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VIBERT: Democratic deficit in a brave new world

It wasn’t a good week for Nova Scotia.

The province killed off another level of government, and the only discernable reason was that Stephen McNeil’s Liberals believe bureaucrats make better decisions than Nova Scotians elected to school boards. 

The deed is done, so we can only hope the government is right.

There was enough talk about a democratic deficit this week in the House of Assembly that, by sheer repetition, at least one observer of the place – and there aren’t many – started to buy in.

The government killed off the school boards like it was no big deal. It should never be a casual thing to end democratically-elected governance, in school administration or anything else. It is an authoritarian act and needs to be recognized as such.

Nor should it escape note that a government elected by less than 40 per cent of those who bothered to vote last May ended a democratic institution that is seven years older than Education Minister Zach Churchill. Legislators who represent the other 60 per cent of voters were unanimous and vehement in their opposition to the McNeil government’s power play.

March break is more welcome than usual this year.

The break should provide teachers respite from the politics of education, which they need every bit as much as a recess from the classroom. The rest of us won’t suffer by the week’s holiday from the legislature either.

With school boards destined for the boneyard, the brave new world dawns with what the government says will be “empowered” school advisory councils. And because the province never fails to mix some Orwell with its Huxley, an appointed provincial advisory council will meet in secret and never disclose what it tells the minister. 

Orwell’s 1984 gave us a world where truth was concealed, but it was Huxley’s Brave New World that anticipated a world where the truth is indistinguishable in what Neil Postman called the sea of irrelevance. The government rammed its education bill though in days, confident that once passed it would disappear amid our “almost infinite appetite for distraction,” just as Huxley predicted.

Orwell and Huxley were writing fiction, at least in their day, as was Avis Glaze when she penned the report the province commissioned to justify turning public education on its head. 

She bestowed power of mystic proportion on a handful of standardized test scores, before designing her own dystopian future, where calling school superintendents by a different title would bring harmony to our schools’ chaos.

There are, at last count, 425 public schools in Nova Scotia and each of them, or each “family” of schools is to have an advisory council that can pencil in its annual meeting with the minister of education, as per Glaze recommendation 1b. Every three months, each of these school councils will also enjoy the undivided attention of the regional bureaucrat formerly known as the superintendent of schools. In Halifax, that’s 134 meetings each quarter for the non-super, and if the education minister manages to schedule five school councils a day, he can get all his meeting done in four months so long as he devotes five days a week to the task.

When you call the minister of education, as he suggested, to ask why the school bus is never on time, he really will be in a meeting.

Obviously, the accountability framework Glaze devised to replace elected school boards is sheer fantasy, but there is no reality, at least not in the province’s master plan for your kids’ education.

Churchill makes one good point when he says change is never easy. Change is inevitable. When managed well, it is generally for the better and it’s long overdue in public education. But the devil is in the details, and those are non-existent.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” is a favorite dodge of Donald Trump, the dodgiest politician on the planet. It’s also the unsatisfying answer to almost every question about how the school system will work come September.

What you don’t know can’t hurt you. The Orwellians in the provincial government see that as a good reason not to tell you anything, while Huxley’s apostles are confident your attention is fleeting and drawn to the trivial anyway. 

Ah, but it’s March break. Time to forget about all this stuff and read a good book or two.

Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.

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