Taking stock of the education crisis in Nova Scotia

About this bust-up over cuts in education, meant to face the awkward fact that administration costs are going up while student numbers go down: perhaps a bit of larger perspective would help.

This is not the first education crisis in Nova Scotia's history, nor are we alone in this -- it's North America-wide, and more.

And it's not exclusively an education question: It's part of the general bloating of bureaucracies over the past 30 to 40 years, with the bill now coming due.

I dug out the last big structural review of schools in Nova Scotia: the 1954 Royal Commission on Public School Finance. This study had always intrigued me, although I had never read it, because it was headed by a distant relative of mine, then-County Court judge Vincent Pottier, at one time a Western Nova Scotia MP and ultimately a justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

We were both products of the same little school in Belleville, Yarmouth County, where I've come back home to semi-retire.

One room, 30 to 40 kids in nine grades with one teacher, a wood stove and two outhouses -- and we all more or less made it as sound citizens! How did that happen without computers, special effects and a billion-dollar bureaucracy? At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I suggest that's food for thought.

The commission noted three education crises over time. The first was the long battle in the 1850s and '60s, with Joseph Howe front and centre, to make education free and universal, and based on mandatory assessment of local school districts. With time, there were provincial top-ups for "poor districts."

The next was in 1942 when, after the Depression, many rural and village school sections could no longer support their schools, although teachers were paid abysmally. A broader Municipal School Unit was created for school funding which helped temporarily.

The 1953 crisis was the other side of what we're experiencing now, in our fourth crisis. Unlike now with declining enrolments, in the late 1940s and early '50s there was a rush of new wartime and postwar kids -- yours truly among them -- into a stretched system. Teachers were abandoning because it wasn't worth it financially. Married ex-teachers (my mother among them) were pressed into service, and some districts were making do with unqualified teachers.

The commission launched a Foundation Program of basic education, which recommended raising teacher salaries and improving teacher training, and upgrading some "dilapidated" schools. The province and municipalities would pay about half each (it's now about 30 per cent for the municipalities), but with the provincial payout varying according to the different municipalities' ability to pay, and municipalities free to add programs they wanted and could afford.

What I was looking for, however, was the deeper view. Did my grandmother's cousin, in sending education off into the future, say: Go ahead, build a massive education bureaucracy in Nova Scotia and bring the system to crisis again by 2011?

Actually, he said things like this: "The sum required for an adequate teachers' salary scale must place a severe burden on both governments," but "it should not be an oppressive burden, because if so, it will end in the collapse of our school system." With regard to schools and equipment, the proposed system "requires a wise and carefully managed expenditure and nothing more." The "nothing more" has a certain ring, don't you think? The P3 schools the auditor general says will cost us an unwarranted $60 million is only a bit of what's been wasted in questionable and often badly planned school construction.

By 1960, around when I started high school, education was a serious matter indeed. My teachers fit Judge Pottier's requirement that "in any efficient system of education, there must be a high level of teacher devotion and interest," and they enjoyed a high level of public respect.

By the 1980s, coinciding with the wastrel years of the Buchanan government that sent Nova Scotia off on its debt spiral, the public started grumbling about what seemed to be a rich deal of salaries, pensions and training for teachers and administrators, schools that seemed to last no time, and huge fleets of school buses that seemed mostly empty. My wife worked as a library technician in the Halifax school system in the 1990s, and often came home mad at displays of excess by what she and her low-paid buddies saw as the administrator teacher union complex: teachers off on a "training" toot to southern climes, for example, some due to retire in six months.

The big obstacle to cutting education costs, even as the student population shrinks, is that most costs are fixed: administration, salaries, infrastructure.

The hardest thing in the world to do is to dismantle a built empire, but that's the grim job.

The NDP has an inquiry going by Ben Levin, a former deputy education minister in Manitoba, looking at the longer term. But this is a job that will test the mettle not only of the government but of the society at large.

Meanwhile, for the government, the risk of political backlash at the mere hint of re-jigging programs that affect kids is more than counterbalanced by the need to attack this problem front and centre now.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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