Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part Three – Where do the Parties Stand on School Autonomy?

By Robert Green

Thus far this series has looked at where Quebec’s political parties stand on education funding and curriculum. This article will examine where the parties stand on the question of school autonomy.

A week rarely passes in Quebec where there is not one news story or another about members of a local community clashing with school board or government bureaucrats over an issue involving schools. Because many feel that the centralized bureaucracies that manage our schools are out of touch with the needs of local communities, they argue for greater school autonomy. On the other hand, some degree of centralized management is needed in order to maintain equitable access to resources and system-wide standards. Indeed the question of local autonomy versus centralized management is one of the key issues every government must face in managing its education system.

One of the major trends in North America involving the issue of school autonomy is the use of incentivized ‘performance indicators’ as a means for government to impose its will on schools. This is the philosophy behind George Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) law that ties school funding and/or teacher pay to various measurable indicators of school success. More often than not this involves standardized test scores.

After ten years of such policies, the US has not improved its achievement rates at all. It has, however, succeeded in transforming its public schools to serve a single purpose: prep for high stakes standardized tests. Not only have American schools been canceling art classes, phys ed and even recess in order to focus more on test prep, but there has also been a wave of high profile fraud scandals throughout the US, some involving hundreds of teachers and administrators systematically changing the test responses of students to avoid their schools being shut down or defunded. The only other thing such policies have achieved is millions in profits for the corporations that own the private charter schools and have been all too happy to receive the public dollars formerly dedicated to the public system.

Parti Liberal du Quebec (PLQ)

While thus far in the campaign the Liberals have said nothing about the issue of school autonomy, their record in office speaks volumes. In 2008, the Charest government passed Bill 88 which for the first time introduced the notion of management by performance indicator into Quebec’s public schools. The bill mandates schools to sign a contract called a ‘Management and Educational Success Agreement’, committing each school to making measurable improvements such as improving overall math or literacy scores by 5%. Such improvements are to be made irrespective of the resources that have been allocated to the school. In this way such agreements ensure that accountability for a school’s failure is directed squarely at the school itself, not at the government that controls the various resources schools need to operate.

The worry is that this bill seems to be taking Quebec in the direction of the failed experiment that is NCLB. In Octobre 2011 such fears were confirmed when Liberal Education Ministre Line Beauchamp announced that she would be implementing an American style system that distributes funds to schools unequally based on their performance. Having just announced deep cuts to school boards Beauchamp explained that the funds cut would be redistributed to the schools with the best measured performance. By ensuring that the schools with the most struggling students receive the least funding, such policies have the quite predictable effect of widening inequalities between schools. If the Liberals intend to continue down the path of NCLB, they need to explain to voters why they believe that this approach will work in Quebec when it has failed so miserably in the US.

Parti Quebecois (PQ)

Although the PQ was the party to introduce the notion of ‘management by performance indicator’ to the province, imposing management contracts on Quebec’s universities in the early 2000’s, it is unclear where they currently stand on the issue of imposing such contracts on public elementary and secondary schools. Their electoral platform does make one reference to “reinforcing” school autonomy, however it is unclear what exactly is meant by that.

Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ)

The CAQ’s electoral platform makes an explicit commitment to “more autonomy for schools”. In its proposal to reorganize the education system (which will be discussed in detail in a future post), the CAQ envisions both financial and decision-making power devolving to the schools. School autonomy therefore seems to be a high priority for the CAQ.

However, a closer look at the CAQ’s policy documents and Francois Legault’s record reveal that the CAQ is in fact quiet intent on maintaining, if not enhancing government control of schools. There is probably no bigger advocate of management by performance contract than Francois Legault. The introduction of such contracts in public sector management was his brainchild as the PQ’s Minister of Education in the early 2000’s. At the time he used such contracts to unilaterally impose reforms on Quebec’s Universities. As recently as 2009 Legault was quoted in le Devoir as calling for a “culture of evaluation” [referring to performance contracts] not just in schools but throughout the entire public sector.

The CAQ’s policy position paper “To Be Endowed with One of the Best Education Systems in the World by 2020” contains a description of a “performance management structure staked on the success of every student” that involves the use of performance indicators and standardized testing to evaluate schools. We can be fairly certain that this is what is meant when the CAQ Platform states that increased funding for schools “will be accompanied by the establishment of mechanisms to ensure greater accountability in managing public funds”.

Mr. Legault should visit the US where such policies have been in place for over ten years. Far from making schools more autonomous or successful they have transformed US schools into places where the joy of learning has been sacrificed for endless prep for the all-important standardized test. The drive to meet the needs of the local community has been replaced with a drive to meet externally imposed performance criteria. This is the exact opposite of autonomy.

Quebec Solidaire (QS)

While Quebec Solidaire’s program is explicit about the autonomy of universities, particularly with respect to academic freedom, it is somewhat less so with respect to public elementary and secondary schools. The QS program calls for educational institutions from preschool to college-level to be “public, democratic, secular and independent of market influences”. This certainly implies some degree of local control. As does the fact that the QS program calls for schools to have the ability to develop special programs to be run in conjunction with provincial curriculum. By allowing a school’s educational program to be developed in part by government and in part by the schools themselves, QS seems to want to strike a balance between local autonomy and government control.

However, although QS’s program clearly indicates a strong role for government, it is unique amongst the political parties in proposing that government decisions be made by committees composed of stakeholders in the education sector, such as parents, teachers and administrators. This more participatory approach renders any degree of centralized management far less threatening to local autonomy as the voices of local stakeholders are actually included in the initial decision making process.

Option Nationale (ON)

While the Option Nationale platform makes no specific reference to the issue of school autonomy, its various proposed education initiatives indicate that it sees a significant role for government.

Le Parti Vert du Quebec (PVQ)

Of all the party platforms the Green Party’s is probably the most clear in its support of local school autonomy. The Green platform mentions giving schools more responsibility, but also more freedom to “develop approaches that are appropriate to their milieu”. In addition, one of its six education-related promises is to make Quebec’s primary and secondary schools into entities that are both “autonomous and responsible”. It would be helpful for the Green Party to provide more detail on exactly how they would intend to make schools “more responsible”.

Check back soon for part four of this series which will examine where the parties stand on the question of the abolition/reorganization of Quebec’s school boards .

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