Tagged: Wayne Fiander

Education funding — how to kill reform

Many assume the Dexter Government made a mistake when it asked school boards to consider—and report back on—the consequences of a hypothetical 22 percent cut in their budgets. They say this gave the boards and the NSTU a license to frighten voters, and thus rally support for their comfortable status quo. Contrarian reader (and retired Education Dept. bureaucrat) Wayne Fiander puts the case vividly:

Having served two premiers in this province, I can say with some confidence that a real education “right sizing exercise” is necessary to preserve public education. No government has yet tackled this issue correctly. They start with the end, and the current mess, a 22% cut—and the school boards and teachers union rub their hands together: They know this play for one more year of funding in their sleep.

Party functionaries and government flaks are in high gear trying to undo the perceived damage. Some assume the plan was a crude bait-and-switch strategy: threaten a huge cut and hope for a sigh of relief when you “only” cut 10 or 12 percent.

Maybe. But I’m not convinced there has been that much damage. In most communities, teachers are regarded as having generous terms of employment, and many Nova Scotians will recognize the union/board caterwaul of the last month as self-serving. In this, as in so many areas requiring tough choices by government, the public is more ready to be treated like grownups than politicians, flaks, and media suppose.

A decade of annual five and six percent budget increases in the face of a 30,000-student drop in enrolment is not sustainable. That’s not a hard concept for taxpayers to grasp.  Fiander thinks government should have started, not with a prescriptive cut, but with a vision of a changed education system. (I have done some light editing here for clarity.)

Government strategy should have been to lay out the vision of what the education system would look like, and then asked the school boards to respond. Part of the vision should have been to reduce school boards or downsize the Department of Education, as taxpayers can’t afford both. If that vision were laid out first, the sacred cows would not be put up for sacrifice, as parents would know they were not being touched. The sacred cows that would be on the table would be classroom sizes of 15 going to 20 (with correspondingly fewer teachers), closing small schools so students could  get better access to other needs, and putting more operations in private hands.

Reader Denis Falvy likewise urges taxpayers to follow the money:

About 80 to 85 percent of the $1.1 billion spent by the Department of Education goes to the line item, “Formula Grants to School Boards.” Using the Halifax District School Board as an example, approximately 75 percent of its $400-million budget goes to school administration, 59 percent of which is spent on the line item, “Salaries – Teachers.”

No doubt cuts can and should be made to the 25 percent of the education budget not allocated to school boards, and no doubt cuts can be made to the 40 percent of the school board budget not allocated to teachers—after all, teaching is what the department should be all about, not 60 or 75 percent about. But a successful long term approach toward education expenses logically has to come from the line item, “Salaries – Teachers.”

Education Funding – how does size matter?

Readers have responded quickly to my challenge for new ideas to deal with the real crisis in provincial education funding, and the dominant theme so far is school size. Stephen Moore wants to eliminate small schools:

My suggestion, though it will likely be unpopular, is to close smaller schools. There are many schools with extremely small classes sizes (and some instances of miltiple grades in one room). I agree that small classes can be beneficial and that small schools are a resource for rural communities; however, these are communities with declining enrollments and an aging demographic. School boards, afraid of a violent backlash from voters, decided to keep these small schools open even though keeping them open requires tremendous amounts of capital per school. This was a poor decision and, based on demographic trends, one that merely delayed the eventual necessity of closing these schools. If these schools were closed when the the boards had their chance, the cuts of 22 per cent would have been easier and far less painful. Communities and politicians looked at this issue and decided to pick buildings over teachers. They should have seen this coming.

But George Gore wants more small schools:

One-room schoolhouses, with a student-teacher ratio of 20:1.  They can be highly energy-efficient and can operate off-grid.  They would have minimal transportation costs.  They could be built by the volunteer labour of the communities they serve.  And if you think that the quality of education might suffer, consider this: the tiny schoolhouse on East Ironbound produced the highest ratio of PhD candidates in Nova Scotia.

Wayne Fiander, who worked for two ministers of education, notes that, “When I left government in 2009, according to the education deputy minister of the day, there were over 3 million square feet of vacant space in the form of schools throughout Nova Scotia.”

Denis Falvy thinks the key is to favor centripetal over centrifugal forces:

Given the experience we now have of distance education and the technical resources available to us in this day and age, surely we can have the bulk of education done in one ‘school’ in the province made available to all schools. Why should 100 teachers attempt to teach for example math, a subject most of them are poor at and hate, when a handful of capable and motivated educators could produce and present the material much more usefully, answer questions much more constructively, and motivate students toward the subject, instead of imbuing the student with a sense of failure in the subject.

Children and teens cannot be controlled long distance however. And students needing special help will continue to need more hands on time from teachers more imminent in their lives. So there would have to be some form of supervision and local help. The best way might be to promote the formation of small groups of students locally in communities, everything from at-home schooling to souped-up day-care groups, to small groups in community multi-purpose facilities. The site for the consumption of education can be flexible, as opposed to the current model of school construction. That would leave the very gifted and the very challenged to be dealt with, but it would provide the majority of education much more efficiently. Indeed, there is no reason why this could not be done on a national level.

This is obviously a long term strategy, but it can be phased in by immediately changing the focus of the current system toward a centripetal attitude toward teaching and a centrifugal attitude toward learning, all facilitated by distance education.

My own feeling is that there are opportunities to consolidate rural schools with dwindling populations. Sydney’s beloved Holy Angels High is a perfect example. Common sense demands that it be consolidated with Sydney Academy. But busing has probably reached its limit in rural Nova Scotia, where some students spend a crazy 2-1/2 hours a day riding buses. So maybe Moore and Gore are both right, and Falvey provides the key that could unite their views. Maybe a community like Pleasant Bay could be inspired to produce some great education with a heavy local, volunteer component, while drawing on distance education to fill any gaps.

Falvey and Fiander have several other ideas. More to come when time permits. (Contrarian does have a day job!) Here’s another question: if Contrarian readers can come up with a discussion of this calibre in a couple of hours, why can’t teachers, administrators, school boards, and union officials produce anything but sterile demands that their respective oxen not be gored?


The folks at Informationisbeautiful.net got their numbers wrong by a factor of, er, 10. The amount of CO2 emitted by the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano was not 15,000 tons of CO2 per day, but 150,000. To their credit, they owned up to the mistake, apologized fulsomely, and published a revised graphic:


Although the planes vs. volcano equation is more of a saw-off than it first appeared, the eruption still looks like a net gain for the atmosphere (or it was until flights resumed today).

This is a useful reminder of the adage,  garbage in, garbage out — especially important when it comes to vivid graphics.

Hat tip: Wayne Fiander.

Paving the way for Tories – feedback (cont.)

Several readers argue there’s nothing wrong with the Harper Tories steering infrastructure money to their own ridings, or pushing out deputy ministers who object, because (1) the money will be spent anyway, (2) the Liberals did it too, and (3) most senior civil servants are Liberal appointees. After the jump, a spirited response from longtime gadfly and former Dartmouth City Councillor Colin May, but first, contrarian reader Wayne Fiander weighs in: 

Since you went to great trouble to note [ousted Deputy Transport Minister Louis] Ranger’s expertise, you should have also informed your readers that Mr. Ranger “in the mid 90’s, took a two year assignment with the Privy Council Office. He then returned to Transport Canada as Assistant Deputy Minister, Policy and was appointed Associate Deputy Minister of Transport in 2001”  and was appointed DM at Transport Canada in 2002.  His connection to the Chretien Liberals is quite deep and therefore sheds the full light on his obviously political comments.

Good point. I should have noted that. But the implication that a two-year stint in the PCO 15 years ago justifies Ranger’s firing is bogus. The Harper crowd used public money for partisan purposes. That’s corrupt. Full stop. Getting rid of qualified civil servants who raise objections to this corruption is of a piece with that. Read more »