood educators, as well, which is actually really important because we have growing immigrant communities in Nova Scotia. The Minister of Immigration has been successful at doubling our immigration numbers. It’s really critical to have people from those communities who can deliver this programming, as well.
We’re actually meeting the hiring targets that we set out. I think the approach we have is working and I think it’s pretty exciting. There has never been a better time to be an early childhood educator. Competition in the job market is good for early childhood educators. I know it has been creating pressure for certain operators, for sure, but from the ECE perspective this is a good thing; this will drive wages up further. This has forced the sector to come together and say, what are we going to do on benefits and pensions? We have to do something. We have to compete for these people.
These are good things. These are positive developments. I believe that the member would agree with me in that. When the private sector is saying, oh my God, we have to have pensions, we have to have better benefits for our staff - this is a bad thing? This has been talked about in the media as being a negative thing. Come on, this is the best thing that can happen for early childhood educators, to have this level of competition. We have a vested interest in the success of the operators, as well.
Yes, we have created some challenges for them, for a good reason, and for the betterment of our province and our society. We’re going to continue to work with them to help them transition. We invest more money in the regulated child care sector than we do in our pre-Primary program, and we’re going to invest more dollars with the intention of continuing to grow that sector, to make sure that there’s more access in Nova Scotia to high-quality, affordable child care. I believe that we’re going to be successful.
We’ve got a wait-list for the first time ever - or at least since I’ve been involved in politics - to train to become an early childhood educator. We had to open up more spaces, find more spaces at the NSCC to train more, to have more learning opportunities because so many people want to get into it.
I think they’re smart to get into it. It’s a really meaningful line of work, with increasingly competitive remuneration. These folks get to have an impact on the lives of countless young people and who may very well shape or change their life trajectory in positive ways. I’m really, really excited about what we’re doing on this front.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Well, there’s a lot to unpack there. I take the minister’s advice that I should be really, really excited about it and I am really, really excited about some of it.
In reverse order, first of all, I take issue with the idea that this is somehow putting positive pressure on the private sector to raise wages. A lot of the early childhood education takes place in not-for-profit, regulated child cares. They’re run on a shoestring budget. This is not the private sector. It’s not like they’re hoarding cash that they could then put into pensions and benefits. I mean, many, many of them are running a deficit. So, that may be true in some circumstances; I don’t think it’s true in the majority of circumstances.
I am going to take these point by point and then I’ll ask another question. I think in terms of how you can pressure the sector to raise wages and bring down fees and have affordable child care is to subsidize the entire sector to do that. We look at jurisdictions like Quebec, where they have affordable child care for everyone, under $10 a day.
The economic multipliers of that are phenomenal. I understand that that would be another massive investment from the department and that, as the minister pointed out, the department is spending a lot of money on early childhood education. Again, we know that the economic multipliers of that are incredible. There was a lot of discussion around the introduction of the pre-Primary program, about moms going back to work. With respect, I think that was really inflated.
There are benefits to the pre-Primary program. We supported that program; we continue to support it. I think that especially for some vulnerable kids it’s incredibly valuable, but I don’t think it puts moms back to work, at least in its current form. Maybe in some cases, once there’s more after-school integrated throughout, but our maternity leave in this country is now extended to 18 months, if you can afford to take it that long. That’s when a lot of folks want to go back to work - not everybody; some parents will want to stay home longer than that with their children. That’s wonderful, if they have the opportunity and the inclination to do that, but many don’t or can’t.
If we want to talk about a really positive economic move, I think it would certainly be the position of our caucus that what the government could do in this sector is to have affordable child care for everybody.
As to the partisan ECE report - if partisan means that they invited a Party that is not hostile to labour to speak at a conference that also included CUPE, which represents child care workers - guilty as charged - that was not our sense of it. I think it was ECEs coming together to talk about what they needed. Certainly, there was the sense that, given the labour force challenges, there should potentially be a look at broader unionization within the sector, but I’ll leave that for another day.
We just touched on the 2,200 spaces that I think the minister mentioned in his opening. I don’t expect you to have this here, but we’d love to see a breakdown of the number of licensed child care spaces by age, from 2016 until now, excluding pre-Primary. How has that changed, essentially? If we could get that from the department, that would be great.
ZACH CHURCHILL: We can get that. I believe we can get that data for the member. Just some information on the not-for-profits. The member brings up a really important point around the fact that 45 per cent of the regulated child care sector is actually not-for-profits. The fact is they have actually been leading the pack when it comes to competitive wages and benefits. They have been doing better than the private sector in this regard.
When we’re talking about positive labour market pressure, it is primarily impacting the for-profit businesses that run these operations. They have not been competing with the not-for-profit sector with wages. Wages have been higher in not-for-profits and it is because, obviously, when you don’t have a profit margin, you put that money back into your people and your operations. Not-for-profits have actually been leading the pack in Nova Scotia on the competitive remuneration front.
Single parents back to work - I don’t know how that’s playing out in our province right now. I don’t know that that is happening yet, but what I’ve referenced is the Conference Board of Canada’s study in this regard. It’s entitled Ready for Life: A Socio-Economic Analysis of Early Childhood Education and Care. When I say that I am referencing that study, that has been a Canada-wide study on the impacts of early childhood education on the Canadian economy.
In the highlights of that report, among the really exciting ones - like improving socio-economic outcomes, reduction of poverty and inequality, and improving child outcomes - increasing female labour market participation was one of their findings. Beyond this report, I don’t have any data yet that I’ve seen in Nova Scotia. I’m not sure if the Department of Labour and Advanced Education will be tracking that or not, to be honest. I’m sure there is some way we can access that.
I’m hopeful that we can remain consistent with what the national data is saying, obviously. Perhaps that is yet to be determined, but the data is pretty clear that this is one of the outcomes that happens when you have free, universal programs.
If we’re going to get into that report, one of the authors announced her candidacy for the federal NDP, I think the day after that report was released. Yes, fine, for sure. I’m not suggesting that that’s a problem. I’m not saying she’s not an ECE, but when I look at the information in that report, it was based on data from two years previous. I had a hard time not assuming there was partisan motivation in the authoring of that report, but I could be wrong. I stand to be corrected if that’s not the case.
On the member’s point about desiring universal access to regulated child care, I share the member’s goal there and I think that’s something we can agree on. We want to grow the sector. That’s why the main criteria for the expansion grants have been getting into areas where there is a regulated child care desert, where people don’t have access to these programs. So, you’ll see the majority of expansion that’s happening is in areas where there previously wasn’t programming. That is to build a more accessible regulated child care sector for people in the province.
I know the member and I both share the same objective there, and I’m really hopeful that with the next influx of federal funding we’ll be able to expand that sector even further. Of course, having available ECEs is critical to achieving that, and I remain optimistic that we’ll keep training enough, recruiting enough and immigrating enough to keep up with demand. Again, it’s a really good time to work in that sector.
Anecdotally, some people I know from home, either my age or younger, who have had jobs in either the retail sector or service sector or who have not really pursued careers anywhere, a lot of people I know are actually into the idea of becoming early childhood educators now.
Of course, when you have such a high level of interest and such a high level of demand, another challenge is making sure that you get quality people, as well. That’s something we’ve got to monitor, too. Where we do have so many jobs opening up and so many people looking into the program, we don’t want to lose sight of that. We want good people, who care about kids and who aren’t just in it for a paycheque, to be taking up these jobs. That does remain a challenge, as well.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I appreciate your comments. I’d be interested in seeing that report. Certainly, I think we can agree that early childhood education can increase women’s participation in the labour force but it’s unclear whether a 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. program for four-year-olds has that same impact. I’ll be interested to see, as the data rolls out.
Just so we can let this partisan thing go, I want to make one more comment on that, which is that the author of that report had a Ph.D. At least several times here, this government has cited experts who also have run for them as candidates. We don’t impugn the reputation of those authors or those reports, based on that. So, let the record show.
I want to move on to a couple of questions about pre-Primary in my remaining time. Through the implementation of pre-Primary we’ve heard, particularly recently - and I know you acknowledged this on the floor of the House - that you saved the toughest spaces for implementation for last, so we are hearing about appropriateness of space for classrooms, needing to reorganize schools, reorganizing grade levels.
I’m wondering, where does the decision for space within schools - the allocation of space - where does that decision-making piece sit?
ZACH CHURCHILL: That rests with me as minister, but we rely heavily on the Regional Centres for Education to develop a road map for that. They are the operational folks that know the schools, know the space issues and develop the plans to address space pressures.
This is not new, and this doesn’t just happen because of pre-Primary. Grade reconfiguration, the building of portables, major renovations at schools - this has always happened in our system as a result of fluid populations, school closures in the past. This has always been part of the system. Even in my lifetime, before our government was in power, schools in my community changed grades a number of times, including turning the high school from a Grade 10 to a Grade 12 into a Grade 9 to Grade 12, and closing a junior high and turning the other junior high into a Grade 7 and Grade 8 school. This stuff has always happened.
There are reasons that it happens, and those reasons vary. In this particular case there are a number of changes being made to support the implementation of pre-Primary, to make sure that every single school community has access to it.
While I think the final decision rests with the minister, we took the recommendation from the Regional Centres for Education, I believe almost entirely. I think it’s a reasonable plan. It costs about $5 million; I think that money is well worth it.
Yes, there’s going to be some grade reconfiguration. There’s going to be some Grade 6s going into junior high schools. I know that some parents might not like that, but the fact is that those kids are going to have access to greater programming opportunities, they’re going to have access to more recreational opportunities and extra-curricular opportunities. I think that while there might be some initial discomfort with that, once parents and kids actually experience what that change looks like, if history tells us anything, they tend to not have an issue with it, after the initial shock of it has passed. I hope that’s the case here.
In some school communities we need to build portables. I know that some people don’t like that. I get it, but it’s a necessary tool that we have to use sometimes to deal with populations growing in school communities. You look at the growing communities in Halifax. I know a number of MLAs on our side of the House hear complaints about portables. The fact is it’s the only option in some school communities, until we get to a larger capital solution, but I think the pay-off at the end of the day is going to be a good one. We’re going to have every school community having access to this program.
Our biggest challenge with the pre-Primary rollout has been keeping up with demand. Honestly, the most pressure we get in the department and the most correspondence we get is: we want this in our community, we want this four-year-old program, why don’t we have it yet?
We have worked very hard to keep up with that demand and to follow through on our commitment to have this thing universally accessible in four years, and you know what? At the beginning of this process everybody doubted that we could do it. I remember speaking to one member of the press who said, I smell a - I forget the term he used but he thought it was going to be a bust, and it hasn’t been. It has been an incredible success and people are happy with it. It’s already having some of the intended impact on a number of kids. We’re hearing, and the data is showing, that self-regulation is a bit better with some kids in Primary who went through the pre-Primary program because they’re more comfortable, less socially anxious.
Obviously, this isn’t everybody but generally speaking we’re seeing improvements in these areas, by being at that school a year before. Achievement levels are increasing in many schools, as well, with pre-Primary cohorts. So, we’re pumped about it, really pumped about it.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: It’s great to see the minister pumped. Sure, portables get used, we know that. In my community we’re hearing discussion on portables at Dartmouth South Academy for a school that’s less than two years old. That’s worrisome, right? I mean, this is a brand new school that students have just moved into, so that’s concerning.
The minister mentioned that he has the authority for making decisions about reallocation of space, but it sounds like he mostly defers to the RCEs on their recommendations. I’m wondering how teachers and families are included in the decision-making process because that’s what we hear a lot - teachers and families saying, we have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow when school opens or where anything is going to be and no one has ever talked to us about this.
ZACH CHURCHILL: On your first point about even new schools having to build portables. Yes, that’s an understandable frustration. That is a direct result of unexpected population growth that we’re experiencing, primarily here in Halifax, but it’s also happening in other, rural communities, as well, right now. The population has gone up in the Town of Yarmouth, for example. In Yarmouth we had been experiencing population decline since I can remember, and that has really changed over the last couple of years. We’re actually seeing population growth there.
When you’re using - I forget the program that’s used to try to determine what school populations are going to be - the Baragar system - I don’t think that it anticipated the rapid growth that we’ve seen in Nova Scotia. It probably didn’t anticipate that we were going to have a good Liberal government that was going to be focused on economic development and population growth and immigration.
THE CHAIR: Order. I didn’t want to cut him off, I waited a few seconds.
Time has elapsed for the NDP. We move on to the PC Party and Mr. Tim Halman, for an hour.
TIM HALMAN: Thank you, Madam Chair. Do the minister and staff require five minutes?
THE CHAIR: Would you like a break? Five minutes, perfect, yes.
[8:28 p.m. The subcommittee recessed.]
[8:33 p.m. The subcommittee reconvened.]
THE CHAIR: Order. We are resuming the meeting and we are starting our one hour for the PC Party.
The honourable member for Dartmouth East.
TIM HALMAN: Thank you, Madam Chair. Hello again, minister and staff. Away we go again with the theme of inclusion and student learning.
With the investments that we’re seeing with the inclusion model - which I am in favour of, absolutely, I’m in favour of. Certainly, in the span of my teaching career I think thousands of teachers were waiting for those investments.
That being said, though, what does “better” look like? You alluded to better, which we are all agreed on. What are the outcomes? What does better look like in Nova Scotia, for our inclusion model?
ZACH CHURCHILL: That’s a really important question. I want to thank the member for his support of our increased investment in inclusion. I hope we have his support come Budget Day, when we vote on the Budget. Put your vote where your mouth is, member. I think we’d love to see that. We’d love to see your explicit support for these investments.
In terms of what better looks like, from my perspective, I think there’s a number of metrics we can look at. One is that we want our achievement levels to go up. We want our kids to get higher grades. We want to be above the national average.
I think we should be shooting for the stars here and I think we should be leading the country when it comes to student achievement. That’s what I want to see, as minister.
I know that might be many years away, but I think it’s possible for this province. We’ve developed a culture in different parts of our system that has accepted being average or below average for far too long.
I know that maybe the member can think of some folks in the system who have felt that way, from his time in the system, but we need to change that culture. We need to shoot for the stars here for our kids. This is about them, their long-term success and their future.
We want to bridge a gap, the achievement gap that we’ve seen, particularly with African Nova Scotian learners and Mi'kmaw learners. We want to erase that gap. We want every single student in our school system to have the same statistical chances of succeeding academically and we want their grades to reflect that.
That goes from region to region, as well. One of the reasons that we took Glaze’s recommendations so seriously is because it was identified that statistically, depending on what region you went to, under the board model, you had a statistical variance in whether you’d achieve high grades or not. None of that is acceptable, none of that should be acceptable for our system. I think a key metric that’s important to me is that our current way of evaluating student success is grades. Maybe a better way of doing that will be developed in the future, but right now that’s what we have.
So, I want to see those grades go up. I want to see the achievement gap decrease and I want to see us, in the short term, being above the national average when it comes to achievement. In the long term, I want to see Nova Scotia leading the country.
When it comes to well-being, we do student surveys every year. I think this is another key metric for success. We ask students a number of questions about how they’re feeling - if they feel included, if they feel safe, if they feel supported. We want all of their answers to indicate that every single student, no matter their ethnicity, which community they come from, their sexual orientation, whatever - we want every one of those kids to be saying, we feel like we are part of the school community, we feel safe, we feel protected, we feel like we have a chance of succeeding. The well-being data that we collect is a metric for that.
We want to see graduates. We want to increase the percentage of graduates that go on to post-secondary education and/or become entrepreneurs and/or get attached to the labour market or start businesses. We want to see those numbers improve, as well, because I think it’s not just about how well kids are doing in the system and how high their grades are - that’s important while they are there - but, of course, the end goal is to set them up for success after school. Those who want to go to post-secondary education and whose life trajectory brings them there and that’s part of their career plan, we want to see those numbers go up. We want to see a high level of participation in post-secondary.
You know what? That might not be for everybody. We want to see the success of our kids on the innovation front, as well. We want to see kids be entrepreneurs and grow this economy, so labour market attachment and post-secondary participation will be other metrics that we use.
Those are the ones that are top of mind for me right now and I think those are key ones that we have used as a system to be indicative of success over the years. I’m going to judge success on how we do, moving forward, compared to how we’ve done in the past in those key areas.
TIM HALMAN: To that point, minister, what we’ve done in the past, that’s what I’m trying to get to. What changes have we implemented to ensure a clearer picture as to what success looks like, as to what better looks like?
Certainly, what you’ve outlined, these are important outcomes to be achieved. Who within the department will ensure the proper assessment and evaluation of the things you’ve outlined? If an outcome is innovation and more of an entrepreneurial spirit, a larger percentage of graduates, say, for schools’ achievement, dealing with the achievement gap, raising academic standards - these are important outcomes, absolutely. Who within the department will assess and evaluate those end goals?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Student Services is a branch that plays a leadership role in that, particularly around achievement and the achievement gap.
Some of these things are more aspirational, too, and the figures will play out in the economy and in labour market attachment. We’ve got our regional executive directors. I know ours in the Tri-County, he’s got a data wall for his executive leads. They look at it, they assess it, and everyone is focused on what they need to do.
The deputy has informed me that there is also the Centre for Equity in Achievement and Well-Being within the department, as well, which plays a key role in keeping track of the achievement, obviously. The Regional Centres for Education are engaged. This is about bringing everybody, as Dr. Glaze said, to a laser-like focus on this.
It’s not just one person’s job, just as it’s not one person’s job to make sure that we’re succeeding on the inclusive education front. This is a system focus, which means that everybody in the system needs to be brought there. So, we’ve done a lot of work to bring our staff there and our teachers there, as well.
On the achievement gap front with African Nova Scotian learners and Indigenous learners, those two primary examples, there are some really troubling statistics in our system. We just recently had a report out of East Hants on suspension rates of our Indigenous students. Obviously, I don’t know the specifics of all those suspensions or what has happened, but I can say that the data is troubling and there seems to be an issue there, at first glance.
We know that culturally responsive pedagogy is really important. We know that every individual has their own bias and that we have a responsibility as a department, and that responsibility as a leader is to make sure that all of our educators in the system can discover what their own biases are and discover if they are contributing to these issues and adjust their behaviour and approach to teaching appropriately.
We’ve had a really successful year with Dr. Sharroky Hollie, who met with 9,000 employees, I think, almost every single teacher, plus support staff and the administrators and system leaders, to go over what culturally responsive pedagogy is and how to implement it and how to identify bias.
I think this is part of the problem in the system. We’ve got a disproportionate amount of African Nova Scotian learners on IPPs. That’s another problem that we’ve got to deal with. Why is that happening? These are things that we have to get to the bottom of.
When we start seeing changes in the data then we’ll know we’re achieving our goals and our ends. I don’t quite remember what the member’s question was but I hope that at least touched on some of it.
TIM HALMAN: The proper assessment and evaluation of the stated outcomes - you alluded to a laser-like focus. If we want to see improvements in our system then a laser-like focus is critical, especially if we are monitoring and assessing and evaluating the outcomes. The Centre for Equity in Achievement and Well-Being - if they’re having a laser-like focus on monitoring and assessing what you’ve outlined, we should have an idea of how we’re doing at this point.
Do you have some data on what you’ve outlined, in terms of these aspirational goals and concrete goals?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Yes, and that data is released every year. The achievement data, the well-being data, that is posted on our websites every single year, the foundational data that we’re using.
I do want to be clear. It’s not just the Centre for Equity in Achievement and Well-Being, it’s not just Student Services, it’s not just the regional executive directors. This is about getting everybody on the same page, so that when our new standards of teaching excellence in the new performance metrics that we’re in the process of developing, in co-operation with the union, the growth and development part of those performances, these things will be built into the performance of our staff, so that everybody knows what the objectives are of the system.
There will be supports in place from a professional development standpoint. The member will note that we’ve put significant dollars into professional development already to date. There will be paths created for people who aren’t achieving the standard in the system, to help them get there. And for that small number of folks who aren’t going to achieve that and maybe they just won’t get there, there’s going to be a path for them to find an alternative career outside of the system, as well, which I think is important.
It’s really about trying to direct the system and bring it to bear on these issues. Again, we’re approaching it through a number of ways. One is putting more money in the system, hiring inclusive education supports, new people with specialized expertise - positions I haven’t talked about yet, except in my opening statement - autism specialists and behavioural specialists.
Getting those folks in place takes some pressure off our teachers, gets some support to our teachers so they can deal with the complexities that they face every day, challenging complexities, which you are well aware of, coming from the front lines of our system. We’re doing it through evaluation of the data, utilizing a third party to conduct those evaluations. We’re doing it through partnerships with stakeholders like Autism Nova Scotia, like Inclusive Education Canada, like the optometrists, and health partners, as well. We’re building a broader stakeholder network and trying to all work together on this.
We’re doing it through developing standards of teaching excellence. We’ve never had standards of teaching excellence in this province, ever. It’s one of the things that can impact student outcomes more than anything else. We’ve never had those in place.
It’s about building performance metrics around the standards so that, objectively, we can help our staff focus on what they need to do, from an inclusive education standpoint.
The data is available, it’s collected every year, it’s posted every year. We have obviously not seen the shifts yet that we want to see with achievement. We’ve had some moderate gains, for sure, but nothing to indicate that we’re at where we want to get, with the exception of the data that is coming in from pre-Primary cohorts. That data is in line with where we want to be.
TIM HALMAN: Student Services, the Centre for Equity in Achievement and Well-Being - with respect to monitoring and assessing, evaluating outcomes and goals, how do they report their findings to the minister and deputy minister?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There is a chain of command for reporting: executive directors report to the associate deputy and deputies; regional executive directors report to the deputy; the deputy and associate deputy report to the minister and, of course, I report to Cabinet and the Premier.
We are doing this because of the leadership of the Premier and his focus on education. He has a very keen interest in how we’re doing here. The Premier has been very engaged in keeping up to speed on how we’re doing and, of course, he has been very supportive. If it wasn’t for his support, we wouldn’t have gotten the $373 million that we’ve been granted to invest in our kids and our future.
I don’t know if the member is asking what those reports look like, but they tend to be in government briefing form, with decks and meetings and the usual protocol for that.
TIM HALMAN: Again, with respect to inclusion, we know classes with diverse needs require the support of several staff, and co-teaching or team teaching can certainly assist in offering differentiated instruction that is necessary, I think, for inclusion to be successful.
Anecdotally, I experienced that, I witnessed that, when you would see professionals working together to maximize student learning in the classroom. That’s a positive when we see those professional learning communities, that team teaching happening.
What data does the department keep on team teaching or co-teaching in the province - within the context, of course, of differentiated learning and inclusion?
ZACH CHURCHILL: I believe that is happening. I mean, right now we’re entrusting our regions to allocate staffing resources in the ways that they believe will have the greatest impact, in line with the objectives of the department.
I don’t have an answer for you on that or how many folks are doing that. I’m aware that it is happening in some circumstances. We can tap into our regions to see if they’ve got any information on that for us.
TIM HALMAN: Certainly, that would be important data, I believe. I think if you ask any front-line teacher, they will tell you that a fundamental pillar of inclusion is that professional learning community, that team teaching. Certainly, any data or information we can get on that and its effectiveness, and measuring its effectiveness, can only be helpful in supporting our diverse learners.
Travelling throughout the province, talking with various school communities, teachers and parents, often one of the things I’m hearing - and I’m sure that my colleague from Dartmouth South is hearing this, as well - is the devastating impact poverty is having on young Nova Scotians. In my conversations with teachers and program assistants that is often the issue. Certainly, in my time in the classroom I was confronted with that.
I’m curious, what’s in the education budget to address what teachers are saying? What they’ve been saying for many years is that poverty is the biggest obstacle to student learning. What funds have been allocated in the education budget to address that?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Of course, poverty is a bigger issue than just the education system. It’s a bigger societal issue and I think this budget actually targets child poverty in particular. We have the Minister of Community Services at the table and I know she’ll be very motivated to have this conversation on what’s happening in the Department of Community Services around the poverty reduction strategy and the investments that her department is making. Of course, housing is key to that and the House has had conversations around housing.
I would say that on this front the education system is key, as well, because we know that we can teach through socio-economic barriers to learning. We know that teaching excellence is key to doing that. We know that if we have a system that’s working, we have the ability to change the life trajectory of students.
I think that, generally speaking, the investments we make in education help us do that in getting these kids the learning opportunities that they need.
I think one of the primary and new investments we are making on this front, that I believe the research shows can have a positive impact, is on early learning. Again, the research that has come out of Europe, that has come out of the United States, that has come out of Canada - and most recently with the Conference Board of Canada study, Ready for Life: A Socio-Economic Analysis of Early Childhood Education and Care - the findings are really consequential.
The report explored the impact of early childhood education on the Canadian economy and highlights its potential to improve socio-economic outcomes - just early learning. Having this 4-year-old program can help us do this, including the reduction of poverty and income inequality. This is directly in line with what we want to accomplish, as a province and as a society.
I would suggest that pre-Primary in the education system is one of the fundamentals, in terms of new investments that we are making. Again, I think we’re doing a lot on this front to help improve the educational outcomes and life trajectory of kids, but pre-Primary is foundational to that. Early learning is foundational to that. The more data we get on developing brains and younger brains, the more we know how important this is.
This program allows us to reach kids and set them up for success, probably more than anything else that we’ve done in the education system. That said, I think the inclusive education policy and investments will also have a positive impact. We’re bringing to bear supports in the system that have never been there. Child and youth care practitioners have never been in our education system.
For learners who have challenges, whether they’re socio-economic, learning, health, or otherwise, these programs will help those folks. The kid who is stressed out at home, who lives in a difficult family environment that might not be supportive of learning and even prioritizing the concept of learning - we’ve got people in the system to help that student, and to help the families. SchoolsPlus is built not just to support students but to support families, as well.
In terms of attaching people to the labour market, I think we’ve got a great opportunity with TAP, the Technology Advantage Program. When IBM came to us with the concept for this they wanted to go into areas where there were high levels of labour market detachment. Yarmouth was one of them because we have high poverty rates in my home community, and we have labour market attachment issues.
J.L. Ilsley is the other school community, and Cole Harbour, where we know we have similar issues with labour market attachment.
This program is really exciting and the students are having a lot of fun and so are the teachers who are involved in this program. This program brings a student from Grade 9, gives them an enhanced curriculum and skill set on technology in areas where we know there is a labour market demand for these skills, because there is a labour market shortage in the tech sector right now, which I’ve come to learn. It brings these kids through - and again, these are in high-need areas, where there’s high levels of poverty and labour market attachment issues. That’s why we targeted these areas with TAP, because it brings these students from Grade 9 through to Grade 12 with this program, teaching them applicable, practical, life and career skills in tech. We pay for their first two years of post-secondary at the NSCC and we attach them to an employer when they come out.
I think this is a really exciting program that can help us tackle the issue that the member has brought up around poverty because I think we can improve labour market attachment in these areas where people have had a hard time finding work or even getting engaged in the labour market. We’re going to try and turn that around.
I think alternative learning environments are also really important for some of our kids, again not just those experiencing socio-economic challenges. The testimonials we’re receiving from students who are in our alternative high school programs are really motivating, actually. Again, we had only two alternative learning programs and now we’ve got eight; I think we’re in every single region now. This is taking kids who have had a hard time learning in the classroom environment, either because of social anxiety or for a variety of reasons, whatever they may be, and putting them in a smaller, alternative environment that in most cases are not even on school property. I think we’re having a high rate of success with that program, as well.
I’d say that overall, when it comes to a poverty reduction strategy, the education system is key to achieving that. We know we can teach through learning challenges that derive from socio-economic issues. We can get through that. We can change the life trajectory of kids; we can do that particularly if we have our early learning system that is universally accessible, which we will have next September.
I think the Provincial Breakfast Program is really important and the member for Dartmouth South’s point on enhancing access to nutritious food, I think is really key to this as well. I hope we’re able to have some success there because I do think nutrition has a big part to play in this as well.
Inclusive education, and the variety of supports that we are putting in place for kids, will help address a variety of issues that students have when it comes to learning, succeeding and well-being, and the Technology Advantage Program pilot, I think, are four things that come to the top of mind that are directly in line with the member’s objective and question.
TIM HALMAN: I thank the minister for that response. Specifically, with this Education and Early Childhood Development Estimates, are there new investments in this budget to specifically tackle the issue of child poverty within education? Is there money allocated for new programming that you can point to that clearly demonstrates that we are taking this seriously?
ZACH CHURCHILL: As I mentioned, there is an increase in the budget of $50 million; that’s a 3.5 per cent increase, specifically in areas that are in line with improving educational outcomes, particularly for those facing socio-economic challenges. Pre-Primary is key amongst those. I think pre-Primary is an investment based on a plethora of research that has come out that gives us the best chance of tackling this.
We also have another $15 million in inclusive education spending and that means more people, more specialized supports that will be targeted where they are most needed. So, where the achievement levels are lowest, where the needs are highest, we now have the ability under the new government structure to make sure that those dollars get where they are most needed.
On top of what’s happening in Education and Early Childhood Education, we have a Community Services budget that has, I think, one of the most progressive poverty reduction investments that we’ve seen in our country. I know the Minister of Community Services will be answering questions on that when her time comes for Estimates.
This budget, broadly speaking, I think looks at tackling some of the issues around poverty. Education is key to that, pre-Primary and inclusive education spending is key to that, but so, too, are the child poverty reduction strategies of Community Services and investments into affordable housing.
TIM HALMAN: Often, I still hear from teachers throughout the province that there is simply not enough time in the school day to make a dent in a lot of the clerical responsibilities that they have, in terms of tracking and monitoring student outcomes.
Certainly, in the 13 years I spent in the classroom there was a proliferation and an increase in demands with respect to paperwork and reporting that often takes time away from that direct instruction, which you know is fundamental with students.
What improvements have been made to reduce, I guess, the clerical burden on teachers in Nova Scotia?
ZACH CHURCHILL: There have been some improvements in terms of what data needs to be input into TIENET and PowerSchool and there has been some streamlining happening there. We’ve worked with the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions who have given us some advice in that regard. We had an Ask the User process; I think we brought in a third party to conduct that with teachers. They went out and did surveys with teachers, asking how can we improve this process for you.
We are doing our best to reduce that burden as much as we can. I think it’s also important to emphasize that this is a pretty critical part of the job for teachers, like the data inputting matters and we need them to do it. So, I don’t think we can lose track of that. I know a lot of people don’t like doing it, but our teachers shouldn’t lose focus about how important it is. The data matters, it impacts policy decision making, it impacts program funding and program decision making. It’s how we’re going to track whether we’re being successful or not.
While we do our best to reduce redundancies in reporting, and that has happened, I will inform the member that the siloed approach that was happening through the boards had been identified as leading to redundancies in reporting to the previous boards and the department, so we’ve been able to reduce redundancies in reporting, as a result of the new structure.
While we do our very best to do that, I do think it’s really important that people realize the fundamental and critical importance of that work. I hear from teachers who don’t like it, who are frustrated by it and suggest that it takes time away from teaching, but the fact is that it really does matter. We need to have them do it. They are in the best position to do that. In some schools, regions have been able to hire registrars and administrative supports who can assist with some of this work, but again, that’s an FTE. If the teachers aren’t doing it, that’s an FTE that is being funded for that work and that’s not in a classroom. That’s just a recognition of how important it is.
Yes, we are trying to reduce redundancies and reporting burdens, to the best of our ability, but they are not going to be eliminated and people need to understand that. That’s really important work and it needs to happen.
TIM HALMAN: Minister, I wasn’t suggesting that that needs to be done away with; I know how important these comprehensive systems of assessment and evaluation are. I certainly am fully aware of the relationship between quality teaching and assessment and evaluation. No successful teacher is able to achieve great things with their students without an understanding of that and all the literature we know supports that; the correlation between assessment, evaluation and setting students up for success.
You indicated that data matters. No one is disputing that. These are very comprehensive systems of tracking student outcomes, TIENET and PowerSchool. But I have concerns that the same standards applied to our teachers for assessment and evaluation aren’t being applied when it comes to these new investments in inclusion.
TIENET and PowerSchool, these are robust tracking systems that teachers for close to a decade have been working with, and certainly I have heard that the department has made some changes. which I think is good, which is creating more flexibility.
My question is: If the data matters, why don’t we have, at a higher level within the department, the tracking of inclusion outcomes like we do in the classroom when it comes with TIENET and PowerSchool?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Because the data is coming from the classroom. I mean, we are assessing the success of inclusion investments primarily from the data that is being collected in the classroom. I’m not sure what other data you are referencing.
There is an evaluation that’s happening at a higher level, it’s happening with a third party. They are taking a comprehensive look at the overall objective strategies, investments and helping us determine whether we’re being successful or not. Key to that evaluation is the data that is being collected at the classroom level. That’s the data that we’re using. I am not sure what other data the member is referring to.
TIM HALMAN: With respect to the outcomes for the inclusion model, the new investments, I get the sense that there’s not clarity as to what the end goals are, of what you want to achieve, or a robust system of tracking. TIENET and PowerSchool within the classroom, that is a robust system of tracking student outcomes and achievement.
I know when the deputy was at the Human Resources Committee a few weeks back she provided anecdotal evidence to the success of the inclusion investments but wasn’t able to provide some quantified data, some hard numbers.
I’m just concerned that there might be somewhat of a double standard there. We hold our teachers to a robust system of tracking student learning, through TIENET and PowerSchool, but I have some concerns that that standard may not be applied when it comes to these new investments that we’re seeing. Perhaps you could sort of clarify that.
ZACH CHURCHILL: I feel like we are speaking in circles here. I am having a hard time identifying where the gap is in the conversation for us. The data that we are using to evaluate the success of inclusive education funding is the data that is being collected at the classroom level, is the achievement data. It’s the data that is being collected and the student well-being surveys, provincial assessments. This is the data that I am aware of that is being utilized to evaluate our success with the inclusive education model. Also, we’ll be using that data to assess our success with the other changes that we’ve made as well, particularly pre-Primary, getting more needs-based funding direct into the system.
What is happening with that data on inclusive education is, first and foremost, when it comes to rolling out the programming options that we’re rolling out - the positions that we’re hiring, identifying where the needs are and what positions we’re going to hire in any given year - that happens by assessing the data, assessing the needs, working through our Regional Centres for Education to do that and working with Inclusive Education Canada to look at what the data is telling us and where the needs are. So, last year in the Tri-County Regional Centre for Education we know that achievement is still low and that needs are high, so Tri-County received, you know, probably a disproportionate amount of the needs-based funding.
That data you are referencing, that robust collection of data that teachers are doing, and other staff are doing in the system, that is informing decisions that are being made with the inclusive education rollout. That informs, in large part, where funding is being directed, it informs what sort of staff people, what positions we’re going to create and hire and, long-term, that’s the data that we’re going to be assessing on achievement and well-being, to see if we’re achieving what we want to achieve.
On top of that, we have hired a third party, through the University of Ottawa - I mentioned this before, Hargreaves and Whitley - to conduct a holistic evaluation of what we’re doing. They are going to be looking at the data. I am not exactly sure what else they are going to be looking at but once we see the report, we’ll have a better sense of that. They are going to help us determine, along with all the other stuff, how we’re doing and if we’re achieving what our intended goals are, and those are: reducing the gap, increasing achievement levels, and improving our well-being data.
From my perspective it seems that we’re really approaching this pretty comprehensively and that we’re looking at the right data sets to determine whether we’re getting where we want to get or not.
The deputy is also reminding me that there are student success planning teams that look at how students are doing and constantly monitoring the school-by-school data and the region-by-region data, and they meet provincially, and they are helping inform how we move forward as well.
TIM HALMAN: Another thing that I’m hearing throughout the province, and this was still common when I was in the classroom, were concerns around prep time. Certainly, for every successful lesson you have with your students, hours and hours of prep time go into those lessons.
What improvements has the department made in terms of, I guess investments or initiatives, to improve teacher prep time in Nova Scotia?
ZACH CHURCHILL: As the member would know, prep times are determined in the collective agreement so that would be subject matter for the collective bargaining process, not subject matter for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development policy. As the member also knows, we now have a department and a minister whose focus is labour relations and is responsible for the collective bargaining process, not just with education bargaining units, but indeed, bargaining units from across the public sector. I have confidence and trust in that minister to manage that process to a productive conclusion.
TIM HALMAN: Within this Education and Early Childhood Development budget I’m curious as to whether or not there’s any investments to look at student trauma. You may recall that a while back I put forward a bill that would mandate professional development for trauma training. That was based very much out of my experience and my colleagues’ experience; some of the students I had the privilege of working with, many of their challenges could be traced back to some form of trauma.
What investments are we doing within professional development to deal with issues like that?
ZACH CHURCHILL: I thank the member for the question, that is a really important question. There are a number of supports in the system to help deal with trauma. We do have our SchoolsPlus program and their job is to provide that wraparound care; they do have a mandate to support students who have experienced trauma.
We also have restorative approaches in our system, which can be very useful on this front as well. When it comes to professional development, we have social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practices. Those are professional development opportunities that are available for teachers. We do have $7 million available annually for professional development for our workforce.
The member will know that it’s self-directed, so Article 60 in the collective agreement dictates that professional development is self-directed. We are unable to direct staff to take these professional development opportunities but the funding and availability of them are there. We have the supports in place in our schools to help obviously to support our students that deal with trauma.
TIM HALMAN: Has the department looked into the number of IPPs within a classroom? Minister, do you think we should be taking into consideration the number of IPPs in a class, when we’re looking at class compositions? Are there ongoing discussions within the department on that topic?
ZACH CHURCHILL: In terms of utilization of IPPs, that is one of the factors we look at when it comes to needs-based funding and allocation and deployment of resources in the system. IPP data is one of the factors that we consider.
There is a process in the collective agreement, I’m not sure which clause it is articulated in, that allows teachers to deal with class climate. If they do have concerns about their class climate, they do have an opportunity, outlined in the collective agreement, to advance a conversation around that.
Yes, IPPs, that is an important data set that informs investment and programming decisions.
TIM HALMAN: Again, we’re talking about student learning, we’re talking about classroom conditions. From what I’m hearing from teachers throughout the province, certainly I’ve heard from teachers, that student accountability is at an all-time low. I suppose we could call that student responsibility.
I’m wondering if we’re avoiding some hard conversations within the department in terms of helping support our students and helping them maximize their sense of responsibility. Certainly, my experience in the system, we allow multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate the outcomes. Certainly, to some extent I think that’s important but on the other end, what has happened is it has allowed students to submit work way past deadline, in the name of supporting the students.
My question is: Are there hard conversations taking place within the department to talk about student accountability or student responsibility? Is there a discussion going on with regard to that?
ZACH CHURCHILL: Of course, and there have been some policy changes in this regard as well and we’ve leaned on the advice from teachers to help us with that. I’d say one of the key policy changes around student accountability is the attendance policy. That was a policy recommendation that came from the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions.
I can speak only of the feedback I received locally, before I became minister, but particularly teachers at the high school level, when I wasn’t the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development at the time, informed me that if they could do one thing on student accountability that it would be an attendance policy. We have brought in an attendance policy based on the recommendation from the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions.
That has also come with investments. The Council to Improve Classroom Conditions has embedded $20 million a year in the budget of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, so that’s a recurring investment. That’s how they decided to allocate their money. Part of that funding goes to attendance support workers. The purpose of the policy is to create a higher level of accountability with the student. Being in class does matter, it statistically impacts achievement levels. We know kids are going to do better in school when they are there.
There are now consequences to missing more than 20 per cent of the year, which there was not before. This includes missing it for any reason. We did talk about whether there was going to be stiff criteria around acceptable and non-acceptable absences and it was decided that we would just stick with absences because absences are absences and if you miss more than 20 per cent, then there can be academic consequences. I think that has been a key policy move in this direction.
We have attendance support workers whose job it is to help identify the obstacles that the student is facing to get to school. Their job is not to be, what were the old positions, truant officers. These aren’t truant officers like the old school model where you had people going around town and dragging people back, by the ear, to school.
The job of these folks, and these are teachers, is to help identify the obstacles that the student has to getting to school. Some kids have to stay home to take care of their siblings in the morning, or afternoon. Some students face high anxiety levels when they go to school. There is a variety of reasons that contribute to a student’s attendance. We’ve heard from African Nova Scotian and Indigenous students that they don’t feel comfortable at their schools. These are all issues that are not to be treated lightly and students shouldn’t be punished for them. We want to help the kids get through those obstacles and get them back to school. I think this is one key policy change that came from the suggestion of teachers, that we’ve moved on early on in our second mandate.
TIM HALMAN: We’ve covered inclusion, we’ve talked a bit about classroom conditions. Let’s move into some general numbers within the Estimates. The Office of the Associate Deputy Minister was forecasted last year at $603,000 and it is budgeted this year at $671,000. That’s an increase of $70,000. Can you explain the increase?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The budget has been increased by $16,000. That’s reflective of the FTEs tied to the deputy’s office. There was a vacancy in that office last year, which reduced the budget line. That vacancy has been filled this year.
TIM HALMAN: The budget for busing increased over $720,000 and we know with the new contracts for busing handed out to three different companies, obviously we’re all hoping for a more reliable and safe busing service. We’ve certainly seen improvements this year.
Was the government able to negotiate with those three suppliers? I guess were they able to negotiate a better price, compared to having to negotiate with one. If you could outline sort of the Estimates for busing.
ZACH CHURCHILL: The Regional Centre for Education does the negotiation for the busing contracts. My expectation is having a more competitive process that doesn’t allow for a monopoly situation, I think in the near future and the long term, that should drive down costs.
The budget line I think the member is referencing is tied to amortization and depreciation, according to Mr. Potter here. I hope the member doesn’t ask me to expand on that.
TIM HALMAN: With respect to busing, which we’ve talked extensively about, certainly the decision to go with three other companies, could you outline, sort of, the rationale behind that? Take us through that process the department went through.
ZACH CHURCHILL: I appreciate the member recognizing that there has been an improvement in busing this year.
There are a number of challenges we are trying to address. One is the Regional Centre for Education, which obviously inherited this from the previous board structure, had a monopoly contract with Stock Transportation Ltd. and there was no internal capacity, human resource capacity, to actually manage that contract. That means there was no expertise on busing within the Regional Centre for Education, no operational expertise. The capacity to oversee and manage that contract was not there; basically, all of that expertise had been handed over to Stock. So Stock was essentially in the position where they were managing their own contract.
Also, having the contract for the entire region made it so that one or two companies could compete for that contract. A lot of other, smaller companies were not in a position where they could even compete for routes within that contract. When you have a monopoly position like that you don’t have a competitive process, that can create issues from a competitive perspective.
I think that moving to a bidding process where businesses can bid on smaller groupings of routes makes it more competitive. It allows other smaller companies to compete and Regional Centres for Education to compete as well for these contracts. I think that has yielded a better outcome for the Halifax region when it comes to busing and is in line with, kind of, best practices nationally, when it comes to busing contracts. So now we’re in line with best practices and standards in terms of how the contract is bid on.
We’ve brought operational capacity back into the region so there is now the capacity to have professional oversight of that contract. There is the capacity to understand busing and there has actually been capacity put back into the region to oversee routes and communication to parents.
One of the key frustrations that was articulated from parents last year was that they didn’t know what was going on. Communication was not great between Stock and parents. In some cases, parents didn’t know where their kids were. Obviously, that’s not acceptable.
We took that back in-house and so far, the feedback has been positive for the most part. I’m sure we’re not going to have a year where there is not some level of busing frustration or where there are not mistakes made in getting kids to and from school. I think we are in a much better position this year. We’ve got the capacity in-house to actually manage a contract, we’ve got a more competitive process to get those contracts and we’re doing all the communication and routing in-house now. I think all those factors have contributed to a more positive experience in Halifax this year. It certainly has been a lot more quiet on the busing front.
THE CHAIR: Order. Time has elapsed for the PC Party. We have 38 minutes for the NDP with Ms. Chender.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you. I want to go back to pre-Primary and just finish that line of questions, although I am happy to hear about busing.
We were talking about the implementation of pre-Primary. I think you had said that the decision around space rests with you but has largely kind of devolved to the regional centres. I asked about the inclusion of teachers and families in decision making. Maybe you can refresh me on where we landed there and then we can go on from there.
ZACH CHURCHILL: I can say that leading up to this decision there was not a lot of consultation with parents and school communities. The reason for that is because we are dealing with fundamentally operational issues and space issues. So, no matter what consultation we are going to have, the water isn’t going to change on the beans if we have classrooms, or not, in certain schools where we need the pre-Primary classes.
We are faced with really limited operational options to find space and we had to make a decision, based on what was available and where we needed to invest, from a capital perspective. We leaned heavily on operational staff; this is an operational decision. Even if we had received feedback from school communities, it probably wouldn’t have been able to impact what the outcome was at the end of the day, anyway. So, we had to make a call, I think we made the right call. There are limited options in terms of what we’re able to do. Our effort now is on engaging school communities on transition planning. But, admittedly that was a challenge; you don’t want to consult if the outcome is going to be the same.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I mean you don’t want a bunch of parents mad at you for longer than they need to be, for sure.
I guess I would just push back against this idea that there are limited choices. For one thing, we know there are lots of regulated child care providers who have safe and appropriate spaces for four-year-olds. In many situations they have space.
I recognize that the department has made the choice, that they feel it’s a better fit - for reasons we don’t entirely agree with - that these four-year-olds should be in the actual school buildings. Also, I recognize the advantage that has had in certain parts of rural Nova Scotia, in particular where we know that that infrastructure was under-utilized and that’s fantastic. That’s certainly not the case in most of HRM.
Also, internally, within schools, we see these decisions like are we going to lose the staff room or are we going to lose the music room? Are we going to lose the art room, for the schools that were lucky enough to have an art room, or are we going to lose the maker space?
I take your point, that if you know what you are going to do, don’t ask parents and do it anyway. We certainly have seen that happen and that’s frustrating for everybody. I’m not pointing any fingers, but we’ve seen it happen.
Certainly, there could have been an opportunity to consult with teachers in schools. Can you say if that happened at all?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We obviously leaned on the feedback from principals who are responsible for the facilities. Our regions did deal with the administration in developing a plan for this.
I don’t want the member to underestimate the importance of having pre-Primary in school, on location; that is our primary objective, to get it in schools. We know that is when it can have the greatest impact, in terms of facilitating the transition from the play-based program to the academic learning. The reasons for doing that are substantiated in research from the McCain Foundation, that’s the one I am primarily familiar with. Their advice to us, we’ve worked with them - they are leaders in research on early childhood education - we’ve worked directly with their foundation and their recommendation was get in schools. The research shows that that’s going to have the best impact on kids. So the objective is to get it there. Now we’re not able to do that in every single circumstance but I think it’s important that we did our very best to do that.
Looking at alternate options, we did run a pilot with a private provider in Kings County to see how that would work with pre-Primary. It didn’t work great from the providers’ perspective and it didn’t work great from our perspective. We did try that, not extensively, but we did have one pilot.
Keeping in line with where the research tells us the kids should be, which is in school or on school grounds, we wanted to make sure we did that and kind of, in tracking the results of the pilot with the regulated sector, that did not give us any reason to try and run this through the regulated sector. So, we had to look at space.
We are investing $5 million. Some schools are getting renovations to accommodate this, some schools are getting portables, and some schools are dealing with grade configurations. This is all done to get the best outcome for all kids, particularly for the four-year-olds whom we are trying to support through this program. Having them in school is a top priority.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: With respect, I am sure the McCain Foundation report says that. I think there are lots of other reports that say lots of other things. I think if we look at jurisdictions like Finland, which has one of the most celebrated education systems in the world, kids start school at seven, they are not in those buildings.
I think the jury is out, based on the literature, but again, I acknowledge that that’s the direction the department has moved in.
I don’t know much about the pilot program, but I would say again that where we see and hear about - and partly because our caucus is mostly in HRM - is the extreme overcrowding. I would suggest that a pilot or two run in HRM might yield really different results. We have denser communities, they are closer to the school, they might be in their own community. I just want to kind of flag that.
My follow up question is: Given that you have the responsibility, RCEs give you advice, they talk to the principals, are there policies or guidelines that are ultimately driving your decision about how pre-Primary gets incorporated into schools?
ZACH CHURCHILL: We have the Pre-primary Education Act. The policy on this front was to utilize spaces available in schools or create space. We don’t have an articulated policy position on that but that’s a directive that we’ve given the system and that’s where we are. We think it’s the right move.
If the member has any other reports that she’d like to provide on alternate early learning models that she thinks we should be made aware of, I’ll make sure that somebody in the department reads them. I was kidding, I’ll look at the executive summaries.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I wouldn’t expect any more than that. So, make space or create space, that sounds like that’s the policy related to finding, incorporating physically the pre-Primary in the school.
If we get into the create space and the make space, I mean as I said in the preamble to my last question, is it the art room, is it the maker space, is it the teachers’ lounge, is it a portable? I am genuinely curious, at the granular level, how these decisions get made because they really impact student life, they really impact schools and students.
ZACH CHURCHILL: Obviously our goal was to minimize impact to learning from the rest of the student population, to the extent that we could. That’s why we’re building portables on some locations, because we don’t want to take over a music room or another classroom or staff room that is being utilized.
In certain circumstances we achieved finding space through grade reconfiguration - that has also happened before pre-Primary; that has happened here in Halifax, the result of population growth; that has happened in my home community - that is not a new thing for the system.
In other cases, we have additions and alterations that we are funding to create space. We are building new space so that we are not taking space that is required for the other learning opportunities in the school and we’re building portables.
We’ve approached this with the objective of minimizing the impact to teaching and learning in the rest of the school community and ensuring that there is something available on campus or in the school for the pre-Primary kids.
I think it’s reasonable. I think we’ve approached this very reasonably. I feel really confident about the decisions we made. We did save the toughest decisions until this year, to facilitate the early years of implementation. I think we made the best decision with the options that we had.
Again, I think the biggest concern I’ve heard thus far on this is around the grade reconfiguration, where parents are concerned about the Grade 6s going into a junior high school. Listen, I can appreciate that, but again, those students will also experience more programming options and more extracurricular and recreational options as well. At the end of the day where we’ve seen grade reconfigurations happen, while there is an initial concern that is expressed, I don’t think it’s going to last that long. I think everyone is going to be okay. I think the students are going to have positive learning experiences, for the most part. Of course, I don’t suggest that is going to be the case for every individual student, but I think that generally speaking, this was the right move, for the right reasons, and I think the outcomes are going to be good.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I am sure everyone is going to be okay. We’re hoping for a little more than that, but I appreciate the minister is encouraging us that we’re all going to be alright. At this point in the evening we sometimes need that encouragement.
I guess what I’m going to take away from this, not wanting to go in circles, is that there are no guidelines or regulations around the specific placement. I’m not asking about the grade reconfiguration, I hear that. I just want to clarify that there are no regulations or policies in place around how the pre-Primary program is incorporated into existing schools; even though we’re all going to be okay.
ZACH CHURCHILL: I’m going to quote you on that, that we’re all going to be okay, particularly if you ask that question in QP.
No, there is not a regulatory framework around this, no. We’ve moved the implementation of pre-Primary through department directives to the system, based on best practices and that is utilizing the literature that we have at our disposal. The McCain Foundation in their directives have been pretty key in that, admittedly, and yes, that’s how we’ve done it and we’ve been successful.
We’ve rolled out this program, we’ve got 4,600 kids in it this year and overall, the experience has been really positive. The data is demonstrating that the program has proven to be effective when it comes to improving learning outcomes, transition and even in areas like self-regulation, when it comes to behaviour.
The biggest problem we’ve had is keeping up with demand here. So yes, we had to make a difficult decision in some cases on how to open up these spaces in the 48 new school communities that we wanted to get this to, but parents in those communities want this. The feedback we’re getting from those with four-year-olds is really encouraging; they are happy that they have this option available to them in their school community.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: You mentioned a few times the $5 million number as the capital cost related to pre-Primary implementation. I just want to clarify that that is what that number is. If it is, do you have a breakdown for that? How much for portables? How much for renovations? Those kinds of things.
ZACH CHURCHILL: Yes, it’s $5.5 million and we do have a specific breakdown and we will provide that to the member.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I’m going to try to ask the minister a couple of questions about school psychologists. When the department hired school psychologists and SLPs last year they chose to create these positions as non-NSTU employees, as far as we know, without any consultation with the NSTU that previously had certified these folks.
For these school-based employees, what is the department’s policy on reporting for work during Christmas, March break and Summer months when the school buildings themselves are closed?
ZACH CHURCHILL: That is outlined in the terms and conditions of employment. They all have that outlined for them in their terms and conditions, for those folks.
Of course, this conversation is ongoing right now. Labour Relations is the lead on it, advancing this conversation with the union. I do have a breakdown for the member on her previous question about capital expenses. Would you like that?
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Yes, as long as we can come back around to this.
ZACH CHURCHILL: Sure, yes. For the A&A, it is $1.2 million, that is the additions and alterations for schools, $1.2 million; $3.9 million for portables and in one case there was the purchase of a building for $400,000.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: So, I guess my first follow-up question there is: Can the department make available those terms and conditions that list the department’s policy on reporting for work during Christmas, March break and Summer months? It sounds like it’s up to you, so hoping you’ll say yes.
ZACH CHURCHILL: I’ll get some advice from staff, if it’s appropriate to do that or not. I do want to inform the member as well that there was a communication sent out to those specialists - while the conversations have continued through Labour Relations and the hearings - that they did not have to report in during the holidays. That was communicated to staff.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you. I would somewhat challenge your characterization as what is happening with the specialists as a conversation. The last I checked, an arbitrator had twice ordered the government to certify those folks back into the union and the union had resisted that and filed for judicial review. It’s not the kind of conversation I like to have but maybe in the broadest sense of the term you could call that a conversation.
I haven’t asked my question yet. Speaking of conversations, isn’t it true, and I understand that we have a Minister of Labour Relations, very familiar with the minister, does great work sometimes but since we are here asking you questions, isn’t it true that union membership is not a barrier to specialists working year-round, in and of itself?
ZACH CHURCHILL: It’s an issue with certification because in the collective agreement, those employees are not required to work during holidays and the Summer.
I think it’s important that, while I appreciate the member’s opinions on this in relation to the frustration that the union is feeling, I think we made the right call here. This issue has been brought up by both Opposition Parties around mental health and having these supports available for students; we know that those needs do not leave our students during holidays and after school hours or during the Summer.
The motivation to make this change has nothing to do with the union. I know it’s an issue that we have with the union, but this is about - and this is in line with recommendations from the Commission on Inclusive Education to provide services year-round. We had 300 students utilize these services this Summer, in year one. I think that’s pretty significant.
Yes, we have a dispute with the union over this. Honestly, my priority isn’t in line with union priorities; my priority is in line with what I think is best for our kids. The fact is that we’ve had significant mental health issues identified in the system. I need not remind anybody around this table of some of the most tragic consequences that have happened as a result of that, and this is the right thing to do.
For the most part, these are non-teachers; they are specialists, they are psychologists, they are speech pathologists and social workers.
The fact remains that we think that these services are critical to kids and their well-being; we think they should be available outside of the school year. The fact that 300 students utilized those services this Summer demonstrates to me that there is evidence out there that these services are needed.
This is a conversation that is continuing. It is a disagreement, but I don’t want the member to lose sight of the reason why we’re doing this and why we’re willing to have a difficult conversation around this, because we think it is pretty important. My priority, as minister - and I thank the Premier for allowing this to be my priority - is not labour relations. My priority as minister is to improve the system for our students and to do a better job addressing the gaps in service that students have experienced.
Again, we know what the consequences can be when these services aren’t available. I’ve heard from members opposite, I’ve heard from parents, I’ve heard from teachers, I’ve heard from the public, that people want us to improve our supports on mental health services; part of that is ensuring that they are available year-round for kids.
This conversation is worth having. The dispute, from my perspective, is well worth it. We’re going to keep having this dialogue and the process is going to continue.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you for that answer. Whereas I personally wouldn’t characterize a judicial review as a conversation, I actually would characterize a collective agreement as a conversation because it’s just that, it’s a collective agreement.
My last question to you is whether membership in a union precludes the ability for a specialist to work year-round. I’ll answer it for myself, the answer is no, it absolutely doesn’t. It is something that can be negotiated at the table in a collective agreement.
I just want to ask, when you say that this comes straight out of the report on inclusive education, does that report specifically recommend specialists not being in the union?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The issue isn’t around union membership, it is around certification as a teacher and what it means to be a teacher. If you are a teacher, you are not required to work year-round. It states that very specifically.
No, there is not a recommendation in the Commission on Inclusive Education around union membership. I don’t think that was of interest to the commission. I think what was of interest to the commission was enhanced supports for students, and having services available year-round was a recommendation.
We do have a Minister of Labour Relations who is the lead on the collective bargaining question. Some of these questions might be better directed to that minister. But from my perspective, and I think from the perspective of government, it is not about union membership. It’s about certification and what that means and the limits that it places on those employees who are certified and directing them to work year-round. So yes, that’s a disagreement we have with the union and I think we’re on the side of kids in this one.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: The minister’s understanding on this is different than mine. The specialists who I have spoken to, and the NSTU leadership that I have spoken to, have all expressed that in fact many of these specialists, both the ones who have been hired outside of the union and the ones that are within the union, are totally willing to talk about working year-round. There’s actually no resistance to that.
I acknowledge what you are saying that the way a teacher is certified, the teacher doesn’t work in the Summer although some teachers actually do, is my understanding. I suggest that that can be negotiated, so I would hope that the minister or the Minister of Labour Relations would have that conversation because I actually think there’s a lot of common ground and opportunity and possibility there, if it isn’t about the union.
I just have to say, is it about the union or is it about the kids? That’s sort of a tough one. I feel like every time we’ve talked about changes to education, you say, we’re on the side of the kids. At a certain point we’re all on the side of the kids. Yes, really, we’re all on the side of the kids. We are here, as the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development and the Education and Early Childhood Development Critics, to advocate for what we all feel is the best educational environment for children. We may have differences on that, but it sticks a bit when we hear repeatedly that the minister is on the side of kids and therefore the rest of us aren’t.
My last question on this point is around legal fees. There has been this protracted court situation, arbitrator, back to the arbitrator, judicial review: Does the minister have any sense on what the department has spent on legal fees challenging this decision?
ZACH CHURCHILL: No, I don’t. Let me clarify on the record, by no means have I ever questioned the members opposite in their desire to improve the education system for the kids.
The fact remains that the union doesn’t have a mandate to do that. They have members - students are not members of their union, students do not pay membership fees - their mandate is to look after their members and to negotiate on behalf of their members. Of course, that is the driving principle of union decision making; sometimes that runs counter, in my opinion, to the needs of our students. I think that has played itself out in a demonstrable way at different points in time. That’s where the difference lies.
It should be different because they have a different job than I do. They have to take care of their members, that’s why members pay dues. That’s not to say that they don’t care about students; I am not suggesting that at all. But the primary incentive and motivation and mandate, if you read through their mission statement, is different than what the department’s mandate is so sometimes you end up in a situation where you don’t agree and that’s normal. We’re dealing with that situation to the best of our ability.
Back to the services being available year-round, yes, teachers can work in the Summer, if they volunteer to. So, the fundamental question for us is, should this be a voluntary thing? I don’t think it should be. I think it should be part of the terms and conditions of employment, it should not be based on whether someone wants to volunteer for this, which based on my understanding is what the union position has been. This should be mandated; this should be available for students year-round. People who are employed as non-teaching support staff in these areas, I believe those services should be available year-round and outside of school hours. I maintain that as a guiding principle for where we’re going here.
Again, there is a process that we’re going through to continue however you want to classify this; whether a conversation or not, and we’ll see it to its conclusion.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Just that last question was about legal fees. Does the minister have a sense of the legal fees related to this conversation?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The legal fees would not be paid for in the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, I believe that would be in the Department of Justice.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you. Moving on to the IBM Technology Advantage Program, which I think you mentioned in your opening. Through an FOI, our caucus office asked for the budget related to that program for each pilot site. What we found out, and correct us if this is somehow not accurate, is that within the HRCE the program will be piloted at six sites, at a cost of $735,933, and within the TCRCE the program will be piloted at one site, with a cost of $229,400.
The cost for that one school is quite a bit higher than the per school cost in the HRCE. Do you have any rationale for that differential?
ZACH CHURCHILL: The rationale for that is there are multiple feeder schools in HRM. So J.L. Ilsley High and Cole Harbour District High School, there are multiple feeder schools; not all those students are coming from those particular schools. In the case of Yarmouth there is one feeder school.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I don’t quite follow; can you explain that a little bit more?
THE CHAIR: It’s getting a little too late, it’s past 10:00 o’clock. That may be a question for tomorrow. You left the toughest to the last.
ZACH CHURCHILL: It took me a second to wrap my head around that question.
The major cost difference is that the folks in Yarmouth need to travel farther for part of the program, they have to come to Halifax for this, so there is a travel component here that obviously the two HRM locations don’t have to deal with. That would be why there’s a bit more money - but it’s not per student - there’s not a large discrepancy there, I don’t believe.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: We don’t have the student breakdown but per site, you are talking about an extra $100,000 that would be allocated. So, the $736,000-ish allocated to the HRCE six sites (Interruption) Well it says six sites in the FOI we did, that’s why I’m asking for clarification. No, it’s six sites, that is what I am being told by the department.
ZACH CHURCHILL: There’s also an issue of Grade 9 staffing, so if I understand this correctly, there’s travel and there was additional Grade 9 staffing required to deal with the cohort in Yarmouth that wasn’t required in Halifax because - okay, there’s more feeder schools and access to more FTEs from those feeder schools.
There we go, we found the answer. Thanks for asking that, member, that was a good question. I learned something new tonight.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Okay, clear as mud. Thank you, I think. I am going to try to digest that and maybe we’ll come back to it tomorrow. Again, it’s super late at night and my brain isn’t functioning at its optimal capacity.
Right now, as far as we understand, and I know I only have a little bit of time left, the P-TECH Program has graduated 185 students ever, in the world. There have been no evaluation studies published to validate the effectiveness of the program. We will be the first to put it in a public school in Canada, as the minister has mentioned. When I asked for evidence supporting the investment last year during Budget Estimates, we got a brief answer from the minister but no report or results.
I am wondering if you could provide the source of the information used to support this investment.
ZACH CHURCHILL: We used labour market attachment data to make the decision on the sites, which I mentioned before. We are doing an evaluation of the program as well, with St. F.X., so they are assisting us in terms of evaluating the program.
This is a pilot; it is the first pilot in the country. We know there is a labour market demand for high skill levels in the tech sector. We are learning that recently actually even in . . .
THE CHAIR: Order, the time has elapsed, I apologize.
Thank you, everybody. We will be continuing with the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development tomorrow. Thank you everyone, good night.
[The subcommittee adjourned at 10:11 p.m.]