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Combining BC school districts will not benefit communities or students

Photo courtesy of stick.xchng

Let's examine the ongoing discussion about amalgamating school districts, including the notion of a single centralized province wide and province run school district.   

Education historian Thomas Fleming said in a 1997 article that “examination of the educational past illustrates that, at times of educational and economic exigency, provincial governments have acted to reconfigure the size and numbers of school districts.”

This sounds painfully familiar.

For all the fuss about how many school districts there ought to be, none of the discussion has been about how to improve student achievement, how to improve graduation rates, or how to improve success rates for B.C.’s First Nations kids.

The  discussion is always about money, but not bout what's being done with the money. Just that more has to be retrieved from the system.

Since the 1945 Cameron Report, which recommended a reduction in the number of B.C. School Districts, a proposal the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation endorsed, much has changed.

The 1996 round of amalgamations  reduced the number of districts from 75 to 60 and saved about $1.5 million per district, according to an NDP study at the time. But the savings went to the provincial government and not the districts. This resulted in  millions of dollars being taken out of  local economies. The net effect was that there were fewer teachers and administrators. 

The savings, in other words, didn't  benefit communities, schools, students or student achievement.

During the late sixties, I taught in the school system of New South Wales, Australia, where I grew up. Public education was highly centralized and controlled out of the central office in Bridge Street in Sydney. There were regions with regional directorates, but  little authority. All approvals about what went on in schools had to come from Bridge Street.

Subsequently a teacher or  school wishing to introduce a new program had to wade through several layers of provincial bureaucracy for approval.

Think about trying to get to the Deputy Minister for approval to add a “History of B.C.” course as a locally developed Grade 11 course. Or a new language course in an immigrant community.

In the N.S.W. centralized system by the time a reply was received, often a year later, the authors of the request had forgotten why they asked.

Parents had no access to educational decision making at all.

That may sound like a worst case scenario but bureaucrats have never been noted for progressive thinking or for taking risks.

In New Westminster, my first teaching job here, I proposed a Writing 11 course to the principal. “If the Board approves it as a locally developed course, you can get started next semester,” he said.

The board approved the course and I learned about the value of decentralized governance. For all its flaws,  the opportunity for innovation was there.

But can boards of school trustees, or boards of education, as they are now called (as if that changed anything)  offer what public education really needs: an overhaul of the system?

Too much trustee energy is still wasted around board room tables on agendas which have little to do with what matters most: making   education more relevant, more accessible and more success-oriented for kids who are on the verge of entering a world which will require much more of them than it did in Max Cameron’s day.

Local boards can, with a little courage and imagination, move the system ahead.  They only have to be willing to do so.  And if they want to prove their worth and relevance to an increasingly impatient coalition made up of government, communities and the kids themselves, they’d best get to it before a centralized government eliminates them.


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