Emotionalism and the restructuring of rural education

If you ever want to start an argument with a teacher, start by criticizing any number of things: revisions in the curriculum, sexual education, the “dumbing down” of the overall curriculum, student unpreparedness for the working environment, and so on. You pick one – and I’ll probably start the argument for you.

In 1995, the Romanow government had a choice to make – let things slide in the educational sector, which basically meant dole out the same budget in slightly increasing amounts measured by inflationary factors, or rein in expenditures for schooling as controlled by more than 150 “divisions” widely disproportionate to the at-the-time decreasing rural population base. In actuality, they didn’t really have that much choice in the matter; the Devine government had been contemplating reorganization and restructuring of the sector for some time, but decided that it was too “touchy” a topic, procrastinated in its decision-making, and inevitably left the matter to the Romanow NDP government, along with an empty treasury.

The NDP didn’t waste much time in tackling the problem, first letting the public know that the ensuing reform of public school delivery was about to take place, then proceeded to not bother telling these 27 new districts how the eventual reform structure would shape out, only noting that from here on out duly elected trustees would implement policy on behalf of their divisions.

Once the new school board’s elected officials were put in place, the first decision that they had to make was what schools they would have to close. That task turned out to be extremely perilous; any suggestion of a local school being finally closed was met with bitter anger from that community’s residents. In exasperation, the Board members finally asked the Romanow government to make the decision as to school closures for them. Thus, 176 schools were read their last rites, leaving a still lasting resentment within these rural communities that the gutless Descendants of Devine (DoD) Saskatchewan Party, first under Brad Wall in 2011 and 2016 and then Scott Moe in 2020 are still trying to exploit, as they have nothing else to offer.

It’s not as if the NDP was doing anything other than trying to govern in both a fiscal and moral fashion in making these changes. Even the out-of-shape Devine clan, having fed on the junk food bought by selling off Department of Highways assets, knew the job had to be done. So if you examine the DoD’s strategy in using the same theme song time after time after time, you ought to know that they’ve done absolutely nothing whatsoever so as to “correct” these NDP hardships. Finally, when you reach this point, you should be asking this question of yourself: Why are rural Saskatchewan voters still swallowing? Why can’t they just realize that they’re being “played” by the DoD?

In actuality, conditions within our schools, particularly in our rural areas, have only gotten worse under DoD governorship. It’s not as though the government doesn’t know what the problems are and how to fix them; we just know that our schools require more money before they return to a functional level of dispensing knowledge. With some judicious reallocation of monies within the provincial budget, these funds could be found; the problem being that then the DoD would soon find their bankers and backers from Alberta less willing to support their corporatist agenda in dispensing lucrative paving contracts to European construction companies and $135 million maintenance contracts for newly built hospitals such as was given for the new facility in North Battleford.

However, when it comes to dealing with increasing need for school repairs, just hope that the local lumber mart doesn’t run out of 12’ 8” X 8” beams to reinforce collapsing ceiling beams in the Kindergarten classroom.

Simply put, the “austerity” measures the DoD put in place to keep school budgets under control don’t work; instead, they have forced these newer and much larger school divisions to pursue cost-cutting paths that have only helped to contribute to schools being less effective in their pursuit of educational excellence. For instance, until 2018 it was virtually impossible to find any member of staff in our smaller schools with a Master’s degree or more than six years of teaching experience; anyone else exceeding these basic standards was just “too expensive” for the school to hire. Thus, the traditional manner in which teacher mentorship worked was destroyed, simply because those teachers who could mentor didn’t exist within the system anymore. In a similar fashion, smaller school divisions could no longer afford to keep on staff subject consultants providing the training necessary to help teachers keep up with changing curriculum or policy respecting the good health and welfare of students in general. This in turn resulted in a deterioration of the quantity of delivery in grade curriculum objectives, particularly in Science, Mathematics and English Language Arts.

Reeves looking to be re-elected often used the size of the educational budget and its trimming down as a theme to their continuing to hold office. Even the growth of corporate-based agricultural practice in rural areas created disharmony, as these enterprises resented paying educational levies on their lands when they had few children themselves going to local schools. However, by far the most damaging austerity practice came from ratepayers who felt curricula had wandered too far away from its basic function of providing “fundamental education” in the 3-R subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic. Thus, non-core subject specialists found themselves on the “out”, only to have administrators having the resource capacity to offer a maximum of 24 credits at the Grade 10, 11 and 12 levels, forcing the best and the brightest into having to take an extra year after graduation to either take extra credits to meet program prerequisites in a field of studies the student wished to pursue, or upgrade their marks so that they could even be accepted into a college or university programs.

Were those within the DoD caucus prepared to recognize the fact that we need further reform and increased resources for educational purposes, it seems to me that would be a far better policy platform to pursue than to negate the efforts of a cash-strapped NDP some twenty-five years previous. Unfortunately, we also know by example that the Saskatchewan Party would never admit to its policies being insufficient for the needs of returning our educational rating to one far exceeding the current levels of mediocrity.

As for our so-called “struggling” Opposition, the NDP, what might be the most intelligent pathway to follow would to admit to the “mea culpa” of not having gone far enough in considering the need for true educational reform other than through a fiscal pathway. Once announced, it should use the next three years to organize and run a blitzkrieg of rural town hall meetings, where local residents can contribute towards defining the future of educational progress in this province.

The NDP has always found its strength in being able to take the ideals of its constituents to formulate progressive policies, be it in how Medicare became this province’s major contribution to Confederation, or when fighting the corporate greed of American and central Canadian agricultural machinery corporations trying to sell ill-suiting and expensive product.

In other words, it’s time for the leadership to again start listening to its membership.

Seems like a good idea to me…