By Gerald Galway
Haven’t school boards outlived their usefulness? That’s a question I am frequently asked by reporters who write about education in Canada.
As an education researcher, I’ve been studying the ways school boards and education departments interact with each other in making decisions that influence schools and communities. Those interactions have been changing. Reporters, or anyone else who has been observing a growing centralization of authority over education, may well wonder about how school boards will function in the new order.
In the recent past, school boards have been charged with a long list of sins including underfunding schools, setting restrictive rules for busing eligibility, and unnecessarily closing or consolidating schools (or, in some cases, failing to do so). They have been accused of acceding too quickly to the will of government, and also, paradoxically, criticized for contesting government policy.
Although school boards bear the brunt of public dissatisfaction, many, if not most education policies originate within education ministries and are enacted — sometimes reluctantly — by the formal decisions of school district trustees. The relationships among school boards and governments, therefore, are complex and sometimes acrimonious.
Provincial governments typically take the position that school boards are quasi-autonomous agencies and make their own decisions within their legislated mandate. Yet, from time to time, legislators will overturn their decisions if they run counter to ministry directives or are otherwise politically problematic. For example, during a 2005 byelection in the District of Exploits, then premier Danny Williams reversed a controversial school board decision to close a school, justifying the interference as an example of government’s obligation to overturn wrong decisions in favour of the “right ones.”
The relationships among school boards and governments, therefore, are complex and sometimes acrimonious.
Some provincial governments have even taken to dismissing entire school boards, such as in the recent case of the dismissal of the Vancouver School Board over delays in bringing in a balanced budget and resistance to the closure of several city schools.
Some critics might well argue that parents and the public do not care that much about school boards. They are relatively invisible to the average taxpayer, voter turnout is quite low, and, unlike municipal council meetings, school board business is typically not covered by the news media. In the normal course of operations, therefore, most people are not well informed about the work of school boards.
In fact, it is this very feature of school boards — that they are fundamentally invisible agencies — that has enabled the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador to twice restructure the provincial school system from 10 English school districts to four regional districts (2004) and then to a single district (2013) in less than 10 years (while maintaining the Conseil scolaire francophone provincial). This occurred without any public consultation or debate.
Still, there is good evidence to show that school boards play an important role in advancing teaching and learning. In one recent Canadian study, the researchers concluded that although the provincial ministry of education had a large indirect influence on student learning, the effect was almost entirely dependent on school district leadership. This is consistent with evidence from several other studies, where the researchers concluded that school boards are an important systems-levels link between government and school communities and that they have a positive impact on system-wide learning.
The assault on public school districts/boards in Newfoundland and Labrador has been framed as a means to eliminate duplication and reduce administrative costs. However, as has been demonstrated elsewhere, such efficiencies are often short-lived. Moreover, they leave unanswered questions about whether efficiency — or perhaps the perception of efficiency — should supersede the principle of local democratic authority for education.
The government’s All Party Committee on Democratic Reform has a mandate to consult with the public in Newfoundland and Labrador, and to find ways to improve democratic processes. One place they could start is to recommend a review of the current school governance structure in this province, including the electoral process, which should rightly fall under the auspices of Elections NL. The ideals of the shared decision-making model involve local responsibility for most decisions about teaching and learning in schools, coupled with centralized provincial government authority for such things as curriculum and assessment standards and school construction. However, the drift towards a single English educational authority, situated in St. John’s, has disrupted the governance balance and placed almost all substantial power over educational policy in the hands of the provincial government.
This is troublesome for a number of important reasons but the crux of the problem is this: narrowing the sphere of influence in deciding how education should be governed is a de- democratizing process. It moves education from a regionalized stewardship model with many locally elected decision-makers to a centralized model where local influence is marginalized and where decisions may be more susceptible to political influence.
School boards have historically existed as a reflection of society’s deep-rooted belief that educational governance should reflect community and regional values and priorities. They serve to protect the diversity of community and regional interests characteristic of the Canadian mosaic. School trustees, therefore, should begin a constructive dialogue with the All Party Committee to both educate them and help enlist the views of the public about the importance of sustaining a local voice in educational governance.
If we are to continue to enjoy good schools that produce well-educated and informed citizens, authentic local authority over education should be preserved.
About the Author
Gerald Galway (Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland) is an associate professor and associate dean of education at Memorial University. In his career he has undertaken extensive policy research at both the provincial and national levels on topics including teacher resourcing, student financial assistance, e-learning, research-informed policy, and educational governance. His most recent co-edited book is “Inspiration and Innovation in Teacher Education” (Lexington Books, 2013). This article is an excerpt from “The Democracy Cookbook: “Recipes to Renew Governance in Newfoundland and Labrador” (ISER Books, 2017).