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Education Uncertainty abounds as N.S. teachers vote for illegal job action over sweeping government proposals

Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill speaks in Halifax on Jan. 24, 2018, about the government's sweeping education proposals.

Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The last time public-school teachers and the government in Nova Scotia did battle, Anne Totten, a mother from Dartmouth, was forced to take her 11-year-old son to work with her.

She had no other choice on that day, a particularly acrimonious one during the last school year's labour dispute, when the government announced an impromptu shuttering of all schools. It is an understatement to say that the decision forced parents to scramble for child care.

Now, just a year later, families are faced with fresh uncertainty. Teachers in the province voted this week in favour of illegal job action (contracts don't expire until next year), but it remains unclear what the impact will be on classrooms or when the action could hit. Possibilities could include rotating strikes or even a full walkout, which would once again leave parents – who are growing increasingly frustrated with the instability at schools – caught in the crossfire.

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"It's complete chaos and I don't see how they're ever going to fix this," said Ms. Totten, who has had to put her own parents on standby in case emergency care needs arise. "Why is it still ongoing? When is this going to end?"

A resolution is nowhere in sight. In the wake of a provincially funded report that amounted to a scathing condemnation of Nova Scotia's school system, battle lines between teachers and the provincial government – which says it has no plans to halt sweeping education reforms to overhaul administration in schools – are just forming.

The government has insisted that the changes are necessary and will result in better outcomes for the province's 118,000 public-school students. But an education-system overhaul will not be easy and the sweeping reforms come just a year after Premier Stephen McNeil's Liberal government legislated an end to a protracted labour dispute.

Nova Scotia's students rank below the Canadian average in test scores for science, math and reading, and consultant Avis Glaze said in her report, issued last month, that a disjointed system and conflicting priorities led to these poor results. She made a number of controversial recommendations, including eliminating the province's seven English-language school boards, which essentially involves removing school trustees and replacing them with a central advisory council, creating a provincial college of educators to license and regulate the profession, much like in Ontario, and removing principals and vice-principals from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU), which would, some observers say, dilute the power of the union.

Graham Steele, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University and a former NDP finance minister, said he is concerned that Mr. McNeil's Liberals are vigorously shaking up the education system, but should focus on confronting core demographic issues such as child poverty. About one in five children is living in poverty in Nova Scotia – the highest rate in Atlantic Canada, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Mr. Steele said the speed at which the government moved on Ms. Glaze's report was "remarkably fast" – she was hired in October, made her recommendations in January and the next day the government said it accepted all 22 of them and it was ready to move forward on 11.

He said that the McNeil government appears to believe it has an audience that would allow it to reshape the education sector during this mandate after taking on health in its previous term. Similar to what it wants to do with school boards, the government merged the province's nine district health authorities into one body more than two years ago. (There have been issues: A recent auditor-general's report said that gaps in the provincial health-care system have left tens of thousands of residents without a family doctor and patients languishing on wait lists without updates.)

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"They'll win in the sense of passing the law, I don't have the slightest doubt about that. They will pass what they want to pass. But when you have these systems that depend so much on trust and when you don't have the trust, it can spin out in ways that you never anticipated," Mr. Steele said.

Teachers say morale is low. Parents wonder whether the dispute will lead to toxicity in the classroom.

Chara Kingston, who has two children in a Halifax public school, said she feels both anxious and frustrated. The report from Ms. Glaze comes as the province is also looking at inclusive schools and classroom conditions, and parents such as Ms. Kingston don't understand how it will all be done.

"I feel like I have no faith," she said. "I'm not going to take my kids out and home-school them. I don't have the money to go to a private school… but the language that is being used, I feel like it's heading towards a business model… I don't want that for my kids."

This week, following the strike-vote results, Education Minister Zach Churchill met with the teachers' union but he also indicated that the government won't hit the pause button.

"We want better outcomes for our kids and we know that the status quo in our education system in Nova Scotia isn't producing the best results for them," he said in an interview.

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But Liette Doucet, president of the NSTU, said the proposed changes would create unnecessary chaos in schools. She said that by removing principals and vice-principals from the teachers' union, as in Ontario, it would alter the collegial atmosphere in schools.

The government could introduce changes through legislation as early as this coming week. Ms. Glaze, a veteran educator who set up Ontario's numeracy and literacy secretariat, said reform is difficult. "When the dust settles, they'll be able to see that these are some of the things that are needed for the children of Nova Scotia to reach their full potential," she said.

Ms. Totten is not as sure.

"I don't think either side is going to win in this one," she said. "It's going to have to take, I think, a new government and a new union [executive] to come together in a spirit of 'Let's forget all this mess of the past and really focus on improving the classroom.'"

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