By Robert Green
Thus far this series has looked at where Quebec’s political parties stand on education funding, curriculum reform and school autonomy . This article will examine where the parties stand on the abolition or reorganization of Quebec’s school boards.
The idea of abolishing or in some way restructuring Quebec’s school boards is being proposed by nearly all of Quebec’s political parties. School board reform is a seductive idea for political parties because it offers them a means to direct more resources to Quebec’s badly underfunded public schools without making the sort of reinvestment that, though desperately needed, might be associated with increased taxes [cue the shrieks of horror from the press gallery]. However, as with most magic bullet solutions, voters have a number of good reasons to be skeptical.
The first reason for skepticism is that the claims that restructuring school boards will create a more efficient system that benefits schools are dubious at best. Political parties make vague references to “duplication of services” and “inefficiencies” without presenting the concrete details of specifically which services are being duplicated or how services would be reorganized to be more efficient. Not a single study has been done to illustrate the concrete benefits of such a proposal. Nonetheless, five of Quebec’s six main political parties have proposed charging ahead in that direction.
In order to assess the claims of the political parties with regard to school boards, voters need to have a clear idea of exactly what it is that school boards do. The fundamental mission of school boards is to equitably distribute the resources allocated by the Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS) to the schools in its territory. However, school boards are responsible for much more than that: they manage real estate and building maintenance; they fix the rate for school taxes; they engage in long term planning; they negotiate the local conditions in collective agreements; they organize bus and cafeteria services; they prepare professional development and pedagogical support services for teachers. Any plan to abolish or reorganize school boards should at the very least explain how each of the above responsibilities would be fulfilled and how such a plan would be more efficient.
Another reason for skepticism has to do with Quebec’s recent history. This is not the first time Quebecers have been promised more efficient public services through the amalgamation or reorganization of public institutions. In 1998 Quebec reduced the total number of its school boards from 230 to 72, and between 2000 and 2006 it amalgamated many of its municipalities. Before buying into the most recent claims regarding the abolition or reorganization of school boards, Quebecers should ask themselves whether similar past efforts to make public institutions more efficient have produced the improvements in service delivery that the politicians had promised.
In assessing the proposals for school board reform, another consideration for voters is the question of school board democracy. In theory, school boards are subject to a degree of democratic control through the election of their commissioners. However, with an anemic voter participation rate of less than 8%, some have begun to question whether school board democracy is worth the effort. This is an issue of particular concern for many in Quebec’s minority Anglophone population who fear a loss of community control of their school boards. However, if New Brunswick’s experience with abolishing its school boards is any indication, all Quebecers should be concerned about communities losing democratic control of their school boards. The 1996 abolition of New Brunswick’s school boards resulted in protests, blockades and even rioting by unhappy disenfranchised parents who had no formal democratic means of expressing their discontent with certain policies being imposed by the central authority in Fredericton.
There is no question that school board democracy in Quebec is sick. The question for political parties is whether to amputate or reinvigorate.
Parti Liberal du Quebec (PLQ)
While the Liberal Party platform makes no mention of school board reorganization, it is clearly an issue of debate within the party. In Octobre 2011, Liberal Education Minister Line Beauchamp announced a three year plan to cut $270 million from school boards and to redirect this funding to those public schools that meet certain government imposed performance objectives. Beauchamp also made vague references to transforming school boards into “service cooperatives” for the schools. Days later the proposal was shot down by activists within the Liberal Party who were fearful of its implications for English school boards. Given that we are currently in an election campaign, it would be extremely helpful if the Liberals would clarify exactly what, if anything, they envision for school boards.
The Liberal plan for school board elections is also unclear. In 2010 the Liberal government passed Bill 86 which indefinitely postponed the school board elections that were to be held in November of 2011. The purpose of doing this was to allow time to attempt to reschedule school board elections to happen simultaneously with municipal elections. The hope was that doing so would cause an increase in the dismal participation rate of school board elections. However, by February of 2012 it became clear that the Liberal government had failed to convince municipalities of the benefits of such a twinning of elections. In light of this recent failure, the Liberal Party needs to clarify what exactly its future plans are for school board elections.
Parti Quebecois (PQ)
The Parti Quebecois also wants to tinker with the reorganization of Quebec’s school boards, though perhaps less aggressively than some of the other parties. The PQ platform pledges to “eliminate duplication of responsibilities between the Ministry of Education and school boards”, however it doesn’t give any examples of specifically how responsibilities are currently being duplicated. The platform also promises to fuse school boards, but only on a “voluntary basis”. The PQ also promises to hold school board elections on the same day as municipal elections. Without the participation of the municipalities it is hard to imagine how this would be beneficial and the PQ has provided no explanation of how their plan to twin school board and municipal elections would succeed where that of the Liberals has failed.
Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ)
The Coalition Avenir Quebec presents the most audacious plan to reorganize Quebec’s school boards. The CAQ wants to completely abolish the existing school board structures and replace them with far fewer “regional service centres”. Its plan calls for the 60 French school boards to be replaced with 30 regional service centres, and for the 9 English school boards to each be replaced by a regional service centre. The CAQ platform states that these service centres will “support the services that schools cannot assume on their own”, but doesn’t give any clear indication of how their responsibilities might differ from those of the current school boards. It also states that this move will allow it to redirect human resources and about half of the current budget for school boards to schools. In other words, the CAQ wants voters to believe that they can have all the services at half the price and that the entire administrative structure of school boards can be over-hauled completely without creating any additional costs.
The other element of the CAQ plan that voters should be aware of is their intention to do away with school board elections. While the CAQ platform does claim that its plan will preserve some degree of “community representation” on the governing boards of the regional service centres, it does not specify how those community representatives will be chosen. Without such specifics it is difficult to judge whether a process that abolishes elections can in some way increase the degree of democratic control held by communities, as the CAQ claims.
Quebec Solidaire (QS)
Quebec Solidaire is to be congratulated for being the only party not to propose some miracle cure for Quebec’s schools involving school board restructuring. QS clearly sees the debate over the abolition of school boards as a diversion from the more fundamental issue of addressing the systemic underfunding of education in Quebec. In a recent party communiqué on the subject of school boards, QS candidate for Granby, Éric Bédard, states “the academic success of our children is closely linked to the resources we invest in our schools, not to sterile debates over the structure of school boards”. Bédard goes on to explain that QS’s priority would be to increase the amount of human and financial resources available to both individual schools and school boards. According to Bédard, “the theory of ‘do more with less’ reached its limits long ago”.
Bédard also states that “school boards, when well managed, have amply demonstrated their effectiveness and their necessity”. If the QS program has a weakness, it is that it does not explicitly address the question of what is to be done with the significant number of school boards that seem not to be well managed. That said, the QS program document “Les services publics dans un Québec solidaire” begins with a commitment to manage all public institutions according to principles of participatory democracy. In theory this would bring a high level of democratic accountability to Quebec’s public institutions. It would be interesting for QS to provide a more detailed description of what a participatory management structure for school boards would look like.
Option Nationale (ON)
The Option Nationale platform pledges to “Lighten the administrative structures governing schools by creating regional councils that will bring together and restructure school boards, health agencies and local elected officials”. No details are provided for this vague proposal with potentially enormous impacts.
Parti Vert du Quebec (PVQ)
The Green Party platform also proposes a vague plan to abolish the school boards and redirect the available resources to the schools. However, instead of creating new entities to manage the responsibilities currently handled by school boards, it would transfer those responsibilities to municipal governments. This proposal is problematic on many levels. Firstly, if the Liberals can’t even get municipalities to agree to take over school board elections, it seems highly doubtful that they would agree to take over the rest of school board responsibilities as well. Secondly, subjecting school budgets to the whims and pressures of municipal politics is extremely risky for the stability of the education system. One only needs to look South of the border to see what happens when municipal governments control school budgets. Finally there is the logistical problem that the current school districts do not correspond geographically with municipal electoral districts. What is to be done with a school board in the district of more than one municipality? If the Green Party is to be taken seriously on education issues, they should take this particular proposal back to the drawing board.
Check back soon for the next entry in this series that will focus on what the parties propose to do to address Quebec’s chronically high dropout rate.