In Brief: This op/ed by AIMS Executive Vice President Charles Cirtwill appeared in newspapers around Nova Scotia. It explains why the provincial government didn’t go far enough when considering changes to school board governance. He says it’s time for Nova Scotia to embrace school choice and site-based management.

There is a wonderful British sitcom about parliamentary democracy and the inner workings of a government office. The title of it comes from a running joke throughout the episodes where, regardless of what inane, idiotic, simplistic or just plain dumb idea the minister comes up with, the staff fall all over themselves to be the first to say “Yes, Minister.” It makes for great television. It is less certain it will make for great public policy.

The current effort to tie not just school boards but now individual school board members to the standards and expectations of the Minister of Education (and the Department of Education) is a distressing effort to codify the “Yes, Minister” mentality. Worse, the further centralization of control over schools goes against a rich vein of research that says if you want effective schools and engaged communities, you give them more power, not less.

If the department’s discussion paper is to be taken at its face value, the department has made little effort to learn from the behaviour of recalcitrant board members. The discussion paper put forward makes no effort to explore why such behaviour took place. It does not ask whether there was any root cause of the discontent. It assumes, as many have assumed, that the disruptions were simply malcontents being malcontents and taking advantage of weak rules of conduct. True or false, that assumption needs to be explored before it is acted upon.

Certainly, any committee or gathering should have rules of order and the ability to censure and control disruptive behaviour. But that does not translate into a requirement for the minister, or anyone else, to decide by fiat who may represent a school or school community. In fact, if we want engaged parents, effective school board members, and accountable schools, the decision of who represents the community in running the school must reside with, and only with, the community served.

The only argument put forward so far in defence of the direct appointment of replacement members (and this is in the media, not the discussion paper) is based on administrative efficiency and cost. How ironic that in a year where we are spending $9 million to celebrate democracy, we admit to being unwilling to spend $50,000 to actually have it.

In the same vein, the only argument put forward in support of school boards as they currently exist is that, well, they currently exist. The opportunity before us to refresh the discussion that was last taken up in 1995 about true restructuring of our education system is being ignored. The question of whether regional school boards, as opposed to truly empowered school level councils, are the way to re-engage currently disengaged communities is not being taken up. That is the real shame.

The department’s discussion paper reflects a paternalistic approach to the delivery of public education that places primacy on decorum over debate, central control over collective accountability, and resource efficiency over effectiveness. The current proposals exist in a world where “the best interests of our students are considered in all decisions” instead of being paramount in them!

Nova Scotia should not move backwards in time to a more centralized, less accountable, less engaged public education system. New Zealand, New Orleans and Edmonton public schools all offer more effective, more accountable, and more engaged public education options. We can have both better education and better behaviour, but to do that we need to have real local control. Treating the symptom of “bad governance” ignores the underlying disease of weak accountability.

Charles Cirtwill is executive vice president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (, an independent, non-partisan public policy think tank in Halifax.