N.S. parent group worried education has taken back seat in provincial election campaign

Elizabeth McSheffrey, Global News, August 10, 2021

With just one week left before Nova Scotians go the polls, some parents in the province say they’re concerned that education has taken a back seat in the election campaign.

Stacey Rudderham, co-chair of Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, says it’s “befuddling” how little she’s heard the three major party leaders talk about education for school-aged children, as opposed to post-secondary students about to enter the workforce.

“When the parents are trying to voice those concerns and the frustrations that they’re having, it’s not necessarily a criticism of government, it’s an opening for the government to do something to make education better,” she told Global News on Tuesday.

“I think they’re there to represent us, we’re the people and we’re the ones who are electing them, so it’s their job to listen to us and take from our knowledge.”

Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, which has more than 18,000 online members, released its list of provincial election priorities to the Liberals, New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives in July.

At the top of that list is the reinstatement of elected school boards and a commitment to more transparency, especially when it comes to safety, the pandemic and the activities of school advisory councils (SACs) and the Provincial Advisory Council on Education.

“The SACs haven’t been well supported. In a lot of schools they’re still struggling to have the numbers to make a fully functioning SAC,” said Pugwash, N.S., parent Adam Davies. “The direction seems to be missing.”

“As a parent, we really have no voice in Nova Scotia to communicate our frustrations or to advocate specifically on behalf of our children,” added Hammonds Plains, N.S., parent Blair Frost.

“There’s lots of questions I have about ventilation, proper implementation of Public Health measures…. I can vent my frustration on my children’s teachers, but what can they do?”

With the exception of the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial, school boards in Nova Scotia were replaced by regional centres for education in 2018 following a recommendation from consultant Avis Glaze.

Since then, Rudderham said decision-making about schools has become increasingly centralized, with less and less input, involvement and communication from the people who know their children’s needs best.

Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education is also calling for strong child poverty reduction measures that support healthy learning in children, and in the aftermath of a reckoning on race around the world, a reduction of police presence in schools.

“There are some vulnerable groups, whether they’re students who are of the African Nova Scotian background, LGBTQ — there’s a lot of history that creates some vulnerabilities between police and those student groups,” Rudderham explained.

“It makes school maybe not a safe place for them, a place where they feel like they’re being judged or watched, and that’s not what education is about.”

Davies said he also hasn’t seen any robust political conversations taking place about the systemic issues tied to academic success for children, the right of all children to equal educational access no matter their location, and how those rights can be fully realized.

“We need to have that debate about how important is the arts education, second language instruction,” he offered as an example. “I live in a rural area where it is hard sometimes to get staffing for those advanced courses…. We need to have a debate on how do we do that?”

All three parents also called for the leaders to explain precisely how they would keep children — especially those too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19 — safe during the school year.

If elected, the Nova Scotia PC Party has committed to re-establishing school boards, updating school curricula to include topics like financial literacy, diversity and environmental stewardship, carrying out all recommendations of the 2018 Commission on Inclusive Education report, and creating new grants for schools to buy tools that support healthy lifestyles.

On Tuesday, leader Tim Houston also said he was open to a conversation about the role of police in schools.

Gary Burrill, leader of the New Democrats, said he, too, is amenable to that conversation. An NDP government, he added, would also change the education system to bring “strong community voices” back to the table, but conduct consultation before deciding whether school boards are the way forward.

The party has promised a universal school food program, implementation of all recommendations from the inclusive education report, an update to the Autism Spectrum Disorder Action Plan, and expanded access to the trades.

Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Iain Rankin was unavailable for comment on Tuesday. His party’s platform includes a $3-million investment in elementary school lunch programs, an equity assessment to help address systemic barriers for African Nova Scotian and First Nations children, and a commitment to new legislation respecting language and culture in schools.

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