Battling over school board reforms

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Dispatches from the 148 by Fred Ryan


Dispatches from the 148 by Fred Ryan

Quebec’s Bill 86 which, in essence, ends general elections of school board trustees has aroused the public more than the actually school board elections ever did. Everyone is bashing the ‘reform’, the commissioners, parent groups, even minority-protection organizations like RAWQ.  However, there is as much – or more – smoke in all this as real substance.
First, the government’s title for Bill 86 is entirely smoke. It’s called, “An Act to modify the organization and governance of school boards to give schools a greater say in decision-making and ensure parents’ presence within each school board’s decision-making body”. Obfuscation? Double-talk? This title is propaganda, promising tax payers what won’t be delivered. First, ignore the title.
Second is the equation, “elections = democracy”, used by opponents of this change. The complainants insist that denying the public a right to run for and to elect members of school commissions is undemocratic and paternalistic. This simplistic equation, “voting = democracy”, is as empty as the government’s title for Law 86.
Elections by themselves do not guarantee democracy. Dictatorships around the world hold “elections”. Furthermore, if elections are for a powerless and well-controlled body, this isn’t democracy.
This applies not only to dictatorial governments but also to school boards. Bill 86 would have to give school boards real power and capacity to make wide-ranging decisions if the new law was to increase democracy.  School boards today are not free standing, independent controllers of the schools, curricula, and staff. School boards are tools of the central government, not of local communities; they have no ability to modify important aspects of our education system.
Decisions, largely, on bus routes, school roofs, and student trips do not constitute democratic control over schools. Tell us in what way boards are vital to their communities; they have often refused to buy-local or support community campaigns outside the school.
One argument for top-down control is to prevent boards from creating
“ghettos” for wealthy or for religious or other ideologically controlled schools. 
Actually, religious and private (“charter”) schools themselves are anti-democratic in their effect on society as a whole. A truly democratic system would fold all private and religious schools into one system so all kids, no matter their origins, receive the same quality education. ISIS and the world situation, including the US, show the dangers of allowing religious rules and beliefs to become public, not private, beliefs. Bill 86 seems not to limit private schools.
To promote democracy, the boards have to be given real decision-making
powers over decisions that matter—curriculum, school hours, standards, etc. Commissioners would need training to exercise these new powers, thus empowering the boards to create better students and better educational outcomes. Is any of this happening?
Having elections for a powerless board is illusory, even manipulative.  It gives us the impression that we are electing decision-makers. This “voting” can create the opposite of democracy.
School boards now are, effectively, the agents of the government, not of communities. Elections are irrelevant if they have no clear consequence. Notice the Liberals have abolished elections to save money, but they have not abolished school boards. We want the government to explain why these reforms are more effective than, say, cutting the bureaucracy in the Ministry of Education. We need the local people to explain why the status quo is worth keeping (by comparing results with Finland, Denmark, etc.)
And, finally, real local elections to empowered boards would challenge Quebec’s top-down vision of governance. Wouldn’t that affect everything?