EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.
Ontario's education minister says legislation that would increase provincial control over school boards is aimed at a subset of boards whose students have been falling behind on key metrics such as graduation rates and standardized test scores.
Stephen Lecce tabled Bill 98, the Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act, in April.
One headline-grabbing section will give the province more control over excess school properties. It will also reform how local school boards are governed, including by requiring standardized codes of conduct for boards of trustees and providing for the appointment of a roster of integrity commissioners to resolve code-of-conduct complaints.
But earlier this week Lecce told the committee studying the bill it's anchored around provisions that allow him to establish a framework that requires school boards across the province to focus the government's key priorities on student achievement, and publicly report results in a multi-year plan. The government would have tools to address lagging boards, including by allowing the ministry to deploy "support personnel" to assist them.
Lecce said 15,000 students per year in Ontario do not graduate from high school within five years, and that non-graduates have a 5 per cent higher rate of unemployment, a 13 per cent lower rate of labour market participation and lower incomes than the provincial average. He also noted students have regressed in some standardized test results through the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) as a result of the pandemic.
"Now in, addition, some school boards have consistently lagged behind on key student performance indicators, including on EQAO assessments, on graduation rates and student attendance," said Lecce. "It's why we've devised this plan."
Lecce framed the bill as part of his government's efforts to bring education "back to basics," emphasizing literacy and math as foundational skills, while "not in any way denying" the importance of other development of other skills and social-emotional development.
"But yes, we do believe foundational skills of literacy and math," he said. "Those anchors need to be mastered in the classroom as a first principle."
NDP education critic Chandra Pasma questioned Lecce at the committee meeting, criticizing him for directing school boards to "do better, with no additional resources to bring down class sizes, no additional resources to address the fact that half of our schools have no mental health resources at all, no additional resources to support the fact that many children with disabilities and special needs aren't actually even able to participate in our school system."
She challenged him to name one school board that is "not interested in student outcomes and students' success."
"Well, I can name 10 school boards that have been at the bottom quintile of performance for the last decade," he replied. "When you have school boards who have for a decade —"
But then he was cut off there by the committee chair, who said the time for the opposition round of questions was over.
While Lecce didn't single out any school boards, the province tracks indicators of student success including graduation rates and standardized test scores.
According to the most recent available metrics, the school boards with the lowest scores were mostly in northern Ontario. When it comes to graduation rates, District School Board Ontario North East had the lowest score, as less than 72 per cent of students graduated after either four or five years in 2021.
It was followed by Rainy River District School Board, Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, Superior-Greenstone District School Board, Lakehead District School Board, Rainbow District School Board, Grand Erie District School Board, Hastings & Prince Edward District School Board and Kenora Catholic District School Board, all with rates from 73 to 78 per cent.
Meanwhile, the Conseil scolaire catholique Providence in Southwestern Ontario ranked first with a graduation rate of nearly 98 per cent. The Toronto District School Board — the province's largest — ranked near the middle, at 91 per cent.
When it comes to the standardized grade 10 literacy test, the same boards scored near the top and bottom of the province's list.
After the committee meeting, Chandra told The Trillium she believes the minister was making unfair accusations about the boards where students are struggling, "especially when the factors that are hampering student success are actually within the minister's control."
In many cases, especially in the northern and remote communities where graduation rates are lower, the boards are having trouble recruiting and retaining qualified teachers and the government has "turned a deaf ear" on requests for additional funding for those schools, she said.
"So it's completely unfair to pin the blame for lower student outcomes on school boards when the minister is not setting them up to succeed."
Some school boards seemed to bristle at the suggestion they need the province's help.
"While the changes may be intended to foster stronger trust and collaboration between the ministry, trustees and the professionals who lead our school systems, instead they seem to imply a sense of distrust in trustees and our senior leaders," wrote the Lakehead District School Board in its submission to the committee.
It wasn't alone.
The Toronto District School Board issued a press release outlining its "significant concerns" with the bill, including that the province can override local planning and unilaterally determine whether the board's performance is satisfactory and, if it is deemed not to be, embed support personnel within the board. It notes the government hasn't defined their scope of duties or given any "guidance about how these people will be considered, qualified or selected for their roles."
The Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board criticized the “one-size fits all” nature of the bill, which it said significantly silences the voice of voters by restricting the autonomy of elected Trustees to represent the local interests within their mandate."
"We have significant concerns that (legislation) will further erode the power and ability of locally elected school boards to advocate for and meet the needs of the students in communities we know best," said board chair Steve Russell in a submission to the committee. "As the members are aware, local school boards were the first democratically elected representatives in Ontario and remain critically positioned to represent the communities we serve."
That was echoed by the Ottawa Carleton District School Board, which said it is "concerned with the scope and breadth of these changes and their potential adverse impact on the local autonomy of school boards to act in the best interests of their communities."
Other boards gave similar feedback to the committee and all called for greater consultation with the ministry before the bill and its regulations are passed.