In his April 24, 2017, Globe and Mail article entitled, The jig is up for Canada’s school boards, Konrad Yakabuski calls for the end of publicly elected school boards, describing them as “a sorry spectacle of Canadian democracy”. He charges that they “are plagued by petty ideological battles, personality conflicts, incivility and sheer incompetence”. Mr. Yakabuski is wrong on several counts.
His first error – a significant one for any journalist worth his ink – is the rhetorical fallacy of stereotyping. He points to a couple of recent examples of school boards in his home province of Ontario that have indeed had governance issues – and Ontario is not the only province with a few such boards. His error, however, is painting all Canadian school boards (approximately 370 of them) with the same brush. The real facts are that the number of school boards experiencing governance challenges represent a very small percentage of the whole. The overwhelming majority are functioning quite well, thank you very much. Mr. Yakabuski’s arguement is akin to suggesting all reporters are “sorry spectacles” of Canadian journalism because a few occasionally write poorly researched and rhetorically fallacious articles.
Mr. Yakabuski also demonstrates a lack of understanding of the significant roles school boards play both in Canadian democracy and in student achievement, both of which are substantiated by history and research. Canadians have been selecting their fellow citizens to govern local schools before even the federal and provincial governments came into existence. School trustees know a thing or two about governance and democracy! Mr. Yakabuski’s argument that the generally low voter turnout for school board elections is proof of their redundancy is also wrong. Voter turnout for both municipal and school board elections are low in some cities, but in other areas, local citizens exercise their franchise quite passionately, particularly when decisions made by provincial politicians threaten to close schools and programs. School boards, along with their municipal government counterparts, are closer to their constituencies than all other levels of government. School trustees act as the guardians of one of our most important public goods and surveys have repeatedly shown that Canadians believe their educational interests are best served by local representatives – as the Premier of Saskatchewan just discovered after his recent musings about the value of school boards. There is no more valid and genuine form of democracy than locally elected school boards, precisely because school trustees are not professional politicians. School boards put the public in public education!
Mr. Yakabuski also fails to recognise that in addition to their democratic value school boards can and do impact student achievement. This is not just a fuzzy sentiment. It is backed up by research conducted throughout North America that shows that school boards that exhibit a certain set of governance skills and beliefs have a positive impact on outcomes in the classroom – regardless of the socio-economic demographics of their communities. In the most recent OECD review of 72 countries, Canadian students ranked seventh in mathematics, fourth in science and second in reading. These results are not by chance. Yes, Canada is blessed with good communities, teachers and administrators, but as the studies have shown, local school boards as the governors of the system, play an important role in that success.
This by no means lets those few dysfunctional school boards off the hook. The stakes are too high to allow petty politics, incompetence and ideological battles to stand in the way of good governance and student achievement. School boards, as do all levels of government, have a responsibility to citizens to govern as effectively as possible. In addition to the significant supports available to school boards through their provincial associations, each Ministry of Education can and occasionally does intervene when necessary – and ultimately the citizenry will express its democratic will at the next election as it does for all levels of government. I don’t recall anyone suggesting we should not have city councils just because of the governance challenges exhibited a few years back in Mr. Yakabuski’s city of Toronto, or other examples that come to mind for provincial governments.
It is fallacious of Mr. Yakabuski to suggest that the whole orchard needs to be burned down because of a few blemished apples. The model of local governance through publicly elected school boards is neither redundant nor flawed. Those who suggest otherwise need to do their homework before submitting their essays.
Dr. Stephen Hansen