Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hudak's FDK change of mind

Though I have a number of tabs open to blog about on the desktop, I'm hunkered down avoiding highway driving in torrential rain as this came across Twitter tonight. The Star's Queen's Park columnist Martin Regg Cohn posted this Wednesday evening with the details on Tim Hudak's change of heart on full-day kindergarten.
But Hudak had reflexively opposed full-day K when Premier Dalton McGuinty acted on the recommendation of his early-learning adviser, Charles Pascal.
“When your credit card is maxed out, when you have no money in your bank account, Ontario families don’t go out and buy a shiny new car,” Hudak said last year. Full-day K “is just not affordable at this point in time.”
He refused to commit to any future rollout. It wasn’t just a matter of money — $1.4 billion a year by 2014 — but ideology and politics. Instead, Hudak held out a classic Tory alternative: putting cash in parents’ hands.
A PC survey asked voters about scrapping full-day K to “provide parents with direct financial support to allow them to choose the child-care option that works best for them.”
The answer came back that Ontarians actually liked full-day K. That’s also what MPPs were hearing from parents and school trustees in their ridings. With growing pushback from caucus, Hudak gave Witmer a hearing — but still didn’t heed his education critic.
That changed when the party did its own intensive polling. Witmer, who wears her social conscience on her sleeve, acknowledged privately to her education contacts that Tory focus groups showed overwhelming support.
This comes as no surprise to me.
Meeting with Dr. Charles Pascal during my foray at Massey College, he was steadfast to what he's said about full-day kindergarten since day one. It's a program parents love and want. No party would dare touch it in the upcoming election— and this was mere weeks after Hudak came out with his quip on the first day of school saying the government was implementing a "Cadillac" version of the program.
Cohn gives Hudak a "middling mark" on FDK. Interestingly though, it perhaps shows why Witmer came to Brant a few weeks ago to peddle the hydro message and didn't say a word about education.
Sadly for people like me, it also means the pending election will be bereft of any K-12 education debate.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Treading softly into the writ drop

It was an interesting week watching and reading coverage from the proceedings at the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario's annual meeting. I did so mostly through Twitter along with the various media outlets' coverage of the different speakers throughout the week.
As usual, I was left in awe by Moira MacDonald's insightful analysis in a few columns throughout the week from the floor of the conference. The first spoke of how the union is treading softly, "talking softly," MacDonald said, heading into the pending provincial election.
There was no fist-pounding or pumping. Maybe gambling one too many times with the government — and losing — especially in its 2008 contract talks, has sobered the union up or taught it to be poker-faced.
At that time, combative previous president David Clegg (note, he’s not president anymore) headed a confusing campaign called “Close the Gap.”
It tried to put elementary teachers’ work conditions on par with high school teachers’, even though they’re two different jobs.
Great salary improvements, despite the 2008 global financial meltdown, were offered by the government, along with other perks.
But the union blew multiple government deadlines to achieve its demands and ended up with a 10.4% raise, not the 12.55% all other teachers got over the contract’s four years.
Instead of closing the gap, ETFO opened a new one between its members and others doing the same job.
Later in the week, she wrote about the awkwardness of Premier Dalton McGuinty's address to the union-- itself quite interesting. Other media outlets (here's the CBC's as an example) focused more on the messages in McGuinty's speech that fearmongered support for other parties. As far back as I can remember, the ETFO annual meeting has played host to education ministers and leaders of opposition parties, but this week was the first time McGuinty addressed the delegates and I can't remember Ernie Eves, Mike Harris or Bob Rae having done so.
There was nothing earth-shattering in McGuinty's address, as he tried to cozy up to the federation while indicating strong support for continuing the Education Quality and Accountability Office testing the union so abhors, as well as investments in full-day kindergarten.
Ontario PC Party leader Tim Hudak wasn't invited to address the convention, but did send out an open letter to Ontario's teachers on the last day. I have that letter on my work laptop and will upload and link it here soon.
Add to the mix my own conversation with re-appointed First VP Susan Swackhammer (a Brantford resident) and it'll be interesting to see the road ahead. Rather than reaching the usual volume of rhetoric coming out of the convention, the federation is lying low. No doubt it will invest its dollars in ads and such during the pending campaign, but there's no bold statement on what it wants from government.
If the federation is getting better at its political strategies, it would lie low during this campaign-- should there be a change in government, and it won't be to the NDP the delegates swooned over on the same morning McGuinty spoke, it's best to save energy for the battles that may lie ahead. Those with longer memories will remember that the teachers' federations abandonment of the Ontario NDP in 1995 because of their opposition to the so-called social contract bit back in a huge way.
Members understandably want their wage parity back. They should carefully consider how to achieve that given it's very tough to argue for it in this economic and political climate regardless of what party's leader is sworn in as premier after Oct. 6. Had a different government been in power these last seven years, it's quite easy to conclude ETFO would be a smaller union than it is today thanks to continued declining enrolment. It's not and in fact has sustained if not grown its membership.
Hopefully they've pondered that.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A missed opportunity, maybe because you've got nothing to add

Got an advisory at work Monday regarding Ontario PC Party Kitchener-Waterloo MPP Elizabeth Witmer's drive-through appearance in Brantford on Tuesday morning. As I type this post Witmer's appearance is about 10 minutes away from starting, but she's the latest in a line of PC MPPs to drive through the riding of Brant in support of candidate Mike St. Amant, who's facing incumbent Liberal Dave Levac. I had the joy of covering Nepean-Carleton MPP Lisa MacLeod's drive-through visit last week.
I'll post our article once it's up on the web, post visit.
Here's what confused me: All the branding in the advisory suggested Witmer was coming to town to talk about hydro and energy rates.
Yeah. The Ontario PC Party sends the last education minister of its last government -- who also happens to be its current education critic -- to a riding to talk hydro rates.
Why not send Witmer into Brant to hammer away at the Liberal government's record on education? Is it because you've got nothing up your sleeve or in your pockets that could make any kind of impact on the education file? Of all the current MPPs I can't think of anyone who would be more experienced or qualified to chase the Liberals on education than Elizabeth Witmer.
She was the first person in government to start acting on the Rozanski report almost a decade ago, the first to realize the 1998 funding formula needed its tweaks to address some longstanding issues. I could go on.
I would think her talents are wasted in coming to Brantford to talk hydro. So have the PCs just given up campaigning on any education-related matters?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Anyone else doing the math?

This came to mind this week as I covered a pre-campaign event in Brantford, centred on energy bills. I was chatting with a staffer in the local PC candidate's campaign office and was mentioning how a former candidate for the Ontario Liberal Party nomination in my former coverage area (Oxford), a trustee, very quickly mentioned the government's investment in schools in the riding.
A colleague at the Sentinel-Review had asked this very question earlier this year and was working on an article (that I do hope she publishes at some point) in regards to what the dollar value of capital (not including Good Places to Learn and school-renewal funds) investment in schools is within the riding.
Given some institutional memory, I was able to rhyme off some very quick numbers to reach a number between $85 and $90 million between the three local school boards.
I wasn't that far off-- the number is approximately $92 million invested since 2001.
In a nutshell, that includes a new K-12 French school opening in September, a new K-8 school on a greenfield site, a new K-8 consolidated school and significant expansions to 12 other elementary and two high schools. With one exception, these projects were all since moving away from the old pupil-places capital funding program under the PC government from 1998-2004 to the various capital funding schemes that have existed since under the Liberals.
As an example, the town where I reside (Ingersoll), as of the completion of construction later this year, will have no K-8 school whose facilities haven't been significantly rebuilt or built since 2003. There's some $20 million to $26 million of school construction and renewal in this village alone since 2002-03.
In the riding overall, that's not a bad record to be running on given the last new school to be built in the riding prior to the current government opened in 1996. A big part of this is how aggressively the Thames Valley DSB moved to go through school-closure committees (the board has completed its third round of these, ahead of any other board in the province that I'm aware of) and work with the province to secure capital funding so that every student displaced by a school closure was moving to a school that was in better condition and a better physical learning environment than the one they left.
Before you start typing the "but" comments, I am very aware this came at a cost.
The new schools and expansions happened after the closure of nine schools since 2005. Communities that had a school in some cases no longer do-- one township (South-West Oxford), had a K-3 and K-8 school in its northern stretch and as of this fall will have none in the entire township. In a locally very controversial move, a 9-12 high school with between 200-250 students at the time was closed in the Village of Norwich. The impacts of those decisions can't even be measured yet, but will start to become visible over the next few years.
The point here is who's out there doing this math? Off the top of my head and without doing some digging, I wouldn't be able to state what the number is in the riding where I now work (Brant). I wonder how many other reporters out there would ask the same questions, regardless of who currently holds the riding.
These numbers might be interested to know and would add another education discussion to the election conversation that, as far as education goes, is looking like it will be all about implementing full-day kindergarten.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Biting off one's nose to save one's faith?

There was a delicious development in the Catholic schools vs. equity and inclusiveness policy saga Monday, as Coptic Christian families with children enrolled in Toronto Catholic DSB schools threatened to pull their kids from schools. Here's the Star's article.
But (Fr. Jeremiah) Attaalla said the Coptic Church is vehemently opposed to any education about homosexuality. Attaalla wrote a letter on behalf of four Coptic churches in the city to the Toronto Catholic school board demanding that the teachings remain true to Catholicism.
“Our members do not want gay-straight alliance groups in our Catholic schools,” Attaalla said. “We will pull our children from the Catholic schools if they go ahead with it.”
The Church said it has 4,000 families with children currently attending Toronto Catholic schools. The board purportedly receives $8,000 to $10,000 in public money for each student, which means this could cost the board up to $40 million. 
So the elements that are delicious?
Well, first it adds an interesting element for Catholic trustees who might be swayed by the threat into taking a stand on the provincial policy and developing board policy that isn't consistent with what's coming from the ministry. If they care about the loss of students, then they might be willing to fight to keep these students and bend to the Coptic church's wishes.
For the families in question I'm left wondering how serious a threat they're willing to act upon. Sure, 4,000 kids is enough to setup a few private schools. Families may be willing to pay and the church may be willing to fundraise to run these schools, which would be faith-based private schools.
The article correctly and rightly points out that public schools wouldn't be an option for these families opposed to the policy, as they've already enacted it. The interesting part is that unless the families leave the province or stop paying taxes altogether, they'll still financially be supporting the policy they abhor.
The money the families already pay to support the publicly funded school system would still be recovered by the province through taxation and just end up supporting the very system that's adopting the very equity and inclusiveness policy they don't like-- meaning regardless of where they educate their children, they're still supporting a publicly funded system even if the TCDSB isn't getting the per-pupil funding for their kids.
Pulling their kids is perhaps more damaging to the public funding of the Catholic education system in the long run. If the publicly funded system doesn't meet their needs, then why fund a faith-based publicly funded system to begin with? Have a singular secular system and those families that believe a faith-based instruction is essential for their children can do so within the private-school system.
So while the families might think their threat pushes the province towards dropping the requirement that Catholic boards enforce the policy, it only adds fuel to the fire of those who might wish to eliminate those boards altogether.
The final kick? The call isn't supported by the Canadian Egyptian Congress.

Second thoughts in Peterborough

This hit the desk today from the Peterborough Examiner, regarding a recent high school school-closure review in the city. One of the participants in the committee, the city's appointed representative, is now stating the process was confusing and that committee members felt forced into making a decision to close a school.
Beside the obvious error in logic (yet another report where the writer explains the committee's role as making the decision when it's not), I'm left wondering whether Coun. Keith Riel would have said the same thing had the current recommendation on the floor for Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB trustees been to close a school other than Thomas A. Stewart Secondary School.
"This view is one shared by hundreds of people with whom I have spoken over the past few weeks," the letter (written by Riel) states. "In my view, there has been insufficient attention paid to the many alternatives available to the board to reorganize its services in a way that will maintain all four schools as valuable educational resources for current and future generations."
NOTE: Coun. Keith Riel is also a member of Put Students First — a new group, made up mostly of TASSS supporters — that has prepared its own plan of how to keep TASSS open by creating new and enhanced arts, science and technology programming. The group won't reveal details of the plan until presenting them to trustees Aug. 25. Riel said he's in the group as a private citizen. 
I would have bumped up this note at the end of the article a little higher. Mostly because Riel, as an elected city councillor, no longer really participates in anything within the city as a 'private citizen.' He doesn't stop being a member of city council when he does Put Students First business.
Despite how the article makes it seem that municipal involvement in this process is an unusual thing, there are good examples across the province where school boards and municipalities do get along (or at least when they find it of benefit). So is Peterborough going to go the London route, where they just crap on everything the school board does because they don't like the options? Or will the city choose to bring viable options to the table that trustees can actually act on in good conscience?
Declining enrolment is a reality city council needs to deal with, just as the KPRDSB does. Status quo is not an option and care needs to be taken with specialty programming-- while it might lead to enrolment increases in a few schools, the pool of students to draw from is fixed and as time passes, decreasing.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

More misunderstandings

It's always interesting to read how different accommodation review processes are interpreted across the province. The latest example comes from the Orillia Packet & Times where the local trustee is adamant a review in the area conducted by the Simcoe County DSB should not go forward as planned.
Peter Beacock, representing Oro-Medonte and Springwater townships with the Simcoe County District School Board, will give notice at the August board meeting that he intends to ask that the accommodation review for Moonstone Elementary School, scheduled to take place this fall, be abandoned.
Beacock joins Simcoe North MPP Garfield Dunlop and a group of concerned parents calling on the board to leave the little school alone.
"Hold the train for a bit," Beacock said Thursday. "Get the (capital priorities) list dwindled down some and then have a look at it."
Board staff previously recommended the school be closed. As a result, the board plans to strike an accommodation review committee (ARC) to look at the school's value to the community, businesses and school board, and consider all options.
Right away this gets confusing for the reader because it gives the impression the review has already begun. Well, it hasn't according to the list of active reviews on the SCDSB site. So announcing that you're going to bring something to a stop that hasn't started yet is a bit redundant-- the same as Beacock's eventual notice of motion and motion. Most boards don't vote on negatives, meaning they vote to do things, they shouldn't really be asked to vote to "not do" something.
Beacock wins the political game (maybe) by coming out and announcing this plan now. Even if he loses the procedural logic and any eventual vote, he can play the hero to his constituents. Despite having an elementary school under 200 FTE, likely of a certain vintage, with other accommodation options nearby (well, maybe not in southern Ontario terms) whose population is dropping by a classful of students every two years.
Really, one could ask if the effort would be better placed in lobbying his fellow trustees to defeat the recommendation, should it come forward in the fall as expected, to strike the review for Moonstone.
The reporter also missed a step in the last sentence of what I quoted above-- should have noted the committee makes recommendations. That goes back to my consistent pleas with fellow reporters to adequately explain the process that a review committee makes recommendations to trustees. Not decisions.

One step backwards?

Paul Kokoski argued Aug. 2 in the Hamilton Spectator the Catholic school system in Ontario has lost its way.
I've rarely written about these issues here, since my foundational belief is that if the province chooses to continue to fund Catholic schools, it shouldn't be surprised when the tenets of the faith conflict with provincial policy. As long as this dynamic exists, I don't react with rage, frustration or malice towards school boards that, in opposing or approving but ignoring policy, do so on the basis of the faith that guides the system they've been allowed to run using public funds.
Kicking off with mentions of the struggles between the faith and the province's equity and inclusiveness policy of the past year, Kokoski goes back to the 1960s, Vatican II and the decisions of that decade to move the Catholic instruction of pupils from the ordained to the laity.
Decades of replacing priests and nuns with lay teachers has left most of our Catholic schools in a catastrophic state. The students that graduate from them are, with few exceptions, agnostics, moral relativists and, at best, cafeteria Catholics.
How can this be undone and corrected? Though our bishops may not be in a legal position to exercise control over our schools, they certainly retain the right to freely force the faithful (via penal sanctions) to submit to church teaching. This right, in fact, was mandated at Vatican II in the doctrinal document Lumen Gentium.
Unfortunately, while this would greatly help matters, our bishops have consistently demonstrated a reluctance to exercise this singular authority, especially where it concerns Catholic politicians who support homosexuality and abortion. Why? They think that once in power these politicians will somehow have an epiphany and reverse their creed. But in never happens. Still, our bishops continue to believe in this policy of “compromise” as a means of conquering the world.
Rather than a call to arms to the faithful to strengthen the Catholic school system in a manner that makes the faith more malleable to the social-justice, equity and inclusive characteristics of our society in 2011, this column will likely have people running the other way. It could fuel the call to simply sever the faith from public funding and move to a single publicly funded school system-- such as has already been done in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador (provinces with a much stronger and larger Catholic tradition than Ontario as a whole).
The church's challenges don't start in Catholic schools and taking a harder line on upholding the faith in these schools won't be what begins restoring the faith where it's lost itself. The church's salvation lies in its ties to the community and family -- which includes schooling but shouldn't be led by it. Some of the strongest Christian faiths that are growing aren't built on a school system, they're built on a strong community.
It also makes one argument increasingly more compelling. If the Catholic school system cannot or will not adequately implement provincial policy and this becomes a critical issue for the government, the solution is simple. Follow provincial policies and get funded, or run your school system the way you want, but without public funding.

Headline diverges

I thought the headline on this column in the North Bay Nugget was disjointed from the tone of the text itself. The headline leaves one with the impression the column is going to be a missive about all that's wrong with the education system.
The column is actually about the Toronto-based, Ministry of Education-funded, TVO-administered distance-learning centre, the Independent Learning Centre. The author claims some difficulty in finding the website, which was easily googled, but whatever.
His key point:
If technology was being used as it should be I am certain the cost of education could be substantially reduced and more young people would be doing much better. Most important there would be more money available for elementary education.
This is a good time to tip one's hat to the kindergarten teachers and all the others charged with teaching the first few grades. What students learn or fail to learn in the first few grades profoundly affects them for the rest of their lives.
I do not believe computers can replace teachers in a student's early years but they can certainly help. When my grandchildren were very young it constantly amazed me how well they handled computers.
In a few lines he acknowledges both the benefits and challenges of computer-driven distance education. When it works, it's a fantastic alternative. But without students who are ready to engage with their learning in this format, it doesn't work. So, as stated, it doesn't always work for younger students. For those who are not interested in learning in any academic way, doing it by computer doesn't usually fix the challenge. Distance learning also requires self-accountability and a sense of independence and if the student isn't capable of it they're often let down since there's no one in the room to prod them on.
But is all this enough to state the system needs an overhaul? Not in this writer's opinion.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Friday, July 29, 2011 was my final day as a reporter working at the Sentinel-Review in Woodstock, Ont. After almost eight years (minus a fellowship) in that newsroom I will begin a new position at the Expositor in Brantford, Ont., starting tomorrow, Aug. 2, 2011.
I am indebted to the colleagues and friends I've worked with since 2003 at the Sentinel-Review. I'm also indebted to the community, where I have learned so much about the areas I've reported in, be it education, agriculture or municipal politics. In particular, sitting in the board rooms at the Thames Valley District School Board and the London District Catholic School Board only fed my knowledge and drive to specialize as an expert in K-12 education reporting in this province. As I established a relationship based on trust and professionalism with staff members in both those boards they responded by opening doors and allowing me to write about things many other education reporters in this province haven't.
My new position in Brantford will be primarily focused on covering municipal politics.
While I don't expect to regularly or often be writing about education for the Expositor, I will continue to write about it in this space, perhaps unencumbered. I rarely if ever blogged here about my own reporting, which did tend to leave issues within the district here absent from this space. Now that I'm moving on and also won't be paid (primarily) to write about education, I'll be freer to write here about what's happening there.
I've invested time and energy to become as knowledgeable about this subject and I won't soon be allowing that information to sit idle, so this blog will continue to be updated and I will continue to post in this space.