As feared, they didn’t really mean it

The 2016 Liberal budget was quite a different beast from the 2017 budget on which the Liberals are running for re-election. Sure, it shared with the current version the obsession with achieving balance at the expense of public sector wages. But aside from that, it was leftish, featuring new spending on income assistance, childcare and disability supports.

The Liberals seemed proud of those initiatives, too. Childcare was such a big deal the Premier announced it at the Liberal annual general meeting. In 2016 the increase in assistance rates was declared “historic,” and the modest increase in spending on disability supports rated several mentions in the budget. At the time, I wrote a piece here posing the question: “Token Gesture or Welcome First Steps.” Sadly, based on the 2017 budget, the answer has to be “Token Gesture.”

Income assistance

The tokenism of last year’s gesture on income assistance is pretty obvious. The Liberals expect to spend slightly less on this program in 2017-18. When inflation is taken into account, this amounts to a 2.2% cut. Families with children will be cushioned from the effect of budget austerity by increases in the federal Canada Child Benefit that came into effect last year. But the most needy – single recipients with no child benefits – will be at the mercy of the shrunken income assistance allotment. Moreover, because their incomes are too low, they get nothing from the modest tax cuts contained in the budget. And low-income Nova Scotians will find little solace in the budget’s commitment of $2 million this year “to fund a plan to address poverty in Nova Scotia.”

Childcare

The story on childcare is more complicated. The Liberals are increasing the overall allotment for early childhood development by just under $8 million. That may look impressive – until you consider two factors. First, the child-care system the Liberals started to fix with their 2016 budget cried out for significant investment. Wages for child care workers were the lowest in the country as were subsidies to low-income families. Fees were high, and the number of regulated spaces insufficient. The other confounding factor is that the Liberals seem to be putting nearly half of the new money into expanding school-based pre-primary programs for four-year-olds.

The idea of pre-primary for four-year-olds has been around for a while. The Conservatives piloted it in 2005 but cancelled it three years later. In 2014 the Liberals re-introduced it in eight schools in low-income neighbourhoods. But the place of pre-primary in an improved early learning and child care system wasn’t even dealt with in “Affordable, Quality Child Care: A Great Place to Grow,” the government’s five-year day care plan released just last June.

But that was then. Now pre-primary seems to be using up much of the oxygen in the early learning room. Once worthy of top billing at the Liberal AGM, child care received a few mentions in the budget. But pre-primary – with the Premier’s promise to make it universally available by 2020 at a cost of $49 million- was the marquee promise on day four of the election campaign. Whether this is good policy or just electioneering I don’t know, not being an expert. But as an advocate for people, like my son, who have developmental disabilities I do know a bit more about the third area that received prominence in the progressive-sounding 2016 budget – the disability support program.

Disability supports

Transforming the disability support program over ten years from one characterized by long waiting lists and a gross over-reliance on institutional care into a community-based system serving all those in need was an initiative of the Dexter government. The McNeil government adopted the policy direction but last year’s budget marked the first time any new money was added to achieve the transformation- $2.2 million “to help Nova Scotians with disabilities transition out of facility-based care into the community.”

If anyone hoped that this was the start of something big, she would be disappointed by the 2017 budget. Nova Scotians with developmental disabilities were not among the chosen winners. The 2016 modest start was followed by a modest 2017 follow-up. Funding for transformation increased only slightly, with $2.1 million going to create 12-16 small option beds and the rest – about $750,000 – to assist about 25 individuals who must also rely on family support or some other community network.

If things go as planned this year, a mere 50 individuals will have been helped to live in the community at the end of year four of a ten-year process. But wait lists have increased from 1,100 to over 1,340 in the past year, and Nova Scotia continues to be a shameful anomaly with some 550 individuals still housed in large institutions, even as all but a few provinces have closed such facilities. Meanwhile, the Minister has tried to excuse the lack of progress with dubious claims about “tragedies” that occurred in other provinces when institutions were closed too quickly. [1]

It’s an over-used expression, but appropriate in this case. In their drive for re-election, the Liberals have thrown those 2016 budget initiatives under the campaign bus. They have been triaged out by the more traditional political necessities such as  highways, tax cuts and handouts to business.

 

[1] It appears the minister is referring to events at the Michener Centre in Alberta which was closed without adequate notice, then re-opened following political pressure inflamed by unproven assertions linking the deaths of several former residents to their relocation in the community.

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McNeil Liberals’ budget: time for a Closer Look

It seems that many in the media barely glanced at last week’s Nova Scotia budget. The rationale was that because it would not be put to a vote, it was more akin to the Liberal election platform than to an actual budget. But if that’s the case – if the budget is indeed the platform – the media and all Nova Scotians should be giving it more than a quick look.

The story so far in the run up to the May 30 election is that after three-plus years of telling everyone there is no money the Liberals have suddenly found enough cash to make millions worth of election promises, with more to come. The media have rightly pointed out that those promises are being paid for through public sector wage restraint. However, all of the attention given to the never-ending list of Liberal promises obscures the fact that election spending notwithstanding, this Liberal budget/platform is a continuation of the past three-plus years of austerity – at least for most of us.

With considerable help from the first phase of the federal infrastructure program, the Liberal budget/platform proposes an overall increase of 3.7%. But some vital areas are not even going to get enough to keep up with inflation – expected to be 2 per cent this year and next. In effect, any area not getting an increase of 2% or more is being cut.

  • Department of Health and Wellness gets a 1.8% increase, a small cut in real terms; but
  • The Health Authority, which funds hospitals gets only 1.1%, a larger cut;
  • Ditto nursing homes;
  • Archives, Museums and Libraries get a microscopic increase of 0.3%.

The unkindest cut of all would be to income assistance, down $471,000 from last year’s estimate – or 2.2% when cost of living is taken into account..

Help for business

As for the increased spending, one-time cost-shared infrastructure – for water, sewer, transit and universities – accounts for a lot of it. But the big winner is the Department of Business, getting a 39% raise, amounting to an extra $54 million. Ironically, a large chunk of the increase is going to the film industry, bringing funding back almost to where it was before the tax credit debacle. Another wad of Business Department cash is going to rural high-speed Internet – a work in progress for the last decade – and the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (COVE), a potential boondoggle in the making on the Dartmouth waterfront.

Most of the new cash is being funnelled through crown agencies like Nova Scotia Business Inc. and the Waterfront Development Corp., and according to budget documents is designed “to promote the achievement of private sector growth in Nova Scotia.” That there is more irony,  from a government that came to power denouncing corporate handouts and vowing to stand aside to let the private sector lead economic growth. The growth hasn’t happened and now the Liberals propose to starve health, income assistance, libraries and the wages of public sector workers to raise a few bucks to  coax the private sector into growing.

The continuation of austerity in the aforementioned areas is not just for this year. Save for the election year spending blip, restraint is the Liberal plan right up until 2020, according to budget documents. After the 3.7% increase this year, balancing the budget would require limiting spending to a 0.7% increase in the 2018 budget and 1.3% in the 2019 budget. If Libs are actually running on the budget brought in this week they must be counting on no one bothering to read it, preferring instead that all people hear are the good news announcements and the magic words “balanced budget.”

Bully mandate

Now, about those announcements – the media have helpfully pointed out that they are made possible by wage restraint. That may infuriate opponents of the government, but it’s something of a double-edged sword. The Liberals may spend the next 30 days telling voters that the balanced budget and the array of promises in it are only possible if they are re-elected to keep the public sector unions down.

That may work for the them, depending on how many Nova Scotians share the Liberals’ unwillingness to see public sector workers for the important work they do every day – teaching kids, taking care of the sick and elderly, driving ambulances, working with adults with intellectual disabilities. The Liberals see these Nova Scotians not as public servants but as unionized workers. This anti-union McNeil government can’t see past that. They want to convince enough Nova Scotians of that distorted view to get themselves re-elected.

But there is a flaw in the Liberal approach. When they talk about imposing austerity so they can invest in services like education, home care, health care or child care they fail to connect that those services are delivered by people, not robots (yet).

They don’t seem to get it that the people who deliver those services need to be treated with fairness and respect. And when they are not so treated, we all pay the price. You do not get the best out of people by bullying them.

Nevertheless, the Libs are doubling down on the strategy. Their budget/platform is a not very subtle promise to keep playing the role of bully. They are saying to Nova Scotians – we’ll give you better roads, a tax cut and some other stuff, but to get that, we must continue to keep the public sector workers down.

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Latest Federal budget lays an egg with the public

The recent federal budget doesn’t appear to be getting rave reviews from Canadians.

This past week the Globe and Mail published results of a poll asking 1,000 people whether they had a positive or negative view of the March 22 federal budget. According to the Globe, 52% had negative or somewhat negative opinions. Only five per cent said they had a positive view, 33 % said their opinion was somewhat positive.

With only one out of twenty firmly positive, participants were clearly unimpressed with the budget, and its lack of a plan for eliminating the deficit seems to be a sore point. On the balanced budget question, four in five said it was important to have a plan for eliminating the deficit. Less than one in ten said having such a plan was unimportant.

Normally I would be inclined to regard the findings as just more evidence of the unfortunate triumph of right wing anti-tax, anti-government ideology. However, in this case the opposition parties and the people polled by Nanos research for the Globe may be on to something.

The two main opposition parties approach the matter differently – for the Conservatives it’s mostly about the evils of public debt, period. During the brief budget debate in the House of Commons the Conservatives harped on about the debt burden being passed to our children and grandchildren. (Amazing how Conservatives can fret about that burden while ignoring the legacy of a fossil-fuel degraded environment being handed to the next generation).The NDP’s take was more salient, boiling down to “deficits for what?” Good question.

No there there

During the 2015 campaign the Liberals probably swung more than a few votes by promising – in contrast to the Conservatives and NDP – modest deficits for a few years followed by a balanced budget in time for the next election. That promise has disappeared with no explanation from the Liberals and we’re now witnessing deficits north of $25 billion for this year and last, and no balanced budgets in sight.

The (upper) middle class tax cut and the increases in child benefits are responsible for some of the deficits. But aside from those two measures from last year and a lot of announcements about things that may happen in the future, there is very little to show for the deficit spending. The 2017 budget does nothing to change that.

The Liberals may try to tout the new deals with provincial governments on home care and mental health, but they will be unable to hide the fact that the “new” spending was made possible by sharply curtailing other transfers to the provinces. Major transfers for health, social programs and equalization, up an average of 4.4% a year during the deficit-obsessed Harper years, are up just 2.7% in free-spending year two of the Trudeau regime. There’s irony for you.

But at least the provinces are getting their transfers, diminished though they are. Many initiatives highlighted in the budget are not being funded at all this year. Others are getting a small down payment over the next couple of years, with most of the spending earmarked for after the 2019 election.

In the latter category, housing is the best (or worst) example. The Liberals talk about spending big bucks -$11 billion – on housing over the next ten years. But there’s a catch. Only about seven per cent of that will be spent between now and the next election. The other 93% will roll out only if you re-elect the Liberals – twice – in 2019 and 2023.

MP Nathan Cullen’s description – “a backloaded, bafflegab, better-luck-next-time budget” seems particularly apt when you look at the second category – initiatives mentioned in the budget for which no spending is allocated this year. There are dozens of examples, some of which invite the question, “Why wait?”

Why no money in this year’s budget to “tackle homelessness? Why wait for two years to put some serious dollars into that problem? How about “Improving Indigenous Communities.” The Liberals say they’ll eventually spend $2 billion on that, but this year? Nothing – and only $54million budgeted for next year. And then there is “Housing for Indigenous Peoples not On-Reserve”. The feds will spend $25 million per annum on that, but nothing this year. Same with the “Enabling Accessibility Fund.” That’s slated to get a modest $8 million a year, but not until some time after next April.

Waiting for Child Care  

Perhaps the most transparent deception is the budget’s trumpeting of $7 billion for early learning and child care. Recall that universal $15-a-day child care and creation of 370,000 new spaces over four years was a central $4 billion plank in the NDP’s 2015 campaign platform. The Liberals responded to that with a commitment to spend $20 billion over the next decade on “social infrastructure,” including creation of a “National Early Learning and Child Care Framework to ensure that affordable, high-quality, fully inclusive child care is available to all families who need it.”

That was great campaign rhetoric – accompanied with a big dollar number – to counter the NDP’s day care plank. But the reality revealed in budget documents show in detail the extent to which the Liberal plank was driven not by a plan to significantly improve day care, but by the political need to checkmate the NDP.

There was no money in the 2016 budget for child care and none in the 2017 budget either. The promised “Framework” has not yet materialized as the feds reportedly try to convince the provinces to agree to a plan that would target Ottawa’s support to low-income parents. If the provinces and feds do reach agreement, the promised $7 billion will start to flow in next year’s budget but will total only about $1.1 billion by 2020.

It’s obvious the Liberal day care plan doesn’t hold a candle to the NDP proposal it was meant to neutralize. Instead of the $4 billion committed over a four-year mandate proposed by the NDP, the Liberals may spend about $1.1 billion. Instead of creating 370,000 spaces at $15 a day, the Liberals may create about 25,000 subsidized ones before their mandate expires. And their plan does nothing to bring down costs which can be as high as $80 a day in Toronto and $40-$50 a day in places like Halifax.

And here’s more irony for you. The Liberal child care plan of 2017 doesn’t even measure up to the one that Ken Dryden negotiated with the provinces on behalf of the Paul Martin government back in 2005. That plan, subsequently torpedoed for ideological reasons by the Harper government, was worth $5 billion over five years. The Dryden plan works out to about $30 a head for each province – or nearly $30 million for Nova Scotia. The Trudeau plan works out to about $15 per capita before it increases a bit in 2022. But when inflation  taken into account, the Trudeau plan is worth less than half what the feds put on the table for child care a dozen years ago.[1]

It’s highly likely that none of those Canadians polled about last month’s budget had the time or inclination to read its fine print. But they caught the drift, and details in the budget certainly bear out their ho-hum reaction.

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[1] Liberals may argue that the improved Child Benefit will help with child care costs, which is true as far as it goes. But in most provinces, those improved benefits would be eaten up by day care costs in a matter of weeks.

 

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Reality shreds Liberal health promises

During the 2013 provincial election campaign the Liberals made three big health care promises. They were going to amalgamate nine district health authorities into one, improve wait times for hip and knee replacements and ensure a doctor for every Nova Scotian.

Since any one would be hesitant to argue against the latter two planks, the promise about replacing the DHAs with a single authority drew most of the fire from their opponents. Pointing to problems that had come from Alberta’s earlier move to a super board, the NDP predicted all sorts of chaos would ensue. But the amalgamation has happened and the NDP’s predicted scenario has not taken place, at least so far.

The other criticism levelled at the amalgamation promise was that the priority should be front line services, not reshuffling the health bureaucracy. That criticism has been borne out, in spades. The Liberal failure to make any progress on their other two key election promises is the evidence. In fact, not only have the Liberals failed to make progress on family doctors and wait times, by some measures they’ve gone backwards. In the case of family doctors, the evidence of regress is clear.

Doc situation worse

In 2013, when the Liberal platform promised “a doctor for every Nova Scotian,” Statistics Canada data show that about 9.1%, or 71,322 Nova Scotians aged 15 or older, were without a regular family physician.[1] That was up more than 30% from 2011 – the kind of negative growth that makes excellent fodder for opposition politicians.

Last month Stats Can released data for 2015. Although not strictly comparable (it surveyed population 12 or older), it is clear the percentage of Nova Scotians without doctors has increased significantly – to 11.3% in 2015 from 9.1% in 2013. In actual numbers, after two years of Liberal efforts to ensure a doctor for everybody, there were about 23,000 more Nova Scotians without one. That’s another 30% jump in two years. Broken promise #1.

Backsliding on wait times is a little harder to demonstrate. Last week the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) released one of its regular reports on wait times for five priority procedures, including hip and knee replacements. The report received little or no coverage in the local media, perhaps because what it had to say on Nova Scotia was old news. Thanks to the media and the auditor-general (not to mention first-hand accounts) we’ve become aware over the years that this province has a serious problem with wait times for certain procedures. Last week’s report simply confirmed that.

It is perhaps less well known that when it comes to lengthy wait times for hip and knee replacements, this province is in a league of its own. That was the case in 2013 when just 50% of hip replacements and only 36% of knee replacements in Nova Scotia were being performed within the recommended wait time benchmark of 182 days – six months. The average for all provinces was 82% for hip replacements within the recommended time frame and 77% for knees.

Still worst by far 

No other province approached Nova Scotia’s record for futility in 2013, and that was still the case in 2016, when only 56% of hip replacements and 38% of knee replacements in Nova Scotia were being performed within the recommended time. The all-province average was 79% for hips and 73% for knees. The 2013 Liberal platform promised to “meet the national standard of six months for hip and knee replacement.” Not even close: broken promise #2.

Granted, the Liberal campaign promise was an ambitious one. The target it set is one that no province is meeting – Ontario and Quebec were best in 2016 with over 80% of those procedures being done within the six-month standard. And to give the Liberals a bit of credit, Nova Scotia’s 2016 result was a small improvement over 2013.

                                                2013                   2016

Hip replacement                         50%                   56%

Knee replacement                      36%                   38%

Hip % below average                 -32%                 -23%

Knee % below average               -41%                 -35%

As the bottom four numbers show, for both hips and knees we are not as far short of the national average in 2016 as we were in 2013. We remained in a league of our own but – to continue the baseball metaphor – merely moved from peewee to bantam.

However, “we don’t suck as badly as we used to” is not an inspiring election slogan. And those modest gains for some on the wait list have been achieved at the expense of some others. CIHI has another metric, the 50/90th percentile. It shows that in 2013, 10% of Nova Scotians were waiting 21 months or more for knee replacement and 18 months or more for hips. In 2016, wait times for those long-suffering (literally) groups were even longer – 25 months or more for knees and 20 months or more for hips. That’s where the regression comes in.

The Liberals had better hope none of those folks show up on the TV news during the upcoming campaign. Their stories about waiting for two years or more would prove much more compelling than anything the Liberals might want to say about amalgamating health boards.

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[1] CANSIM Table 105-3024

Red Tape Randy to the Rescue

The Nova Scotia election campaign hasn’t started yet but already the need for a BS detector is becoming apparent. The initial blip on my political malarkey tracking system came last week when reading about Finance minister Randy Delorey’s pre-budget speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce.

The lunch time event ($54.95 for members, $84.95 for “future members”) was billed by the Chamber as Delorey’s chance to convey “clear signals that Nova Scotia’s finances remain on track.” Delorey didn’t disappoint on that score, promising to table a balanced budget when the McNeil government – the priority job of reporting to the Chamber of Commerce out of the way – gets around to facing the Chamber of the House of Assembly in three weeks.

Aside from the commitment on the balanced budget and an equally predictable tweaking of the small business tax, media reports suggest there wasn’t much in Delorey’s speech worth the price of a soup and sandwich at the local diner, never mind the top ticket of $84.95. One tidbit the media did pick up on was Delorey’s claim that businesses will be better off to the tune of $25 million a year, thanks to “less red tape.”  That’s quite a claim.

The McNeil government has shown itself a bit preoccupied with slaying the red tape dragon. Together with the other Maritime Liberal governments they’ve set up the Joint Office of Regulatory Affairs and Efficiency – budgeted at $1.6 million a year – to carry the fight to all corners of the region. Last June the Office published its first annual report – 36 glossy pages devoted to the notion that regulatory reform is a key to economic transformation.

That first report claimed that all of $730,000 had been saved from just three initiatives, but told readers that this was just the beginning. “Expect these savings to grow,” the report advised. Clearly Randy Delorey shares that optimistic expectation, but all the way to $25 million? Pressed after his speech by reporters seeking details of how the millions of dollars in savings would occur, Delorey was mum.

His silence suggests a number of possibilities. It could be that Delorey has lots of detail but he wants to save some fresh material for his actual budget speech to MLAs. It could also be that the amount of red tape removal required to produced $25 million in business savings is so significant that the health and safety of workers and consumers could be called into question. The third and likeliest possibility is that the budget when presented will be an exercise in economic pipe dreams, featuring the red tape miracle as as centre piece. Because when it comes to hard economic facts, the McNeil government has very little to say for itself.

The latest piece of negative hard data was this week’s Statistics Canada report on Film Television and Video production. Not surprisingly in light of the Liberals’ handling of the film tax credit, the report showed that Nova Scotia’s share of the $4.85 billion industry has shrunk from 1.83% in 2013 to 1.15% in 2015. Total revenue dropped by 28%, from $77.1 million in 2013 to $55.6 million in 2015.

The operating revenue figures provide additional insight into the malaise that has overtaken the entire cultural sector in Nova Scotia. As I reported in February, average monthly employment in the sector dropped 15.6% between 2014 and 2016, making culture the hardest hit of any sector in the employment-challenged Nova Scotia economy. No wonder the McNeil government prefers to flirt with economic fantasy.

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Liberals high five while federal health funding erodes

According to reports, wide grins and high fives were the order of the day in the House of Commons on Friday when Health minister Philpott announced that three more provinces – all big ones – had agreed to “take” Ottawa’s “take-it-or-leave-it” new health care deal, leaving only Manitoba as a hold out.

The question that came immediately to mind was “why the festivity?”

Unless they are deluded into believing that provinces are somehow divorced from the people who live in them the Liberal parliamentarians were essentially congratulating themselves for sticking it to the Canadian people, particularly those living in Atlantic Canada.

Seeing such a celebration may have been especially galling to Nova Scotians – more than 100,000 of them by one estimate – who do not have a family doctor. Some of those folks – 25,000 of whom have put themselves on the waiting list for a family physician – may also have been aware that the McNeil government was a prime enabler of last week’s Commons victory dance.

Nova Scotia, along with Liberal governments of New Brunswick and Newfoundland, was among the first to abandon a provincial united front against the Trudeau government’s scheme to scale back federal health transfers. Instead of holding out for increases close to the six per cent a year that’s been the norm since 2004, those three stalwart defenders settled for increases that will come in at around three per cent, plus some targeted funding for home care and mental health.

After the timid trio’s cave in just before Christmas, other provinces fell in line – the Territories and Saskatchewan, followed by PEI, British Columbia and, last week the big fish – Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, provinces representing 70% of the country’s population.

Per capita unchallenged

The initial side deals agreed to by the three faint-hearted provinces specified that they would benefit if others negotiated better arrangements. As it turned out, there were some modest sweeteners. Several provinces received some cash to deal with the opioid epidemic and Saskatchewan got concessions on private MRI tests. In keeping with “asymmetrical federalism as recognized in 2004” Quebec achieved more leeway on how it spends the mental health and home care money.

But with three of the four Atlantic Provinces folding early, there was no one left to argue the very solid case for “asymmetrical” health care funding that takes into account population age and health status. As a result the whole deal is on a per capita basis – need is not taken into account.

It’s debatable whether needs-based funding is the entire solution for the long waiting list for family docs revealed last week. There are many other factors involved. However, two other reports released last week from Statistics Canada provide snapshots that strengthen the case for asymmetrical health funding. StatCan’s Health Indicators reported that Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia continue to lead the country in cancer rates. That’s the health status argument. And the agency’s latest data on population show that while we continue to lose overall population to other provinces, older people from other provinces are moving here. Halifax, for example, had a positive net inter-provincial migration of 89 (best before) over-60s in 2015-16, more than offset by a negative migration of 526 (presumably healthier) people aged 20-59.

None of this seems to register with the McNeil government, which continues to defend the health sell-out. Asked about it during the recent “emergency” session of the legislature, McNeil went on about how the deal is a good one because it will put more money into mental health and home care. What he did not acknowledge is a classic case of the feds ordering the provinces to rob Peter – all of the other services covered by the health care spending envelope – to pay Paul – mental health and home care.

By the numbers

Let’s do some math. Before it went bust, the provincial united front was holding out for an increase of 5.2% a year in a ten-year deal. That formula would have netted Nova Scotia an increase of about $50 million in 2017-18. Nova Scotia will get a slightly better increase – next year only – under the new arrangement. But more than half of that increase will have to go to two areas, mental health and home care. Those two sectors account for about 10% of current budget, so the targeted dollars will mean an increase of about 7% – no doubt needed and welcome. But it means that for the rest of the health envelope – covering hospitals, doctors, drugs and capital spending – the federal increase amounts to less than half a percent of the 2016 spending.

And the new deal gets worse over time relative to the provincial ask of 5.2%. That’s because while the floor increases at just under 3% per year, the targeted funding is fixed over the ten-year period. Assuming Nova Scotia draws down the home care and mental health money at 10% a year, the new deal will provide about $20 million less in 2018-19 than would have been received with a 5.2% escalator; in 2019-20, the shortfall will be $44 million, and it keeps growing, as illustrated.

Years         3%        Targeted        Total        5.2%        Shortfall

2016-7    $944m         –                    –               –                  –

2017-8    $967m        $29m         $996m      $993m      ($3m)

2018-9    $996m       $29m         $1,025m   $1,045m     $20m

2019-0    $1,026m    $29m         $1,055m   $1,099m     $44m

2020-1    $1,057        $29m         $1,086       $1,156m     $70m

2026-7    $1,264        $29m         $1,293m    $1,567m    $274m

The shortfall numbers in the table are estimates. The $967 million shown in the first column for 2017-8 could compound at more or less than 3%, depending on the country’s GDP growth and Nova Scotia’s population. However, assuming a steady 3%, over the 10-year period, the difference between what the province settled for and what it would have received with a 5.2% escalator and no targeted funding – the shortfall column – adds up to $1.222 billion.

And it should be kept in mind that the 5.2% escalator was a compromise. For the last 12 years- including through nine years of the Harper government – federal health transfers to the provinces increased by 6 per cent a year. It was Harper’s widely condemned idea to reduce the increase to three per cent, starting this April 1. But he of the sunny ways was quick to embrace the dreaded three per cent as a floor, then add some cheap but eye-catching targeted funding and reap the benefits of praise from organizations like CARP and the Canadian Mental Health Association. Somewhere, Machiavelli is giving a thumbs-up.

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Inclusion #2: A bumpy road gets even rougher

Gordon Porter, this country’s guru of inclusive education, is fond of saying that it’s a simple idea. “It means kids go to their neighbourhood schools with kids their own age in regular classes.” But for such a simple concept, inclusive education – I’ll call it fuller[1] inclusion – has had a very complicated history in this province. And its future could become even more difficult.

I first became actively engaged with the issue in 1991 when our son started school but became aware of the movement before that. We had been living in New Brunswick in 1986 when the Conservative government of Richard Hatfield made a bold move, and one that was inspiring to parents of a young son with Downs syndrome. With the urging of Gordon Porter and advocates for the mentally challenged, the New Brunswick legislature amended the Education Act to provide access to public education to all students and to mandate placement of “exceptional”- aka “special needs” students into regular classrooms.

The Conservatives governing Nova Scotia at the time showed no immediate interest in keeping up with their Red Tory neighbours to the northwest. In 1967 Nova Scotia had been one of the first jurisdictions in North America to require that all children be given an education. But 20 years on the province was no longer in the vanguard. It took a court case to start the process of extending that access to the regular classroom.

The 1986 Elwood case, argued by Dalhousie law professor Wayne MacKay, was settled out of court after Justice Constance Glube granted an injunction against the Halifax County-Bedford school board, thus mandating that Luke Elwood could remain in his regular class at Atlantic View School. That case, based on what was then an almost brand new provision of the Charter of Rights, had an immediate effect in some classrooms and led directly to the 1991 provincial policy on “integration” now known as inclusion.[2]

That policy on integration came into effect the same year our son Sam entered a regular primary class at Hawthorne school where there was a teacher’s assistant (TA) to help out. His situation was not groundbreaking, but it was nevertheless exceptional. Although there were a few instances of students with physical or mental challenges in the regular classroom prior to Luke Elwood and the new provincial policy, the period between 1967 and 1991 had witnessed the growth of a special education system emphasizing segregated classes.

Resources Inadequate

An all-party committee of the legislature had reported in 1991 after extensive consultations that special education resources and teaching methodologies were not meeting students needs. Nevertheless, the largely segregated system was substantial.

A spreadsheet prepared at the time by the Department of Education is instructive. It shows that in 1991-92 there were 224 “special class teachers” working for the 22 school boards in existence at the time. Over half taught “mentally handicapped” students at all levels. Another 28 taught “multiply handicapped” students, 19 taught “learning disabled” students. The three school boards in Halifax county even had teachers assigned to elementary and junior high students with behaviour disorders – 13 classes in all.

The same spreadsheet showed that in 1992-93 the number of special class teachers dropped by 30%, but there were significant increases in other staff – resource teachers, integration support teachers and educational assessors, leading to an overall increase of 10% in professional staff. Para-professionals – primarily TAs – also increased, from 542 to 706 – 30% in a single year.

This statistical snapshot from the early 1990s helps to illustrate two large bumps on the runway just as inclusion was taking off. First, inclusion was being superimposed on an already existing system. Such a regime would naturally have its supporters and vested interests. And a bigger bump is revealed when the year-to-year staffing requirements are compared. Those comparisons suggested inclusion required more staff and would therefore be more costly – at a time when the provincial government was reining in spending.

Telling school boards to carry out a policy that may be more costly while restraining spending is never popular. But there was an additional wrinkle with special education funding. To encourage boards to improve services, the province had introduced a targeted special education grant, based on some notion of service ratios. The grant, introduced in 1981, never kept pace with amounts boards were actually spending on special education.

When their overall grants started to stagnate or drop (as they did in the early 1990s) it was not illogical for boards to cut special education to bring services more in line with the service ratios – such as resource teacher/student or TA/student – actually covered by the grant. My first experience of parental advocacy was in 1992, in front of the Dartmouth school board, arguing against cuts to TAs – cuts that the board justified by saying it was already spending more on special education than was covered by the grant.

SEIRC  abandoned

So right from the beginning there were claims that inclusion was under-funded, and that did not change even when the policy became part of an amended Education Act in 1996. Indeed, the Department of Education’s Special Education Implementation Review Committee (SEIRC) reported in 2001 that an immediate injection of $20 million was required to improve services and staffing levels. Some of the issues identified for action were still being talked about last week in the context of Bill 75 – more prep time for teachers, class size guidelines and support for emotionally/behaviourally challenged students.

Instead of an “immediate injection” of $20 million, the Conservative government of the day waited a year before announcing an expenditure of $17 million over three years. Worse, about one-third of that injection went for an initiative that was not even among the 34 SEIRC recommendations – pilot projects to introduce “a range and continuum of services.” Over time, the pilot projects evolved into “learning centers” or “congregated settings” separate from the regular classroom in most schools.

If anyone ever compiles a definitive history of the rise and decline of fuller inclusion in Nova Scotia schools she would probably identify as pivotal the year and a bit – June 2001 to September 2002 – that passed between release of the SEIRC report and the Conservative government response. SEIRC had laid out a model for inclusion based on providing professional and para-professional support to enable the regular classroom teacher to teach all the kids in the class including – most of the time anyway – those with special needs. The key recommendation was to hire over 330 resource teachers to provide the support classroom teachers needed to make inclusion work. Instead, the government of the day seemed to opt for only a few more professionals, usually working out of learning centres, and more para-professionals, usually TAs assigned to individual students.

Placement and Leadership Issues

This retreat from the regular classroom setting was also in response to a third bump in the road – not all parents and educators believed that the regular classroom was the best setting for all students with special needs. Doubts about the goal of fuller inclusion were initially expressed on behalf of students diagnosed with a Learning Disability (LD) or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD). In the pre-1991 period, they would likely have been in one of the classrooms for “learning disabled.” Some advocates for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) also questioned the goal of full inclusion.

The move to congregated settings was too little too late for some parents who lobbied successfully for the Tuition Support Program. Through that program qualified students with LD, AD/HD or ASD are subsidized to attend one of three designated special education private schools on four campuses – two in Dartmouth and one each in Wolfville and Truro. (Disclosure – my son Joe teaches in one of the designated schools) The Tuition Support Program, introduced in 2004 and renewed in 2009 following a review, not only moves special education of some students out of the regular classroom but out of the neighborhood school.

The fourth obstacle to fuller inclusion is a combination of all of the above and can be summed up as a lack of commitment and leadership to overcome obstacles. Provincial governments have paid lip service to inclusion but have not made either the political or fiscal commitment needed to bring it about. Some school boards – notably the now defunct King’s county board – have shown some initiative. But otherwise, leadership would have to come from principals and teachers, and the NSTU.

If the NSTU ever supported the goal of fuller inclusion, that support was contingent on a level of resources that was not forthcoming. In 2002 the NSTU formally withdrew its support for inclusion, citing the lack of resources. The union edged back onside in 2006 after negotiating more time for work on Individual Program Plans (IPPs), but by then fuller inclusion was not on its radar. According to the NSTU 2009 Position Paper on Inclusion “regular classroom placement may best serve” the needs of some students but “learning centres and other environments may be the most appropriate short and long-term placement options for some children.”

So, to recap. Over its 25-year history there has been a steady movement away from the simple idea that students with special needs should have the right to be educated in the neighbourhood school, in regular classrooms with students their own age. The question now is how whether the Liberals will re-commit to that goal, as laid out in policy and legislation or move further away from it.

Inclusion Commission

As we await the appointment of a three-member Commission on Inclusive Education under Bill 75, the portents are not encouraging. On a positive note, there is the first “whereas” clause of Bill 75, stating that “the Minister and the Union are committed to inclusive education and recognize that the current model of inclusive education needs improvement.” Amen to that.

But then the second clause goes on to say the job of the Commission will be “to reform inclusive education” and “identify creative and sustainable solutions to the challenges faced in delivering quality education for all students within an inclusive education model.” Wariness is recommended around the word “sustainable.” As we know too well by now, “sustainable” means affordable within the right-wing fiscal framework that has dominated for decades now and held back fulfillment of disability rights in the classroom and beyond. And the needs of students seem to be less important in Bill 75 than those of the deliverer, i.e. the teacher. That concern is made explicit in the penultimate part of the whereas – solutions should ensure that “teachers feel prepared and supported.”

The verbiage in Bill 75 is less a concern than the fact the Premier has said several times that the current model isn’t working. Whether he actually knows what the current model is questionable – each time he has made the declaration he has attributed it to teachers or to parents and teachers. Knowledge, or lack of it, about the model is not a trivial point. New Brunswick , while facing the same, or worse, resource problems as Nova Scotia, has continued to pursue the path towards fuller inclusion. (Not without a lot of flack from the media and parents of kids with AD/HD, LD and ASD- but that’s another story).

New Brunswick has even had two major inquiries into inclusion. One was in 2005-06, led by Wayne MacKay, the second, in 2011-12 was led by Gordon Porter. After nearly 30 years of pursuing inclusion, the system Porter described would hardly be considered a tidy model. The review found a wide variety of practices across the system. For example, thousands of students were enrolled in small alternative settings and resource teachers and TAs were performing in a variety of roles. Does Premier McNeil possess some detailed overview that enables him to pass judgment on the inclusion model in Nova Scotia? Doubtful.

Nova Scotia’s Inclusion Commission has been given until June 30 to come up with an interim report and recommendations for reform, to be followed by a final report about a year from now. If New Brunswick’s recent experience is anything to go by, it’s unlikely the narrow timeframe will allow the commission to understand the true shape of the model it is being asked to reform. The two most recent reviews touching on inclusion will be of little help. Neither the Levin report of 2011 nor the Freeman report of 2014 did the kind of detailed on-site research carried out in New Brunswick. Levin is now a footnote, but the report of the Freeman panel still has some currency in the education debate so is worth considering.

Freeman flawed

The Freeman panel’s main research tools were surveys and consultation. The panel reported hearing from 19,000 people – about one third parents, one third students and the rest divided almost evenly between teachers and “community members.” What’s interesting is that the opinions of those surveyed and consulted were quite different from the recommendations of the Freeman report. The section in the report that deals with inclusion is pretty much fact free. But the consensus of opinion reported is one that has been heard consistently over the many months of education system strife, namely:

“…that current levels of funding and other resources are hindering the educational experience of all students in the system because the resources are not keeping pace with the growing needs of students.”

The panel’s recommendations ignored participants’ opinions about inadequate levels of funding and resources and inserted its own views. According to the panel, the inclusion model should be examined to ensure it is “sustainable within the broader resources of the government.” It should also be flexible and “supported for timely access to assessments and special programs and services.” And finally, schools and school boards should be helped to “create a range of learning environments for students with special needs, including congregated classes taught by highly qualified specialist teachers, where appropriate.”[3]

The direction in the Freeman report, presented without any supporting analysis, is clear. Lacking a significant increase in funding, system resources – in many cases TAs – employed to support students with special needs in the regular classroom would be diverted to more timely assessments and placement in congregated classes. The danger is that facing a deadline less than four months away for an interim report the commission may latch onto what’s already on the shelf from the Freeman panel, its dubious validity notwithstanding.

This approach would likely satisfy many parents and advocates for students with LD, AD/HD or ASD. It would respond to the NSTU’s calls for more “learning centres and other environments.” It would also mean more jobs for teachers. Increased employment of TAs instead of special education teachers has been an issue with the teachers union for many years. The SEIRC report, with its emphasis on professional support for the classroom teacher, tried to address that, but it was rebuffed by the government of the day.

Teachers’ frustration with that rejection was expressed in 2011 in the NSTU response to the Levin report. The document claimed that:

  • From 1993 to 2000 the number of professionals providing special education services rose by 1.9% while the number of TAs (represented by different unions I would add)  increased by 110.9%;
  • The 1:104 ratio of TAs to students recommended by SEIRC had dropped to 1:70.7 by 2011.

The response went on to say that “Students with special needs require a focus on their learning challenges with attention paid to their educational development; tasks appropriate for teachers, but outside the job description for teacher assistants.”

Wisdom needed

Teachers’ views on the balance between teachers and TAs  and its support for learning centres will be represented on the Commission on Inclusive Education. The NSTU gets to appoint “an expert in the field of inclusive education” as does the Minister of Education. The third member, an “independent chair” is to be jointly appointed by the other two parties. Given the NSTU’s restrictive views on inclusion and the government’s pre-occupation with “sustainability” the Commission will only have credibility if the third member is a strong advocate for students with special needs, their parents and supporters. Given the different   views at play, he or she will need the wisdom of Solomon. If Solomon is unavailable, Wayne MacKay would be an excellent choice. He knows the field and is a strong supporter of human rights.

But whoever ends up on the Commission should take a broad view of the purpose of inclusive education. Critics like our Premier say the model is not working, but they don’t define success. I am sure that like most everything inclusion  is working in some instances and not working in others. I look at my son Sam, the person whose extra chromosome triggered my involvement in this issue. I know that during the 13 years Sam was in school inclusion was working well some days, not so well others. That’s how we felt over the years and I suspect his teachers and TAs shared that. Good days and bad days, but over all it worked well for him. He has grown up to be part of the community, he holds down three part-time jobs and has an active social life. He is also continuing his education as an adult through the Dartmouth Learning Network.  In Sam’s case, education in his neighbourhood schools, in regular classrooms with his peers helped to produce a solid citizen with a continuing love of learning. Not a bad outcome for any student.

 

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[1] Even the most ardent supporters of inclusion acknowledge that at some times some kids need to continue learning outside the regular classroom.

[2] Under section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

[3] As far as I know, that range already exists. The panel seems to want to extend the range without presenting any evidence as to experience so far with learning centres.

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Inclusion Part 1: Shooing out the Elephants

I was not planning to write about the seemingly endless dispute between the NSTU and the Liberals. For one thing, when it comes to education it can be a polarizing topic and I have too many personal and family entanglements with “the system” to stake out a passionate position on one side or the other. Furthermore, although it is a big political issue, I have no brilliant insights to offer beyond those that have already been advanced and chewed over by others. The best I can come up with on the larger political story is to say we’ll just have to wait and see how it plays out.

So I was just going to refrain from writing about the subject, until I couldn’t. The thing that’s got me going is what looks like an attack on the education of students with special needs – generally known as “inclusion”.

Lately, inclusion has become one of those plastic words that can mean anything or nothing. Our Department of Education has come up with a wordy new definition of inclusive education, but to me inclusion means that students with intellectual, physical or behavioural challenges have a right to go to their neighbourhood school to be educated in a regular classroom with kids their own age.

At least, that’s what inclusion meant back in 1996, when Section 64 (2) (d) of the newly overhauled Education Act directed school boards to “develop and implement educational programs for students with special needs within regular instructional settings with their peers in age, in accordance with the regulations and the Minister’s policies and guidelines.”

That change in the Education Act came five years after the Department of Education announced to school boards that what it called “integration” of students with special needs was now policy. The issue, according to the policy statement signed by the Conservative Education Minister of the day, was not whether to integrate, but how to provide the support needed to make it successful. And the 1991 policy was not an educational fad – it was the result of interpretations arising from Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Enter the elephant

My partner Wendy and I were among a group of parents and supporters who lobbied for the policy to be put into law. Our advocacy arose from the fact that our son Sam, now 31, has Down’s syndrome. We have been involved with the issue off and on ever since Sam started school in 1991. Since he graduated from Dartmouth High in 2005 we’ve focused on issues of employment and housing while observing from afar the discussion of inclusion contained in a series of reports – the Farmer report in 2007, Levin in 2011 and Freeman in 2014. The latter two reports in particular were worthy of critical comment, but it has taken the discourse on inclusion that has surrounded the dispute between teachers and the Liberals for me to re-engage on a subject.

I actually started to feel uneasy a few months ago when the CBC presented the opinion of a Cape Breton teacher as news. This teacher, Sally Capstick went on Information Morning Cape Breton to expose the Elephant in the Room (EITR), the thing that no one was talking about during the 18-month impasse between teachers and the McNeil government. The resident pachyderm? Inclusion, which according to Sally Capstick no one wants to label as a problem but had “gotten to a point that the diversity in the classroom is unbelievable.”

Calling something off limits for discussion – even when it isn’t – seems to light a fire under certain media types. Commentators like the CBC’s Chris Lydon and the Chronicle-Herald’s Gail Lethbridge picked up the EITR metaphor, and Sally Capstick’s pronouncement even spread to Toronto, providing grist for a private radio station’s phone-in show.

A couple weeks ago, during one of the all-night marathons at the legislature, Resources Minister Zach Churchill praised Premier Stephen McNeil (who had already praised himself on TV) for including a Commission on Inclusion as part of Bill 75. Although the commission idea appears to be a sop to the teachers’ union, Churchill described the move as “a government having the courage to take on the big elephant in the room that no one’s wanted to talk about, and that’s inclusion.” A few days later, local CBC radio – which seems to be pre-occupied with the subject – devoted its Sunday Maritime Connection phone-in to the question: “Is Inclusion Working in Maritime Classrooms?”

All of this talk undermines the aptness of the metaphor- how many times can a subject be called the Elephant in the Room before, by definition, it stops being that? But more seriously, it must also be a source of distress for students with special needs and their families. The urban dictionary defines EITR as “a very large issue that everyone is acutely aware of but nobody wants to talk about.” It can’t be reassuring for students with special needs or their advocates to hear that their inclusion in the classroom is creating a very large issue, or as Minister Churchill would have it, “a big elephant.” As for the notion that no one talks about it, the number of government reports on the subject puts the lie to that. Perhaps what nobody really wants to talk about is a desire to turn the clock back to those days before the 1990s when students with special needs were excluded from their neighbourhood schools.

Many other issues

Some of the media coverage of Bill 75 played to the growing negative depiction of inclusion. When teachers appeared before the Law Amendments committee to speak against the legislation they told some disturbing tales. The Canadian Press reported the testimony of one teacher who spoke of children masturbating in her class and another teacher who said classrooms are “regularly experiencing evacuations due to outbreaks of violence.” CBC reported on teachers being punched, kicked and verbally abused.

I think the coverage was slanted toward the sensational. Thanks to live streaming by the CBC I was able to eavesdrop in snowbound comfort from home to some of the testimony before law amendments. During the time spent observing (off-and-on for three hours) I heard lots of concerns about classroom conditions – overcrowding, lack of textbooks and resources of all kinds – and a whole lot about the Liberals’ jackboot approach to collective bargaining. As well, teachers cited increased societal and mental health problems among students, inadequate discipline and attendance policies, a perceived no-fail policy, constant assessment and reporting, increased course adaptations and a significant growth in the number of students on Individual Program Plans (IPPs). When they did talk about inclusion it was to lament the lack of supports for its implementation.

Leo McKay a high school English teacher and award-winning novelist did not appear before law amendments. Instead he posted on Facebook a summary of eleven ways in which his job has become harder. Although he didn’t say it, most of the factors he cited result from Department initiatives. His list includes less preparation time, increased marking due to the semester system, constant assessment of student progress, lax attendance policy and the instant electronic posting of grades, often leading to instant email exchanges with parents. The only one of the 11 factors that can be attributed directly to inclusion is the increase in IPPs, of which McKay writes:

“ An IPP is essentially a separate, individualized curriculum targeted and delivered solely to a single student who attends a regular classroom. IPPs are good. I support the use of IPPs. In general, IPPs enhance the classroom experience for all children. But the number of students on IPPs has been increasing and the resources for effectively teaching those students have not kept up. “

Mike Ouellette, the principal at Kings County Academy in Kentville, also provided important perspective when he presented to Law Amendments. “There is a lack of resources both in our system and outside our system,” he said. “Education is underfunded, the health-care system is underfunded. We have kids who are in desperate need of mental health support, guidance counselling and school psychologists.”  Shauna Dosman, a teacher at Halifax West, contributed a piece to the on-line Local Xpress decrying student attitudes.

“The students of today are so different from the ones I taught when I started teaching in 1995. These students have grown up in a society built around instant gratification and an education system that refuses to allow them to fail. If they can’t reach the outcomes, we adjust the outcomes to meet their needs instead….Instead of holding students accountable for things such as attendance and deadlines, the accountability has shifted to the teacher instead. This new species of students is being taught that the efforts of the adults in their lives is more important than their own effort, and that is a very slippery slope.”

Conservative Pat Dunn, while debating Bill 75 in the legislature, took a similar tack.

“I did have the opportunity for a lot of years to look after discipline in junior and senior high schools. I can recall back a number of years ago being responsible for discipline in a Grades 7, 8, and 9 junior high school and the difference between the discipline and the respect in that school at that time and what I see today are sometimes night and day. I don’t blame it on any one particular thing. I think the erosion in society that has occurred, family issues, family problems, family breakups, and so on, there’s all kinds of different things that have caused an erosion of discipline and what is expected of students that are at our schools.”

“What’s the Matter with Kids Today” is a refrain that likely predates even the 1960s film and musical, Bye Bye Birdie. You don’t have to take such a harsh view of today’s students to acknowledge that the clash between the government and the teachers has lifted the lid on a whole panoply of problems with public education – both in the classroom and outside of it. The worrying part is that with all of those issues exposed, only the policy of inclusion is being singled out for in-depth examination. Is it paranoid to think that students with mental, physical and behavioural challenges are being scapegoated?

In Part 2, later this week (time permitting) I’ll have more on the rocky history of inclusion and where the policy may be headed.

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VERBATIM: SOME HIGHS AND LOWS OF DEBATE ON BILL 75

The phoney emergency declared for passage of bill 75 led to several around-the-clock sittings and many long speeches by members at all hours of the day and night. Because the Liberals did not actually participate to defend the bill, it was mainly an all-opposition event.

The Conservatives, unlike the NDP, would not commit to offering teachers a better wage package or new class size caps. So they went all in for cracking down on slackers and troublemakers. Their Bill 76 would require that students “meet all expected learning outcomes appropriate to the student’s grade level and meet acceptable behaviour standards in order to graduate.” Their Bill 77 would force school boards to adopt “a comprehensive discipline policy for enforcement by principals and teachers.”

As if to emphasize the need for tougher standards, many Conservative speeches and questions painted dire pictures of conditions in Nova Scotia classrooms, like these, from the pages of Hansard, by Kings North’s John Lohr and Pictou’s Pat Dunn .

JOHN LOHR: Mr. Speaker, the Premier has stated that he wants classrooms to return to normal. “Normal” equals textbooks from the 1990s. “Normal” equals parent volunteers fundraising to provide necessary items that should be provided by the system. “Normal” equals trying to teach coding with no training, using outdated technology with unreliable wi-fi. “Normal” equals teachers, students, and support staff being verbally abused repeatedly with no consequences to the offender. “Normal” equals evacuating the entire class to an alternate location because a student is throwing chairs. “Normal” equals teachers and support staff being hit, punched, spat upon, and bitten.

PAT DUNN: Teachers know what is wrong with the education system. Teachers are left to support all the learning needs and issues of approximately 30 students of various abilities in their classrooms without proper support. Mr. Speaker, in our classrooms today you will have four or five pockets of various intellectual abilities. You will have a lot of students on IPPs. You may be teaching a Grade 9 math class with 30 students in the class, and you may have 12 students on IPPs. Once upon a time, Mr. Speaker, you could have one IPP that would suit all 12 students who needed IPPs. Now you are not allowed to do that. You have to have an individual IPP for each individual student. This takes a tremendous amount of time. You also have to arrange meetings with a parent or parents for each one of those students twice within the school year.

And then there was Pictou’s Tim Houston with an account that is either the beginning of an urban legend or a description of a state of affairs that should have been remedied long ago.

TIM HOUSTON: I want to finish with a story that was shared to me by a teacher who told me, here’s what I have in my class. I have one student with ADHD who was medicated; one student with ADHD who was not medicated; one student suffering from undiagnosed ADHD and possibly anxiety and ODD; one student with high-functioning ASD; one student with ASD anxiety who violently attacked family members and had been declared suicidal by a psychologist; one student who repeated the previous grade but still was not making any significant academic gains; one student with severe hearing loss; five students not reading at the grade level; and eight students with documented adaptations… Now, she says, let me tell you what I did not have. I did not have any educational assistant time allotted to my classroom because somebody decided there were more challenging needs in the school and that the time that the school was allotted was already taken up, so they had no educational assistants in there.

Pat Dunn also spoke about the state of mental health among students, a theme that prompted Health Minister Leo Glavine to enter the debate, along with the NDP’s Lisa Roberts, both of whom addressed the impact of social media.

DUNN: Approximately 20 per cent of young people are suffering from some form of mental disorder across our country, and this probably translates to one to five students in the average classroom in our province. The mental health of students in schools is often overlooked, but it’s an extremely relevant issue for today’s educator. Many students arrive at school suffering from a mental disorder. Some students will come forward, sometimes despite stigma, and come to student services and request help.

LEO GLAVINE: …I would say that I’ve learned a lot as well, I guess, in sort of updating over the last couple of months, meeting with teacher leaders in Kings County, one in particular that I would mention tonight is Bev Roy who is now in her 35th year as a guidance counsellor, and she was able to track and present to me very clearly what she has seen emerge perhaps in the last decade and what a different world our teenagers, our adolescents in particular, are experiencing daily – a fast-paced, online, high-stress environment that many then will have those behavioural problems and disassociation that emerge and create challenges both in the formal setting of the classroom and within the school environment itself.

LISA ROBERTS: So often students are sleep starved because they’re going to sleep but waking up and checking their social media and seeing who commented last on their social media post, and not giving themselves the time that they need to take care of their own mental health. It is really important that we are learning and sharing information about how our collective mental health is affected by our technology at this point, and how we can ensure that students have the information and knowledge and skills and practices that they need in order to maintain their mental health.

Dunn and Roberts both called on the Department of Education to ease up on its initiatives, with Roberts, a former journalist, placing on her erstwhile media colleagues some of the responsibility for too much emphasis on assessment and oversight at the expense of teaching.

PAT DUNN: One pet peeve of mine, Mr. Speaker – the initiatives that are coming down from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development through the school boards to the schools each year. I think we should have a reduction in initiatives. In fact I would even support a freeze for a couple of years on initiatives and let teachers do what they want to do, and that is teach. I can recall the last few years as an administrator – a principal of a high school, Mr. Speaker – and arriving at school in the middle of August to prepare for the school opening in September and finding on my desk new initiatives, new programs, new things that have to be done, they are mandatory. They are passed on from the Department of Education and I’m saying to myself, imagine, my first meeting with my staff I’m going to have to tell them that this is mandatory, you have more responsibilities, you have more things to do in your classroom, things that are not really attached to the actual teaching of kids.

ROBERTS: I feel like journalists in Nova Scotia, along with many other people, sort of set us up to be searching for this Holy Grail of a score that shows that we’re doing well. I think we followed that Holy Grail down some incorrect paths and we’re seeing the consequences of that right now in Nova Scotia. You hear that from teachers. They have to participate in school improvement plans. The school improvement plans have to have metrics where they are demonstrating how they are trying to improve how their performance measures are improving year after year….According to the (budget) estimates, we will spend $4.5 million in 2016-17 at the department level for the Centre for Learning Excellence that has responsibilities related to performance management, school improvement planning, research and data analysis, leadership development. Then we spent just over $1 million on education innovation and another $2.7 million on innovative curriculum development. Then we spent $400,000-and some on communicating all of this and the budget of the Office of the Assistant Deputy Minister has gone up $500,000 over the last couple of years…So just those figures added up to more than $9 million. I just kind of guesstimated that that was 140 new teachers’ salaries, or 231 EAs’ salaries that we could invest in people actually working face-to-face with kids, doing what they are trained to do.

We actually have 9,000 experts in our system who are public school teachers. What they are constantly hearing from us, I think as a society and from the department as a whole, is what you are doing is not good enough, it has to be better, we have to be improving. I sort of feel it’s a little bit like holding doctors accountable for obesity stats. I mean there are social determinants of literacy, there are social determinants of how our kids are doing in our schools and it is not realistic.

The alleged “no fail” policy, which the government at first suggested was a myth, was a hot topic during question periods, which interrupted proceedings at various odd times. In the end, Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie and Independent Andrew Younger wrung from the government “proof” it’s a myth…400 students have allegedly repeated a grade.

JAMIE BAILLIE: Earlier this week the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development said that the no-fail policy is a myth. Well, it’s not a myth at the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board. Their policy manual says, “The AVRSB and the Department of Education believe that most students in grades P-6 and most middle level/junior high students (grades 6-9) benefit from being in class with their peers in age-appropriate settings. Retention, therefore, is a rare exception.” Does the Premier agree that no-fail has been a myth?

THE PREMIER: Mr.Speaker, yes.

BAILLIE: Well, Mr. Speaker, apparently the Premier doesn’t believe the manual of his own school board, the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board, where it’s pretty clear that it’s not a myth. But it’s not just there, Mr. Speaker. Lisa Wilson is a teacher at E.B. Chandler Junior High School in Amherst. She has written to us, and I’ll table the correspondence in a moment that she has three non-attenders for whom there is no accountability. Even though they have missed the majority of the year, they will most likely move on to Grade 9. She also has 16 very poor attenders who miss at least two days per week on average. Again, there is no accountability.Mr. Speaker, if no-fail is a myth, what does the Premier call passing students who don’t show up for school?

THE PREMIER: Again, I want to tell the honourable member that there was a directive sent out across the province to the school boards to notify them that there is no such thing as a no-fail policy. We rely on teachers, principals, and schools to ensure that kids who are not meeting expectations – they determine, based on their own professional judgment, whether or not that child moves forward or stays in that particular grade….

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ANDREW YOUNGER:I certainly hope the Minister of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development saw some of the feed yesterday from Law Amendments Committee and has a better understanding that the primary reason that teachers rejected three offers, as we’ve heard repeatedly now, is really about classroom conditions. One of those issues that’s been raised a number of times is the no-fail policy, which the minister said yesterday doesn’t exist and the Premier just said doesn’t exist. Yet it appears repeatedly on the minister’s own website, as it turns out.The Freeman panel report on her website says a no-fail policy began in the 1990s and that, “Today, with few exceptions, Nova Scotian students are promoted with their peers.”

KAREN CASEY: We want to make sure that every student does their very best. We provide supports and services to make sure that they do. We never want a student to have to repeat. But there are times when they do.When that time comes, we value the professional judgment of the teacher, who works with the parent and the principal. Those are the three people who will determine whether a student needs more time at their grade level before they move on. We do everything we can and teachers do everything they can to make sure that the services and supports are there for that student so that they can achieve their very best. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, and students are asked to repeat a grade.

YOUNGER: In addition to that document on her website, there is also the 2010 report of the Minister’s Working Committee on Absenteeism and Classroom Climate. That report covers a lot of things including a no-fail policy. In fact, they recommend getting rid of the no-fail policy. The response from the minister of the day was to not get rid of it but instead to do a two-year trial getting rid of it, which expired in 2013, just before this member became minister. How is that not a no-fail policy when two documents on her own website say that, in fact, there is a no-fail policy and that there was a trial period with a fail policy which expired just before she became minister?

CASEY: As I’ve said, every teacher works very hard to make sure that every student reaches their full potential. When they do, they progress to the next level. If they don’t, then we want to make sure that that student has the adaptations that they need, if they need an IPP, if they go to resource. Teachers do everything possible to make sure that that student can be successful. Talking about a no-fail policy, we have over 400 students who we have recorded as having repeated a grade. There is no such thing as a no-fail policy.

If not a no-fail policy, perhaps the next thing to it? Casey did not specify whether the 400 repeaters were in a single year or over several. If in a single year, it would amount to 0.35% of students, not exactly a myth-busting figure.

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