Saturday, 2 February 2019
The Manitoba government recently raised the possibility of eliminating or amalgamating locally elected school boards - not the first Canadian province to have threatened or done so. This suggests a lack of respect for and understanding of the important role that school boards play in democracy and student achievement.
Canadians have been selecting their fellow citizens to govern their local schools before the federal and provincial governments even came into existence. School trustees know a thing or two about governance and democracy! The argument that low voter turnout in school board elections is proof of their lack of importance to constituents is wrongheaded. It is true that turnout for school board elections are low in some cities (which is also the case in many municipal elections), but in other areas, local citizens exercise their franchise quite passionately, particularly when funding decisions made by provincial governments threaten schools and program closures. School boards, along with their municipal government counterparts, are closer to their constituencies than provincial and federal levels of government. School trustees act as the guardians of one of our most important public goods - and surveys have repeatedly shown that Canadians believe their educational interests are best served by local representatives. There is no more valid and genuine form of democracy than locally elected school boards, precisely because school trustees are not professional politicians. School boards put the public – the local public - in public education!
These attacks on local governance also fail to recognize that in addition to their democratic value school boards can and do positively impact student achievement. This is not just a fuzzy sentiment or trustee self belief. It is backed by research conducted throughout North America showing that school boards that exhibit certain governance skills have a positive impact on outcomes in the classroom – regardless of the socio-economic demographics of their communities. In the most recent OECD review of 72 countries, Canadian students ranked among the best in the world. Clearly, the current form of local governance is working. What problem needs to be fixed?
Research and experience has also shown that the elimination or major amalgamation of school boards does not produce real savings or reduce bureaucracy. Regionalized/centralized structures don’t eliminate the number of decisions that have to be made in school districts. They just result in broad policies that attempt to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to the unique needs of local communities. When parents are forced to bring their local concerns to a centralized provincial body the path to resolution is complex and their voices are diminished.
The model of local governance through publicly elected school boards is not redundant, flawed or broken. Manitobans, and all Canadians, must raise their voices to protect this critically important level of democracy.
Dr. Stephen Hansen