In search of a “perfect” educational system

by Ken MacDougall

It has always amazed me that the harshest of criticisms voiced about our educational system come from people who, for wont of a better descriptor, harbour some seriously jaded and anti-intellectual thoughts. We can include in that list at least two former premiers NOT from Saskatchewan: BC Liberal leader and Minister of Education under premier Gordon Campbell, Christy Clark and Ontario’s very un-Progressive Conservative Mike Harris.

It would be a “safe” bet to say that teachers weren’t particularly “fond” of either Ms. Clark or Mr. Harris, either. Ms. Clark, a three-time failed post-secondary student (SFU, the Sorbonne and University of Edinburgh), endeared herself to the British Columbia Teachers’ Union by first introducing legislation in 2002 that stripped teacher bargaining rights, then in 2005 legislated the BCTU back to work following the union calling a wildcat strike that had the overwhelming support of parent groups, and for the next ten years imposed legislative fiat over BC classrooms that the BC Supreme Court would eventually determine in 2011 to be “unconstitutional”.

Mike Harris, golf professional from North Bay, ON, started out his post-secondary life by taking the two-year “Normal” course Ontario offered to prospective teachers wanting to pursue careers in elementary and middle school instruction, only to find out they he really didn’t like children all that much and “complaining” parents even less. His “analysis” of education? Blame teachers for not providing “complete” curriculum instruction and insufficiently “testing” their student charges to ensure their “readiness” for their next level of educational challenges. His “solution”: appoint a used car salesman, John Slobeden, as his first Minister of Education in 1995, declare war on the two major teachers’ unions in the province, and blame the educational system for creating the massive debt accrued by both the federal government and Ontario. Eventually, he would wield a budgetary cudgel of educational disinvestment that, in the words of “The Walrus” correspondent Roger Miller, “destroyed a historical competitive advantage [in education] in the space of a decade”, making us “dangerously unprepared to prosper” in a modernized economic environment.
Does any of this history of educational misbehaviour have similar patterning in Saskatchewan? If you’re a member of the Saskatchewan Party, you could make the case that the Romanow government’s restructuring of the educational hierarchy and its effects upon governmental spending are no different than those undertaken by the Harris regime – and you’d be right. However, and unlike Harris, the NDP certainly weren’t going around blaming teacher “demands” leading to an overspending; in fact, the average “per student” fee provided by the government across Saskatchewan to local school boards was one of the lowest in Canada. Their reorganization was merely the act of a responsible government attempting to find monies anywhere, in any department, that would help them to downsize a provincial debt approaching $18 billion that at the time the Devine government had left them to eliminate.

And thus, the larger school divisions were born.

Fiscal critics had for years railed at the sheer numbers of really small school “divisions” that existed in Saskatchewan, with Board officials seemingly being “elected for life” by a cadre of parents only too willing to impose their moral directive upon teachers. What these critics failed to see is that the schools were in fact fully meeting the needs of the community, and took considerable pride in that accomplishment. Indeed, excessive public influence being placed upon the school and staff alike was a rarity, as parental political clout was counterbalanced by a seemingly tenured coterie of teachers providing mentoring to the occasional new teachers at the school, while acting as a firewall in disputes between new recruits and any parent daring to voice their “helicopter” concerns in such negotiations.

Once the larger divisions were created, however, it did not take long for the rural municipalities’ fiscal hawks to impose their governance by applying one-size-fits-all “policy” management criteria to all schools, irrespective of size. It was through this rigidity and philosophical conformity that would eventually cost smaller communities their sense of ownership and decision-making capacity they’d long enjoyed under to the previous budgeting system.

It was here that the new “reality” to which Miller had referred in 1996 was born. “Educational disinvestment” took many forms, with consequences that the NDP could never have foreseen. When a school was slated for closure, seniority clauses within the STF’s contract were ignored, as teachers were forced to make a choice between selling their current homes and moving to a new community, or retiring. The hiring of new staff was based not so much upon experience, but upon what forensic accountants would describe as “cost benefit analysis”, namely, what flexibility did the potential teacher have in their ability to teach different course offerings versus their payroll “burden” – a process that too often resulted in budgetary “concerns” being prioritized over teaching needs. This, in turn, usually meant that the person most likely to get the position was the person having the least, or even no teaching experience whatsoever, and in the end came close to destroying the ability of new staff to be mentored by those with seniority who fully understood their responsibilities to pupil and school alike.

Other factors would eventually emerge that would eventually isolate parents from regaining faith in their voices being heard at the Board level. For instance, as a school would be closed – a decision that was made at the division level – trustees would turn their attention to other matters, as though that school had never existed in the first place. Previously proactive parents upon whom a closed school community could rely upon to inject life into extracurricular events found themselves no longer welcomed to contribute to their child’s new school programs. To make matters worse, under pressure from SARM reeves seeking to keep mill rates low, school divisions would accede to their demands despite allegedly being “autonomous”; this, in turn, left school administrators shuffling monies allocated to school supplies, textbooks or library expansion into extracurricular activities, just to maintain a presence within the SHSAA calendar – then frantically begging teachers to supervise such activities simply to justify their expenditures.

The eventual emergence of the “24-course-fits-all-graduates” should therefore not have been unexpected, especially when reeves and even trustees to this day continue to question the necessity of offering so-called “frill”-courses such as French, Music, or Art History. Unfortunately, with school administrators literally beseeching teachers to participate in extracurricular agenda meant that Physical Education graduates became preferred new staff as opposed to those capable of teaching STEM subjects, particularly in Physics, Chemistry, Grade 12 Pre-Calculus, Workplace Mathematics and Technology.

During the 2019 NDP convention in Prince Albert, I approached STF President Patrick Maze with the intention of exploring whether or not the STF bargaining unit could adopt a similar approach taken by BC, irrespective of the costs involved and objections that would obviously be put forward by the Descendants of Devine Party currently calling the shots in Regina. Unfortunately, given that the STF really isn’t a “union” so much as a professional guild, despite Mr. Maze expressing sympathy for the approach, I seriously doubt that the conversation ever returned to the issue once he returned to Regina.

Our schools need to be returned to centres of excellence, much as Walter Murray and Bedford Road Collegiate have created with their housing Saskatoon’s academically talented programs. However, that’s not nearly enough to clear away the twelve years of anti-intellectualism fostered by the DoD and Premier Moe’s unwillingness to seek treatment for the resource revenue addiction crippling his government’s agenda.

These thoughts, however, I’ll reserve for a future column.