This article provides commentary on the role of education in recent provincial elections across the country, from the perspective of four provincial school board associations.
Newfoundland and Labrador
“While education may not have been high on the radar for many Newfoundland voters, it was not because of a lack of interest in public schooling,” said Milton Peach, President of the Newfoundland and Labrador School Board Association. The government has assigned a high priority to education over recent years, and significant public dollars have been invested in both program and infrastructure areas. These investments have continued, and voters likely saw no pressing reasons to raise education issues in response to several other major issues of an economic nature that were dominating the agenda. Indeed, there is general satisfaction with public education within the province.
It is fair to conclude that no significant downsizing will take place within the kindergarten through senior high school budgets. There is a widely held and frequently stated view in Newfoundland and Labrador that educational growth and improvements are major factors in building the future of the province.
One challenge, according to Peach, is the falling rate of voter participation. “Improved ways and means have to be explored to reverse this trend and render elections into a higher prominence within our democracy.”
In late Spring, the Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA) issued a media release titled OPSBA Member Boards Challenge all Provincial Candidates, and recommending to member boards that Education Day take place on September 20 – a day for candidates from the four major provincial parties to share their views and answer questions on the issues affecting public education. This strategy inspired attention from both the media and all four major parties
To support Education Day meetings, OPSBA disseminated resource materials for local organizers, issued media releases, built a presence on the web to spark dialogue and interest. Many trustees reported that OPSBA’s Questions for Candidates were distributed widely and used at the Education Day meetings, as well as other all-candidates debates.
In a strategy to increase media involvement, some trustees invited education reporters and other members of the media to moderate their Education Day candidates’ meetings.
The overwhelming success of Education Day has created a precedent that OPSBA will build on to broaden support and keep a sustained focus on the importance of a strong public education system.
The Manitoba School Boards Association focused its election efforts on three policy areas – financial investment, student supports, and community participation. It provided resources to help school boards explore these issues with local candidates and undertook a modest media campaign in an attempt to shine a light on these issues provincially. Despite these efforts, education policy matters never made it to the public arena.
Education-related promises were made, but they were, by and large, partial or piecemeal approaches to addressing the complex issue of student achievement. While some of the inequities in our education system were acknowledged – lower graduation rates for Aboriginal learners and students living in poverty – that acknowledgement did not lead to an in-depth examination of the underlying causes.
This lack of attention may indicate a high level of satisfaction with the status quo; financially, Manitoba’s public school system has fared better than many. However, not all students are benefitting equally from this investment.
Based on the 2011 experience, advocates of public education should not count on having their voices heard during an election campaign. Instead, they need to enter into meaningful policy discussions with the government of the day, pre- and post-election.
Education has rarely been a topic of discussion and debate during Saskatchewan provincial election campaigns. It was heartening, therefore, that during the provincial leader’s debate, the subject of Pre K-12 education was the subject of much discussion between Saskatchewan’s Premier and the Leader of the Opposition.
Over the past two years, the Saskatchewan School Boards Association (SSBA) has worked hard to bring education to the forefront in the minds of the public and our province’s politicians by providing in-service and resources to boards of education to increase the effectiveness of their advocacy efforts. The Association has also undertaken an extensive public engagement strategy and media campaign intended to raise parental and public awareness of the challenges facing schools today, and the need for schools, families, and communities to work together to enhance student learning and well being.
The advocacy approach adopted by the SSBA has been one of collaboration and cooperation. Rather than viewing the provincial government as an adversary, we have chosen to build a relationship in which school boards and the government are partners in the process. It appears that these efforts at cooperation – focused on student achievement – may have begun to bear fruit.