A Manifesto (Agenda) for Progressive Public Education: Part 1

Public Education: Social Justice Project or Job Training, Panel Discussion

At the end of September this year, just when teachers were recovering from the exhausting first month of school, Educators for Social Justice held a Friday night panel discussion and Saturday workshop session dedicated to exploring the forces affecting public education in this province and coming up with a positive agenda for ensuring the future of progressive public education. Co-sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (NS), the NS Parents for Public Education and the SMU Department of Social Justice and Community Studies, the event was held at Saint Mary’s University, and attracted teachers, parents and community members.

The Friday evening panel was kicked off by the reading of a message from Paul Wozney, President of the NSTU, who congratulated the group and succinctly stated the constraints facing public education in NS today – a government in thrall to profit-driven interests that seem to want to monetize learning, while eroding the constitutional bargaining rights of teachers. Eliminating school boards was an example of change being rammed through, while positive changes requested by teachers have been stalled. He finished by expressing the desire for an education system designed so that every student will be able to experience a fulfilling future.

Larry Haiven, the moderator of the panel and one of the organizers of NS Parents for Public Education, talked about the battle that has been going on across Canada for the hearts and minds of parents and how the labour disputes of the past 2 years in NS have crystalized the need for an independent voice for parents. Those disputes had the positive side effect of mobilizing the public and raising awareness of teacher concerns – the surprising growth of the Facebook page to over 20,000 participants is a testament to this. The motivation for the conference was to zero in on what do we actually want for public education – a vehicle for transforming lives or a “utilitarian treadmill delivering employment and consumerism”, thus the title of the panel, “Public Education: Social Justice Project or Job Training”.

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 7.01.20 PMPanel: On screen, Pamela Rogers,  L-R: Rachel Brickner, Erika Shaker, Tina Roberts-Jeffers

The first speaker was Erika Shaker, Senior Education Researcher and Editor of Our Schools/Ourselves at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She began with her realization that the “institutional left” had been too comfortable in their belief that they stand for social justice and warned us that what’s happening in Ontario with the new Ford majority government should be a wakeup call for everyone interested in good public education. She hopes that “massive sustained popular education and mobilizing” will help curb the regressive instincts of the Ford government. Educators will be on the front lines, as they are already affected by being a target for union disruption, losing sick days, and being subject to a “snitch line” designed to prevent them from teaching the updated sex ed curriculum. However, they are ideally placed to affect change because they interact daily with the public. It will be important that all involved invest in the work of outreach and listening, especially to marginalized and underserved communities, and that they work to make alliances and support these agents of change. It will be important to suspend defensiveness, particularly when working with these groups. There is a huge role to be played countering the conservative narrative of the lazy public servant wasting taxpayers’ money, exploding myths and “alternative facts” like “Ontario’s math scores are the lowest in the country” and constantly making the connection between taxes and social programs. She talked about the present situation in NS being an opportunity to build community, to build trust from the ground up and to help bring all communities into the discussion. In particular we need to listen to the deeply unequal ways in which kids experience school (streaming, funding formulas, and poverty are good places to start) and find ways of holding those in power to account.

The second speaker, Pamela Rogers, currently working for the Canadian Teachers Federation, joined us from Ottawa. She had entitled her presentation, “I think about leaving every day”, which was a quote from one of the 300 NS teachers surveyed last year by the Educators for Social Justice – and contrasted this with a quote about education from the head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), “Our bias is the market”. She began with a brief history of neo-liberal education policy in NS, which reflects capitalism in the second half of the 20thcentury. In this prevailing view, school is a pipeline to the workplace, so emphasis needs to be on math and sciences as this is what advanced societies need. Accountability for teachers results in increased surveillance, testing and standardization and this ensures “efficiency” so that governments can implement “austerity” and save taxpayers’ money. This efficiency is helped along by privatised entities (Powerschool, charter schools) and the reduction of democratic institutions (reducing the number of school boards in the early 90’s). With this logic, the concept of “value” is seen in terms of the market value – for example, more money and energy is put towards STEM subjects at the expense of the arts and social studies, because they are seen as having more value for job training. Teachers’ are valued for how efficient they are at achieving the desired results, BUT this system does not account for all the unpaid labour that teachers put in – in fact she quotes Moore as saying “most (capitalist) systems would collapse without the unpaid work of its labourers”.

pamrogers slide 2018-11-19 at 1.19.48 PM

Pamela talked about how manufactured crises have been used to invoke reform in education – in particular how results from international tests such as PISA have been conflated with economic prosperity. So-called deficiencies in these test results have been used to force changes, such as a concentration on educational basics that are supposed to improve test results that are in turn believed to ensure our economic prosperity. The response to the “achievement gaps” between marginalized groups and the mainstream are a way of showing that social justice is not important – only getting test scores up is valued.

Finally, Pamela shared some responses from the 2018 Teacher Voices survey, wherein over one third of the respondents said they would not be able to continue. She concludes that teachers, as well as administrators and students are the ones paying for this “bias for the market” and that the system is unsustainable. She asks the group to look at the question, what is our collective bias for education, and how do we advocate for change? With teacher shortages coming up, I wonder if the “market” will force the government to value teachers more – or do they have something else in mind?

Tina Roberts-Jeffersdescribes herself as a mum, and a computer science student with a history of activism for African Nova Scotian education. She is also chair of her children’s school’s SAC and was a school counsellor in the Chicago public schools. She framed her discussion around the idea of “voice” – the idea that everyone should be able to participate fully in our democracy, but that some voices are still not being heard. She reminded us that when common schools were established in NS, African Nova Scotian children were not allowed to attend and one way that racism is perpetuated is by burying the voices of marginalized groups. She describes a 3 volume report that was compiled by the Black Learners Advisory Committee, containing history, results of research done by the committee and a framework for action – a report that has rarely been referenced in any of the succeeding educational reports.

She got involved in educational activism in NS around the time of the labour disruption. She spoke at the first press conference as a parent, saying that she trusted the teachers more than the government, and pointing out the hypocrisy of a government that expects parents to trust teachers with their children’s future, but not in their ability to negotiate what is best for them. She also took part in the second press conference where many regular parents had space to express themselves. That and the Facebook group NS Parents for Teachers, which she helped set up, were important for parents who look for responsivity when deciding how to use their precious time.

Tina described taking her children to play at their school during the summer, and finding racist graffiti sprayed all over the doors and other parts of the building – something she had never experienced before even though she grew up in the States. Having to shield her children from this hate pushed her into sharing the story with the media, something she was reluctant to do initially. However, now she is glad she did it and feels that her voice was heard. But this doesn’t negate the daily indignities that racialized children face at school, and there is still lots to be done. She hopes that real educational reform will be accessible, inclusive and that all involved will listen to the lived experiences of the marginalized communities whose voice hasn’t been taken into account.

Rachel Brickner, the last speaker, is a professor of political science at Acadia University, concerned with workers’ activism and the feminist ethic of care. She described examples of teacher activism from Chicago where the teachers union held a 2 week strike, and tied bargaining to “creating schools that Chicago’s children deserve”. At the time, many children in the public high schools had been rejected from “magnet” and charter schools and felt left out and discouraged. The teachers won many of their demands, but soon after the school board closed 50 public schools in low income areas (mostly Black and Latino) and shifted the money to charter schools. In Michigan, sweeping “reforms” cut education budgets by $1 billion, weakened collective bargaining, and started using test scores to evaluate teachers. One side effect was that teachers were reluctant to teach children with exceptionalities, both gifted and learning disabled, because these students don’t typically “improve” their test scores as much as regular kids.

Rachel warned about the increasing disconnect between educators and the government in NS, with the constantly shifting policy goals, diverse groups of students and fewer resources to support them. With the perceived lack of public trust, this can lead to teacher shortages. Part of the problem is the adversarial nature of collective bargaining that often leaves individuals and the public out of the picture, especially when the government has the upper hand with various anti-union legislations. In the States, a recent Supreme Court decision means that public sector unions will no longer be able to mandate dues. At the same time, an increasing disconnect between educators and their unions, has been found, resulting from a lack of member engagement strategies. In Chicago recently, teachers have started organizing outside their unions with petitions etc. And finally, the biggest disconnect is between all above groups and the public – parents don’t know what is going on in the schools because teachers cover up what’s not working, and non-parents are even more distant. What can be done to remedy the situation? Much better dialogue between the parties will help, with teachers on the frontlines, embracing research and communicating it, and finding ways to raise awareness of the importance of education for a healthy society. Even non-parents should know about the impact of schools on house prices in their neighbourhoods! Everyone should be asking the question, “What kind of schools do our children deserve?” And like in Michigan, more teachers should run for public office – a great way to raise awareness of educational issues.

A lively question and answer session followed. Part 2 will cover the Saturday workshops.


Charter Schools: an idea whose time has gone. Part 2

For some children and their parents in NS, the start of the new school year was a nightmare. Lost bus drivers or buses that never came meant late arrivals, stranded kids and unnecessary hours of anxious waiting for parents. Complaints were loud and vociferous, and Stock Transport, the American multinational contracted to deliver Halifax County’s children to school, was called on the carpet.

When the dust had settled, after a weekend where the routers worked non-stop to clarify routes and iron out the problems, things seemed back on track. But what I found really interesting was that it was only on September 13, more than a week after the start of school, that Stock Transport hosted a “job fair”. As well as bus drivers, they were also looking for a bilingual router and operations specialists – could it be that Stock started the school year short staffed? Is it possible that they were trying to save money by minimizing the staff needed?

The last time I noticed Stock in the news was in February…”In a scathing report published last November , Stock was found to have committed eight violations, including operating a charter service without a licence, resisting or willfully obstructing inspectors, demanding drivers work beyond the driving hours permitted and falsifying records.” They narrowly avoided losing their school bus license, and the CEO publicly blamed a “rogue” regional manager who was fired when the problems came to light.

Part 1 of this post ended with the question “Why are AIMS and its relatives still promoting charter schools in Canada?” I used the example of the privatization of our Halifax school buses to show how corporations have been eying the education system looking for ways they can make a profit. But the push for profits sometimes has a dark side: skimping on hiring, risking safety by forcing drivers to work more hours than permitted, and then obstructing inspectors.

In Nova Scotia, we have seen creeping privatisation in education: P3 schools, imported standardized tests, vouchers to private schools instead of meeting students’ needs in the public system, outsourcing data management and bussing, Powerschool and tutoring agencies to name a few. Charter schools would just be another way to accelerate this transfer of money from the public to the private sphere.

To see how this story ends, one only has to look at what has been happening south of the border.  In some states, such as California, charter schools have starved the public system of funds.  Every time a student leaves the public school for a charter, their previous school loses out because public money follows the student.

Many states in the US pay their teachers poorly, but this can be exacerbated in the charter system where teachers’ salaries can be determined by their students’ standardized test scores, and where unions do not exist. But, while paying teachers less, it is not uncommon to see charter schools paying huge salaries to administrators and Boards of Directors (this also happens in British academies).The president of one California charter chain Altus Institute, Mary Bixby, was paid $371,160 in 2014—”exceeding the total pay plus benefits of the Superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District that serves nearly 130,000 students.”time mag cover teachersInvestors in charter schools, like billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, make good money – he is receiving a 10% annual return on his “impact investment” in a charter chain that has recently built 79 schools in poor neighbourhoods. By investing through his charitable foundation, he probably also manages to save on taxes that could support public education.

Nova Scotians have recently lost, through local school board abolition, their ability to question their school board members about education issues.  But there has always been secrecy surrounding charter school administration. In California, wealthy interest groups are lobbying and exerting political pressure “to thwart legislative efforts that would increase charter oversight, such as AB 709 that would make charter board meetings public, allow the public to inspect charter school records, and prohibit charter school officials from having a financial interest in contracts that they enter into in their official capacity. All of the above are expected of public schools.” – and not necessarily provided by charter schools.

Canada is the mouse sleeping next to the elephant. When the US twitches, we can be crushed. What infects them, often spreads to us. The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that has gripped US education policy for the last 20 years has been advancing the 2-tiered, semi-privatized education system that has resulted in the rise of charter schools (and a widening achievement gap between rich and poor). And now they have an Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, who was chosen for her long-time support for charter schools.  Her husband, a billionaire former Amway CEO, actually runs a charter school in Michigan, where students can learn to pilot airplanes. This year, the education budget she proposed cut $9 billion (13%) from the federal education budget, while increasing support by $1.4 billion for charter schools and vouchers. Fortunately, Congress rejected it – but she’s not finished yet.

Appearing on CNN in 2017, she endorsed one charter/private school, Acton academy, as “truly a unique model in that it’s totally student directed, there’s no teacher in the classroom…and the school is actually proliferating pretty rapidly through the country.”

Acton Academies are really proliferating – on their website it tells you how you can start your own franchise – there’s even one in Toronto. I have to admit that their methodology  sounds progressive. It had me yearning to plunk down my $10,000 (one time start up fee, other costs “as low as $50,000”) to start up my own academy! But here’s what the school really looks like:  a lot of kids on computers playing educational games, with “guides” (not teachers) monitoring the process. “In an elementary class of 36 to 40 students there currently are two Guides; the middle school has one Guide for 36 students, though the number of Guides is expected to drop as high school students take over these responsibilities. No professional development is done to support technology implementation.” No B.Eds are required – heck, even the high school students can do the job!

Forbes Magazine loves this idea: “Sure, this kind of experimental education might be illegal in many liberal states captive to teachers unions, who will defend their taxpayer-supported, substandard product to their last breath. But in places that encourage home schooling, the legal groundwork has already been laid. All the market is waiting for is someone like Jeff (Sandefer, Acton founder) to come along with a replicable model.”

If these Acton schools sound appealing to you, even though they are only for those wealthy enough to pay its fees, think of their poor cousins, the “storefront charters” or “Independent Learning Resource Centres”. These are also proliferating, especially in California, where they target “at risk kids” and have had abysmal graduation and drop-out rates. But they are lucrative because they are so easy to run – the student only has to report in once a week and is responsible for completing work packets and passing the tests based on them. The teacher/student ratio is astronomical so costs are  low.

So it’s no wonder AIMS and its relatives, the Fraser Institute and the CD Howe Institute, funded by wealthy business interests, with their boards stocked with billionaires, are salivating at the thought of the business opportunities promised by the charter school model. They read Forbes, and are well aware of one of the major impediments to full privatization: teachers unions. Hence the orchestrated attack on them, while at the same time they promote charter schools. Soon, if GERM spreads more, they will be touting “independent learning centres”, where teachers’ role is minimized, if not eliminated entirely.

I’m not even in the union, but I will defend our taxpayer-supported, but not substandard, public education system to my last breath. In fact, convincing us that our public education system and our teachers are substandard  has been one of AIMS’ aims for many years – but we know that Canada has one of the best education systems in the world.  Instead of diverting our public money to charters and other privatized schools, why not focus on making our good public schools even better so that the billionaires who fund think tanks like AIMS and the CEOs of companies like Stock Transport would be happy to send their children to them? It can be done.


Charter Schools – an idea whose time has gone. Part 1

Just around the time Nova Scotian kids and their parents were navigating the start of a new school year (a particularly rocky start for the many who take have to take school buses) innocuous seeming opinion pieces appeared in several eastern Canadian newspapers. These articles claimed kids in Atlantic Canada “aren’t getting access to the educational choices they deserve” and touted “an innovative solution right here in Canada: charter schools”. They were written by Paige MacPherson (new Atlantic director of Canadian Taxpayers Federation – an organization devoted to reducing taxes) and her claim is that charter schools will provide more school choice for parents, superior academic results and, on top of it all, save money for taxpayers. All these claims, and more, can be found in a new research paper put out by AIMS, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, coincidentally authored by Macpherson herself.  http://www.aims.ca/books-papers/charter-schools-alberta-untapped-potential-educational-diversity-eastern-canada/

Most of the paper is about Alberta, because it is the only province in Canada where charter schools exist. Despite having been established there for more than 20 years, since 1994, only 1.4 % of the student population attend charter schools in Alberta, and most of those are in the largest cities. Despite this, MacPherson claims that their model has something to offer the rest of Canada. She claims that charter schools enable greater school choice, which will ultimately mean competition between schools. This will supposedly lead to a raising of academic standards across the board.

However, time for a quick reality check. In Alberta, there are almost no charter schools in rural areas. Charter schools and the “school choice” model, are generally an urban phenomenon, because a high population density is required to support competing schools within feasible travel range. In the Nova Scotia, where many school districts face declining enrolments, rural areas often face the problem that their only school may not have enough students to stay open at all. In areas which can only support one school, even when students spend hours every day on a school bus to attend, “school choice” is a ridiculous concept – and more than 50% of students in Nova Scotia live in small towns or rural areas.  Although parts of downtown Halifax and perhaps Sydney, may be able to support several competing schools, these are essentially the only places in Nova Scotia where “school choice” is a practical possibility. Given this reality, locally based school boards have historically been the way in which parents could have input into their children’s schooling. However, Nova Scotia has just eliminated school boards (another AIMS idea). In an era when small rural communities are often losing their schools the idea that charter schools will increase parents’ choice or input into their children’s schooling is laughable.

Even for major metropolitan centres, Macpherson ignores the fact that great diversity is provided within the public systems of large cities like Toronto and Vancouver where parents can choose from a wide variety of alternative schools. If school choice is what she values, why doesn’t she call for Halifax and other large Atlantic cities to adopt a Toronto style system of public alternative schools?

Her second claim, that charter schools will produce superior academic results is also suspect.  Using the Fraser Institute “report card” on schools (whose validity is also highly suspect), MacPherson claims that the 13 Alberta charter schools outperform the over 1000 public schools, and uses this graph:

charter school test results

Apart from the fact that any standardized test scores show only one aspect of a school’s worth, there is no explanation of what test results she is actually using from the past 10 years or why she doesn’t use the handy “mark out of 10” that the Fraser Institute uses to grade schools. She dismisses (without providing evidence) the well-founded objection that charter schools attract children from “an engaged demographic” and that this “may skew standardized test scores”.  She maintains that the Charter Schools handbook states “charter schools cannot turn students away, if they have the capacity to take them on” so therefore they cannot be elitist. This is completely disingenuous as anyone knows who is familiar with the lengths education-savvy parents will go to in getting their kids in to the “best” schools.

And as for saving money for taxpayers, MacPherson speculates that if 50% of Alberta students were in charter schools, the government would save over a billion dollars a year.  What this wishful thinking completely ignores is that private and charter schools  can select the students who will have the least problems and they can rely on the public system to develop curriculum that they can use. The public school per pupil amount covers the cost of the department infrastructure, including all the specialists and curriculum developers that are part of any education system. The major way charter schools could save money is by cutting the largest education expense of all – teachers’ salaries. And that would mean undermining teachers’ unions, which is what Grant Frost, in his excellent article https://frostededucation.com/2018/09/15/the-charter-school-cometh-aims-finds-a-new-champion-in-its-privatization-efforts/ maintains is one of the real motivations behind this push for charter schools.

It’s interesting that MacPherson doesn’t use examples from the US or Britain, where charter schools or their equivalent have been operating on a much larger scale than Alberta for the last few decades – and where there is a large literature evaluating rigorously (and mostly negatively) the claims of the charter school movement.

I have spent some time in Britain recently investigating the “academization” that started there about 20 years ago when “failing” schools (mostly in poor neighbourhoods) were taken over, sometimes by private interests, and made into “academies”, which were basically charter schools with a huge injection of cash. I have written about this in previous blog posts: https://progressiveeducationnovascotia.com/2018/03/28/standardized-tests-can-lead-to-a-2-tier-system-part-2/

Although the hype at the start was that academization would give disadvantaged students access to the best education, what has actually happened is that 20 years later there is basically no difference in academic standards between academies and schools that have remained in the public system, but lots of evidence that segregation between privileged and disadvantaged students has deepened.  And has all this produced better results across the board? On international comparisons, such as PISA, test scores have only marginally improved.

What also happened was that Britain went from having 152 Local Education Authorities (school boards) to over 3000 Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) plus the LEAs, all with their administrative structure, their school governors and bureaucratic systems. The cost of education has ballooned, while individual schools have been starved of resources, particularly the Local Authority schools. And where has all that money gone? Much of it has gone to the private interests that support and run these Multi-Academy Trusts.

So, after 20 years of academization in Britain, education costs have soared, the gap between the economically advantaged and disadvantaged has widened and internationally comparable test scores show little change. Academies haven’t worked in England, and they won’t work here. So why are AIMS and its relatives like the Fraser Institute still promoting charter schools in Canada?  Stay tuned for part 2 for what I think are some of the real reasons behind this push.


So good to be back in Nova Scotia!