By Samuel Kirsh
Since 1980, the graduation rate of Nova Scotia’s secondary schools has increased substantially: from rates of 52.8% to the 2016/2017 rate of 92.3%. This spectacular rise has occurred through substantial public investment and increased per capita spending. However, student numbers have begun to decline over the past several years, as have Nova Scotian test scores compared to other provinces. Nearly half of students in the public education system in Nova Scotia are in the Halifax Metropolitan Area, highlighting a significant and potentially negative demographic imbalance. In this article I posit charter schools as a possible solution to Nova Scotia’s lagging education indicators and regional disparities, but with two important caveats.
The Education Reform Act of 2018 makes a start in remedying the inefficient allocation of resources by streamlining the supervising bodies of the education system. Consolidating regional offices into advisory councils will reduce inefficiency, but it does not address the issues of quality and employee retention, nor in truly addressing regional inequities in education delivery. To unpack this issue I would like to draw on Paige MacPherson’s report advocating charter schools as an alternative method to education delivery. While centralization holds the quantifiable advantage of short run savings, meeting the needs of rural, Mi’kmaw or African Nova Scotians is not as simple as adding board seats for these portfolios. Thus, the proposition of introducing charter schools as being more cost-effective and better at engaging local stakeholders should be highly appealing. With direct support from government in the forms of subsidies towards transportation and accreditation, education can be made more accessible for the province’s disparate rural and Indigenous communities. Over the long run this can stimulate productivity and growth across Nova Scotia; a substantially better investment than say, a new football stadium.
Now I would like to discuss the caveats I mentioned earlier. The first is that the Glaze report was released this past year, and it will take time and research to determine the impact of her recommendations, much less what is eventually implemented from them. Next, there is the issue that withdrawing direct government oversight may result in more unequal outcomes for marginalized communities by draining money from the already strained public education budget. Thus, the acceptable decision at this juncture is to implement a version of the Glaze report that is politically acceptable, and rigorously study its impact over the next several years. However, should the delivery of education remain sub-par, then perhaps it will be appropriate to revisit charter schools as a measure of allocating limited resources more efficiently and permitting autonomy in rural communities that will likely benefit from it.
As an Op-ed, this one runs fairly centrist, if inconclusively, but at the same time it is my contention that people should be inconclusive regarding the future of the Nova Scotia education system, as it holds many questions. Will the process of centralization continue? Will sustaining this process leave the department too top heavy, an issue that exists in its current form. What will the province’s population look like in the next few years? The suggestion of a teacher’s college may yield substantial benefits, but what will the timeline be for that institution? For now, this author is on the fence as to the outcome and is merely suggesting that better data is needed to formulate a proper decision, not one merely formed in the court of public opinion.