Education – the biggest crisis the next government will face.

I have tried to write some kind of editorial style blog post for days and days, and so far, no dice. I think I am so frustrated, angry and disappointed about the state of P-12 education in Nova Scotia that it is just to hard to boil it all down.

Whoever wins the election on Tuesday is going to have to deal with the greatest crisis we have faced in decades. Education is failing across Nova Scotia. The public school system is a catastrophe, not soon, but right now.

Michelin says 12th graders are barely competent in grade 8 math. The province’s own education exams show half the students failing math and English. Anecdotal evidence is that students from Quebec and Ontario are far better prepared for University than students from Nova Scotia.

Schools are falling down, schools are overcrowded. The kids know they won’t fail, they won’t be expelled, and they don’t even need to go, there is no truancy any more. The education system is a mess, and an uneducated population cannot compete in the global market. Our future is at stake.

Education never had enough money, but it has been getting worse and worse for decades. The tipping point was 8-9 years ago when Premier John Hamm balanced the budget by cutting government expenses. It needed to be done, but since then, health has seen significant funding increases while education has not.

Why not education? Because the consequences of not funding schools adequately cannot easily be measured. People die of the health if the system fails, the signs are clear. Year after year, students become less and less educated, but the signs are far from clear.

If you accept that education is in crisis, what needs to be done? There are a couple of key areas:

CAPITAL PLANING AND MAINTAINANCE – Well, I fought hard to keep schools open on the peninsula. The principle was “the schools are fine, and full, stop trying to spend money.” Then the government announced Le Marchant St Thomas will be replaced at the cost of $14.5 million. This is crazy, because the parents, the school board, the expensive consultants, no one wanted or asked for this.

We need an increase in school board funding, and that funding has to be directed exclusively to maintaining and replacing buildings. School boards should not have the option to “keep the money in the classroom”. Something like two percent of the replacement value of each building mandated to be spent on maintenance each year. These buildings cost us hundreds of millions, and a lack of paint and caulk and roofing should not be allowed to turn these investments into moldy garbage.

By the same token, a well thought out planning process, with much more control in the hands of the school boards, would allow for careful, logical and thoughtful planning. The cycle of schools being built at election time to buy votes must end.

FUNDING – if the Halifax school board was in southern Ontario or Manitoba or B.C, the school board would get 35% more funding. Folks, that is $155 million, give or take. It is about $3000 more per child. There is no doubt in any thinking persons mind that schools need resources, from smaller classes, to art, to gym, to tutors, teachers aids, help for children with disabilities, more resources, more guidance. That would be available in other provinces.

If education is going to be a priority, if we believe that the economy and civil society require more and better free public education, it is going to cost us. How much more will it cost us to not spend the money?

STANDARDS – We cannot measure the progress towards producing better educated folks without outside benchmarks. My confidence in the quality of the reporting from the politically charged Department of Education has been less than zero for some time. International Baccalaureate, American AP exams, SATS, some exam from Ontario, some outside benchmark that lets us see how our students stack up on an international basis.

There will be those who say the Nova Scotia Public School Program cannot be tested with these exams. Well, if our students do very badly on an internationally accepted exam, the kids in Japan and Wisconsin kick our kids butts, well, we need to change the curriculum, don’t we?

PRE-SCHOOL & PRE-PRIMARY – In this century, for many families, Mom and Dad both work. The educational and home life dynamic that once existed is long gone. Every study shows that publicly funded daycare followed by a pre-primary program increases the scores of kids coming out the other end in grade 12. We need to make this happen.

AT THE END OF THE DAY – this is not an impossible dream. Increasing school funding, increasing pre-school funding, and allocating capital expenses differently could cost $300 – 400 million. This is a big pile of money, for sure.

Again, the cost is far greater if we don’t. The economy needs an educated workforce. If we want the tax base to grow, education is the key. Whoever forms government next week has to treat this as their most critical task. Our children deserve better.

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