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From a Sow’s Ear to a Sow’s Purse: Liberals Amend Bill 177.

by Dudley Paul

The Student Achievement and School Board Governance Act that received Royal Assent on December 15 is not quite as bad as the original. But that’s a bit like saying losing your shoes isn’t as bad as losing your shirt.

Correction:In the original text of this article I wrote that “Under Section 218 of the amended Education Act trustees must still “ support the implementation of any board resolution after it is passed by the board, ” . This should have read uphold the implementation of any board resolution after it is passed by the board. My mistake and apologies.

On a good note, a so-called “technical” change was made to Bill 177. Left out of the final draft of the bill was a section enabling the government by fiat “…to make regulations about the roles, responsibilities, powers and duties of boards, directors of education and board members, including chairs of boards” – or simply do as it pleases. Fundamental changes to one level of government will at least see the light of day before they’re implemented since they still require legislation.

Also added is a section requiring a school board to monitor and evaluate the performance of its Director of Education; a fundamental purpose so it would seem.

Responding to criticism that there was nothing about education’s role in strengthening democracy, the Liberals added a platitude about public education being the “foundation of a prosperous, caring and civil society” while avoiding any mention of students growing up to be citizens engaged in democratic processes.

Overall, the Ministry’s big thumb is not much removed. The Minister may still make regulations requiring and detailing board codes of conduct along with sanctions should trustees misbehave. Details, such as what ought to be rules, are left to the imaginations of school boards under the guiding hand of the Minister. Directors of Education must still inform the Ministry on boards that continue after she has told them not to, to breach any part of the Education Act, its policies, guidelines or regulations.

Under Section 218 of the amended Education Act trustees must still “ uphold the implementation of any board resolution after it is passed by the board, ” and while the government may have assured worried trustees that this isn’t just a gag order to discourage dissent, what else could it mean? Does the Government think that disgruntled trustees are likely to engage in sabotage? The wording of this requirement is still vague enough to be interpreted as ruling out dissent after a board resolution has been passed. It’s still bad legislation.

So too is the gentler language about trustees responding to issues raised by their constituents: “…(E)ntrust the day to day management of the board to its staff through the board’s director of education” says the new law. It’s more polite than the previous direction for trustees to “ … refrain from interfering in the day to day management of the board…” but it still hobbles them in their efforts to advocate on behalf of their constituents and makes it harder for them to speak up about problems in the communities they are supposed to represent. What does “ day to day management” include? Will trustees get their hands slapped if they want raise concerns about a discipline issue in one of their schools or get involved with a local school closure? The latter point is especially applicable to underfunded school boards, like TDSB, which is considering closing many schools.

As Bill 177 becomes law, the wording of a school board duty to “promote student outcomes specified in regulations…” has been made more vague. Now trustees must “promote student achievement and well-being.” Since half the title of Bill 177 includes “Student Achievement” don’t count on much change here either. This wording still leaves the Ministry completely open to setting achievement requirements based on EQAO results and putting boards that fail to measure up under supervision. Recall that the Governance Review Committee that spawned this legislation recommended a “continuum of measures” to be taken if a board doesn’t meet prescribed outcomes of so-called “evidence-based” assessments.

All in all, the language of this legislation might be gentler but the intent is little changed: Trustees are to work within very tight rules concerning fiscal and academic responsibilities, behave themselves and not make waves.

All of this makes complete sense given the predilection of this Government to control the day-to-day operations of schools without actually having to take the heat for its decisions. The logic follows: leave the trustees in place even though they can’t do much but listen to complaints from parents when at the behest of Queen’s Park, they close their schools, cut programs and add others that don’t work. It gives the appearance of local control without providing any. It gives the appearance of this Government being very busy while still limping along in funding education at 54th place out of 64 jurisdictions across North America.

What is so sadly ironic about all of this is the role of Minister of Education, Kathleen Wynne. Here is someone who got her political start working with grass roots organizations such as Citizens for Local Democracy and People for Education. She fought the Harris Tories loud and hard as they ran roughshod over local governments and school boards so they could grab tax dollars and define and control education from Queen’s Park. As a trustee herself on the TDSB, she refused to cave in when the Tories decided this board needed to make more cuts to bring its budget in line with their arbitrary limits.

Yet, she has now succeeded in restricting the very activities that she not only represented and praised, but that brought her into the political spotlight. It’s a pretty sorry legacy.


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