Feature

School Councils: About Enhancing Student Learning or About Power?

Vivian McCaffrey

Among a number of current education issues attracting controversy is the role of school councils. Bill 160, the Education Quality Improvement Act , requires all schools establish school councils to provide advice on an array of issues affecting school life, including the local school calendar, school budget priorities and criteria for selecting the principal. The Harris government has given the Education Improvement Commission (EIC) the mandate to review the role and function of school councils and the Commission is focusing on three key issues:

  • whether school councils should become decision-making rather than advisory bodies;
  • whether school board employees should have the right to be elected as parent or community members to the school councils; and
  • whether school councils should be autonomous organizations or whether they should have a direct link to the Ontario Parent Council. All three issues raise important questions about democratic governance and accountability.

Many of the Harris government's so-called education reforms have been about weakening the influence and authority of school boards, teacher federations and other employee groups. This is clearly the underlying goal of Bill 160's changes to the parameters of teachers' collective bargaining, the new education funding formula, and the centralized control over education finance. The issues facing school councils should be viewed in the same vein.

Advisory/Decision-Making?

Although the requirement to establish school councils was only introduced in April 1995 and some school boards are just seeing school councils get up and running according to the provincial policy guidelines, the Harris government has called for a review to determine if these bodies should move from being advisory to decision-making. Teacher unions are wary of the review, not just because it appears to be premature, but because of the overall context of recent change in the education sector.

The centralized control over education finance makes school boards effectively powerless and opens the door to downloading decision-making and budget-setting to the school level. Bill 160's removal of principals and vice-principals from teacher bargaining units sets the stage for these "administrators" to become more managers than curriculum leaders and to be given the responsibility for school- based management. Making school councils decision-making bodies would only further weaken school boards by establishing site-based management and decentralizing power to the local school level. The next step could easily be opening the door to charter schools or to voucher education, especially when, under the new funding model, funding is more directly tied to the individual student.

Giving school councils decision-making authority raises questions about the function of school boards to ensure there is equity among schools in terms of programs and resources and that special needs are met. It raises questions about traditional lines of authority between 'school boards and their employees and, further, about democratic accountability. Unlike school boards, school councils are not elected through a general elections process with accountability
to all ratepayers.

Who sits on the councils?

Recently, Education and Training Minister Dave Johnson sent a letter to school boards raising a concern about school employees being council members. He claimed that, according to the EIC, a disproportionate number of school board employees were sitting on school councils and this was a problem "across the province." While the Minister's letter does not constitute either government policy or a legal ban against school board employees sitting as parent or community council members, it does represent intimidation and it's hard not to see it as yet another government slam against teachers.

Not only has the EIC not provided any evidence there is a problem of school board employees taking over school councils, the threat to ban them from seeking council positions is blatantly discriminatory and undemocratic. After spending many hours dedicated to meeting the needs of their students, participating on their children's school council may be the one opportunity teachers have to contribute to their own children's school. If a school council is confronted with undue control by any group, then the problem should be dealt with by the school community, not by a discriminatory provincial policy.

Let's hope when the Commission releases its report on school councils later this fall it does not recommend school board employees be barred from parent or community positions. Let's also hope that, regardless of the Commission's stance, the government does not pursue this ill-advised course.

Council autonomy

A third issue being discussed is whether there should be some formal link between the Ontario Parent Council, whose members are appointed by the Minister of Education and Training, and school councils, whose members are elected from among the individual school communities. It should be obvious that connecting a government-appointed body with grass roots organizations is a nonstarter. School councils should be autonomous and directly accountable to their local school community.

Parent involvement

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario acknowledges the need for parents to have opportunities to support their children's education and school councils provide one vehicle for parental involvement. If school councils are to become truly viable, however, there is a need for the provincial government to designate specific resources to support them, including training. School boards, for example, do not have the resources to provide outreach to parents and guardians who traditionally are under-represented on school councils and parent associations. Finally, if the objective is to enhance student learning, then there should be more focus on strategies which have a proven record of helping parents support their children's education.

Vivian McCaffrey is a staff member in ETFO’s Communications and Political Action Services Department.