Parents should control schools, not just picket and protest.
by Don Cayo


In rural Cape Breton, parents have taken over small community schools that distant school boards want to close. In urban St. John’s, equally frustrated parents, students and teachers have taken to the streets – and to meeting after meeting – to object to the bigger-is-better philosophy of the Avalon East School Board.

I don’t know of any public action at the moment on Prince Edward Island, where school-closure issues have quieted down after a round of consolidation a few years ago. But these things wax and wane.

A decade and a half ago, when I lived on P.E.I., it was a school board plan to bus little kids on high school buses if they wanted to enroll in French immersion; last year in New Brunswick, where I live now, the system was in turmoil for a host of reasons. There were school closures on the Acadian Peninsula, an ill-considered foundation year program imposed on high schools, fallout from replacing school boards with parent advisory committees, discipline questions, and more.

And everywhere, all the time, there are mutterings of discontent. An awful lot of people don’t like the way education is going these days. And they’re incensed at the insensitivity to local needs of the big central bureaucracies that run things these days.

Don’t expect a change for the better any time soon. The system – the boards and the bureaucrats who run it – are under pressure, quite rightly, to keep costs in line. But central bureaucracies have a painfully small bag of tricks to control costs. Close some schools, make others bigger – that’s all they know.

Bigger schools can be better, at least for facilities and course options. But they can also come at huge cost. For children, consolidation may require them to spend hours on buses, and to miss after-school play with best friends from class or in more organized activities. For boards, it drives transportation budgets out of sight. And for communities, the closing of a school is one more stinging loss of an institution that helps bind people to the place.

But smaller schools can be better than most others, too. And cheaper. It depends how they’re run.

Twenty-five years ago, when most Canadian students were going to modern schools, I used to visit friends on Fogo Island – a young couple who ran the school in Deep Bay. The wife, who was the principal, taught Grades 5-8; her husband, the entire staff, taught Grades 1-4. The building was primitive – heated with wood and without even running water.

But this school was incessantly a-buzz, and the kids learned far more than was demanded by the Department of Education. One or two students might choose to leave when the “bell” sounded at day’s end, but typically most stayed until late afternoon when their teachers, ready to go home, sent them packing. Often they were waiting on the doorstep the next morning for school to open. And the district superintendent, headquartered in distant and sophisticated Gander, once told me, “If every two-room school was as good as Deep Bay’s, we wouldn’t build anything else.”

No one I know, me included, would want to take him up on that. That school was cheap and its education was effective. But it lacked too many basics.

Yet in some places boast small schools, most not quite that small and none nearly so primitive, that draw on the best of what I saw in action in Deep Bay. They offer truly superior education at truly reasonable cost.

These are charter schools, common in many countries but known in Canada only in Alberta. They are public schools – paid for by government, required to accept all students, responsible for teaching the provincial curriculum, and held to the same standards as every other school. But they must also teach something more – some specialty of content or approach that goes beyond what the broader system offers. They’ve become hotbeds of innovation and excellence. And, since they can’t charge fees and they get no extra government funding, they don’t spend one cent more to do it.

It seems to be that these are models that protesting – or muttering – parents should look to. On one hand it is reasonable for senior governments to set limits on what they’ll spend to keep any school open. But to offer a grant – the same per-pupil amount spent everywhere else in the system – and invite local parents and teachers to try to do better than the board can do? That makes sense.

It will take legislation in each province to allow charter schools to be set up. Given governments’ usual foot-dragging and the nearly inevitable knee-jerk objections of a few special interest groups, that isn’t likely to happen without organized and sustained lobbying. That’s beginning to happen with formal groups that I know of in Saint John, Fredericton, Pictou and the Margaree area, and with an astonishing amount of widely scattered informal interest.

So stay tuned. There’s every sign that charter schools, not impotent protests and occupations, will be the way of the future.