The Ontario government has appointed a defeated Progressive Conservative candidate to chair the province’s scholastic testing agency, making it a full-time position for the first time and raising questions about its independence.
The Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is an arm’s-length agency of the government that administers tests to Ontario students and measures their proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics.
Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced last week that Cameron Montgomery, who lost to Liberal Marie-France Lalonde in the riding of Orléans in the June provincial elections, would be chair of the board. He will earn a salary of $140,000, a spokeswoman for EQAO said.
Mr. Montgomery previously taught in the faculty of education at the University of Ottawa, and left to pursue a political career, according to a university spokeswoman. An EQAO spokeswoman said Mr. Montgomery was not available for an interview.
In an e-mail statement, Mr. Montgomery said that he valued his time at the university. “After 14 years, I was looking for a career change. EQAO is an incredible opportunity that aligns with my expertise and I am very excited to contribute,” he said.
But some in the education community are questioning what Mr. Montgomery’s full-time role will mean to the agency. Previous chairs did the job on a part-time basis, and their salary worked out to about $5,000.
Charles Pascal, a former Ontario deputy education minister and a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said EQAO was established as a non-partisan means of providing information on school improvement.
“Appointing a partisan crony with a hefty salary as an unprecedented full-time chair suggests the arm will be a short one, that EQAO could be used as a narrow and negative tool as part of an ongoing attack on publicly funded education," said Mr. Pascal, who chaired the board between 2005 and 2008.
Dave Cooke, who was the province’s minister of education in the early 1990s and most recently the chair of EQAO, said that "if there’s a perception that politics is creeping into how the tests are reported, EQAO will lose its credibility within the education community.”
He added: “I’m hoping for the best. Because I still believe the EQAO is essential to the public-education system.”
A spokeswoman for Ms. Thompson, Kayla Iafelice, did not address questions around EQAO’s independence now that a former PC candidate has received a full-time appointment.
Ms. Iafelice said Mr. Montgomery provides an “invaluable perspective to EQAO” given his experience with the province’s English- and French-language school systems. The announcement of his appointment said he trained future teachers and worked with special-needs students.
“The full-time chair will act as a chief spokesperson for EQAO. The ministry will work with the chair with a view to promoting high levels of student achievement, particularly in foundational math skills,” Ms. Iafelice said.
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said parents would rather see the money spent in the classroom. “Instead, Doug Ford is siphoning off cash to give to someone he trades favours with," Ms. Stiles said in a news release. “That money is for children – not Ford’s insiders.”
The tests conducted by EQAO have been the subject of intense debate. Supporters argue that they measure how students are learning the curriculum and keep the education system accountable.
But critics say that they are used by some as a way to rank schools and also provide real estate agents with a valuable marketing tool for families.