The Moncton Times and Transcript, The Halifax Daily News

Canada’s limited policy agenda
by Fred McMahon


New Brunswickers who watched President Clinton’s State of the Union Address probably thought what a nice moderate fellow he is. Little did they realize how profoundly subversive Clinton’s speech was, at least from a Maritime perspective.

He discussed issues that aren’t even on the public agenda here. Like what? Improving the education of our children, for one. Oh, the various special interest groups are always demanding more money, but discussion of fundamental reform is verboten.

Talk of holding the school system accountable, giving parents and students choices or rewarding good teachers, instead of seniority and paper degrees, invokes a furious response from the educational establishment and teachers unions. It could upset comfortable lives and comfortable dogma.

No political party in Atlantic Canada has dared take on these entrenched interests. Yet, we pay educators to educate, and rewards should be based on their ability to do this. Our children’s future depends on the quality of their education.

Let’s look at a couple of the things Clinton proposed. The education system, he said, should no longer be a black hole out of which no information escapes. “In too many communities, it’s easier to get information on the quality of the local restaurants than on the quality of the local schools.”

Each school’s performance should be graded, Clinton said, and the public should get that information. More radically, parents should have choices when the public school is inadequate.

Clinton called for a tripling of the number of independent charter schools in the United States. These are schools set up outside the education bureaucracy. They receive public funding based on the number of students they can attract.

“When I became president,” Clinton said, “there was just one independent charter school in all of America. With (Congress’s) support on a bipartisan basis, today there are 1,100. My budget assures that early in the next century, there will be 3,000.”

Charter schools have a proven track record of not just providing superior education but of improving the quality of education in public schools which discover they have to do better or their students–now liberated by choice–will disappear.

There are voices in New Brunswick calling for educational reform. Donald Beyea, in Saint John, is one. “Adults would never accept for themselves,” he says, “the lack of choice our children get in school. Imagine if school rules applied to doctors. We’d be forced to accept that what is good for our neighbour is good for us, and that all doctors are equally skilled.”

While all political factions in the United States support charter schools because of their successes–particularly in poor neighbourhoods where, as in Canada, public education was failing–no party supports the idea in Atlantic Canada. When parents from Port Elgin in New Brunswick or the Margaree Valley in Cape Breton wanted to establish community-based schools, the provincial education ministers sent them packing.

As Beyea says, “In New Brunswick, where some of us are trying to get charter school legislation passed, it is opposed by both the teachers’ union and the minister of education, who is lobbied by a bureaucracy more concerned with its survival and power than the needs of students.” Even when New Brunswick’s provincial board of education called for a discussion of charter schools, the minister simply said no. The subject is verboten.

Even US teachers organizations support charter schools, unlike their complacent Canadian counterparts. Bob Chase, President of the US National Education Association, says: “We both see charters as a vehicle for de-bureaucratizing public schools; for increasing parental and community involvement in public schools; and for expanding the menu of education choices and options.”

In Atlantic Canada, we don’t even routinely test our teachers’ competence–odd for such an important job. Clinton made the radical proposal that “all teachers should know the subject they are teaching.”

Bad schools, he said, should be shut down. That would put a fire under poorly performing teachers and principals.

Clinton pledged more money for education. That’s part of the solution, but we need to get the system right. No matter how much money you spend on a horse and buggy, it’ll never out race a car. Our competitors are building some fine Cadillacs. We won’t be able to compete if our education bureaucracy continues to deliver Ladas.

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development recently criticized Canada’s higher education system, not because we weren’t spending enough, but because Canada spends too much for the meagre results achieved. The OECD noted that Canada spends more on higher education than the United States, yet fewer Canadians take post-secondary education. And, not one Canadian university has the international reputation of the top 20 to 30 US universities.

For a brighter future, we must get a dollar’s worth of education for every dollar spent.