by Charles Cirtwill

You have heard this line in every legal drama on television, good attorneys never ask a question they don’t already know the answer to. Last week delivered another example of how that adage applies in the development of public policy.

The Department of Education struck a review committee to look at education of special needs children in the province. The panel included two former school board senior staff and an education professor from Acadia University. The panel also had a “support” person from the Department of Education and an Advisory Committee that included the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union and the Nova Scotia School Boards Association.

The Department, the school boards, the union and a faculty of education – otherwise known as the usual suspects. Now, don’t get me wrong. If you want to examine education it is useful to have some people around who at least speak the language of educators. The individuals on this review committee were all eminently qualified to be there. But where were the parents, the employers, the taxpayers? Not as supplicants before this panel but as full equal partners on it? If you create a review committee as unbalanced as this one was, you get what you pay for.

Consider, for example, how parents and students get treated by this review. On page 19 of their report the review committee lists a set of requests made by parents of students attending private special education schools. These parents asked for a lifting of the time limit on the number of years tuition support is provided for students attending private schools, more designated special education/private schools, all costs to be covered when a school board cannot meet a student’s needs and the appointment of an ombudsman to review tuition support requests that are declined. What did the review committee say?

“The review committee appreciates the challenges facing these families. However, the real issue for the review committee was the appropriateness of the Tuition Support Program as part of public education.”

Not whether it works, not whether it helps children with special needs, not whether it improves learning and the learning environment for all of our children, not even whether it is cost effective or cost competitive with public sector delivered education. The review committee was only concerned with whether the program was an appropriate part of public education.

Worse still, the committee adopted a very narrow definition of what public education is. The Education Act says the government has a responsibility to “provide for a publicly funded school system whose primary mandate is to provide education programs and services for students to enable them to develop their potential…” But the review committee highlighted a consensus that “children should receive their education in their community schools, in classrooms with their age peers” and used that to justify a redefinition of “publicly funded education” to include only education which is available in publicly owned schools and delivered by public employees.

Make no mistake, the tuition support program is a publicly funded education program that enables students to develop their full potential. It meets the requirements of the Act and fulfills the responsibility of the government.

But that, in a nutshell, is the problem. You see, this is the thin edge of the wedge, and groups like the Canadian Union of Public Employees (who immediately came out in support for the recommendation to shut down the Tuition Support Program and who represent thousands of school board employees in this province) know it. If it gets out that publicly funded education can be delivered effectively and efficiently by the private sector, then monopoly control is lost and the usual suspects will lose power and influence.

The problem for the usual suspects is that there is another consensus out there that the review committee elected to ignore when developing their recommendations.

The Liberal education critic (a former teacher and principal) supports the Tuition Support Program and strongly criticized the review committee’s recommendations. The NDP’s education critic (another former teacher and principal) was similarly supportive of the program and damning of the recommendations. Even the Conservative Party of Nova Scotia backs this growing consensus. At their AGM in February 2007 the rank and file members of the party passed a motion calling on the party to work to expand the Tuition Support Program not eliminate it. This makes sense because no one disputes that the program actually works.

What is really at stake is whether the usual suspects get to continue business as usual. Recognizing that, shouldn’t we have asked someone other than the usual suspects to answer the question?

Charles Cirtwill is the acting President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies,, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax.