Education shaping up to be election issue

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While the next provincial election is probably still over a year and a half away, the number one issue is already starting to emerge.

The opposition Progressive Conservatives may be without a permanent leader, but they have been doing a good job in pushing cuts to the education system into the forefront. Education Minister Alan McIsaac found himself under fire frequently during the spring legislature sitting and each time he deferred to the English Language School Board. He won’t have the luxury of doing that on the campaign trail when he comes face to face with voters.

There are two major issues on the front-burner that have the potential to divide Islanders along both geographic and linguistic lines and  perhaps pose the biggest threat to Premier Robert Ghiz’s bid for a third term.

Right now, administrators within the English school system are dealing with a cut of 32 teachers across the unit. At first glance, that should not be too difficult to do because between 40-50 teachers typically retire each year.

However, the math is a little more complicated. Many teachers have specialties like teaching French immersion, gym or music. Obviously, not every teacher can teach those subjects. When one of those vacancies occurs, it is usually filled. Since schools received an overall teacher allotment based on enrollment, that means another job must be eliminated—usually a teacher without a specialty.

That means class sizes get bigger, especially in schools that have increased enrollment. Most of those schools tend to be in urban areas. Those parents are become increasingly frustrated that their children are in classes that can have well over 30-40 students. That makes it difficult for teachers to offer much one-on-one learning.

For students in many rural areas, they are now living under the threat of seeing their schools close due to declining numbers. Those fears have been escalated when Superintendent Cynthia Fleet said in an interview the board may be forced to look at closing some small schools. Opposition Leader Steve Myers maintains the Department of Education has conducted a $17,000 study on who best to handle the fallout from the closures.

For the French school board, the situation is somewhat different. The constitutional guarantee for French first language parents to obtain education for their children in their own language is somewhat of a buffer against school closures, but not entirely. The ruling only offers a guarantee—it doesn’t saying anything about having to take a long bus ride. So far, there have been no French schools closed and class sizes do tend to be smaller.

Trustees for the English board are now starting to hear complaints from parents and board members are now calling for stable funding. In a province facing severe financial challenges and with the government pledging to balance its books by 2016 that could prove hard to come by. Then again, money has a way of mysteriously appearing the closer an incumbent government gets to an election.

Andy Walker is a P.E.I.-based journalist and commentator

 

Organizations: Progressive Conservatives, English Language School Board, English school Department of Education English board

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