Student achievement as a top priority for all education stakeholders is now firmly entrenched in Ontario’s statutory landscape. Bill 177: Student Achievement and School Board Governance Act, (which amends Ontario’s Education Act), received Royal Assent and came into force on December 15, 2009, after a year long legislative process. During the Bill’s public hearings, the legislature heard from thirty-eight individuals and organizations, including school boards, trustee associations, individual trustees, parent organizations, unions and education advocacy organizations, on the potential merits and impact of Bill 177. From its inception, Bill 177 has generated strong opinions. Similarly, its final assent and proclamation into force have been received with mixed reviews by the education community.
Purpose of Public Education
Section 1 of Bill 177 sets out the important values underlying the Education Act as a whole. Subsection 1.01(1) provides that a strong public education system “is the foundation of a prosperous, caring and civil society.” Subsection 1.01(2) specifically states that the purpose of the public education system “is to provide students with the opportunity to realize their potential and develop into highly skilled, knowledgeable, caring citizens who contribute to their society.” Subsection 1.01(3) provides that enhancing student achievement and well-being is a collective responsibility among all partners in the education sector.
While student achievement is the overarching purpose of Bill 177, the term itself has not been defined in the Education Act. It therefore remains to be seen how these laudable student achievement goals will be carried out in practice.
School Board Governance
The thrust of Bill 177 is to clarify the current regulatory framework governing the operation of school boards. Section 218.1 enumerates the duties of board members, which includes maintaining focus on student achievement and well-being. It provides: A member of a board shall,
- carry out his or her responsibilities in a manner that assists the board in fulfilling its duties under this Act, the regulations and the guidelines issued under this Act, including but not limited to the board’s duties under section 169.1:
- attend and participate in meetings of the board, including meetings of board committees of which he or she is a member;
- consult with parents, students and supporters of the board on the board’s multi-year plan under clause 169.1 (1) (f);
- bring concerns of parents, students and supporters of the board to the attention of the board;
- uphold the implementation of any board resolution after it is passed by the board;
- entrust the day to day management of the board to its staff through the board’s director of education;
- maintain focus on student achievement and well-being; and
- comply with the board’s code of conduct.
Subsection 218.1(e) provides that members of a school board are required to act collectively once a decision has been made. Indeed, at Second Reading of Bill 177 on September 15, 2009, the Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne (as she then was) stated as follows:
“…once a board has made a final decision, trustees would be expected, as members of that board, to uphold the board’s decisions. This was a recommendation of the governance review committee. Trustees could obviously explain to their constituents that they may not have supported the decision at the board table and they may continue to disagree, but that once the decision has been made, they should uphold that decision fully.”
Section 218.4 further enumerates additional duties of the board chair, including maintaining the board’s focus on its mission and vision. The amendments seek to promote good governance practices and sound financial management by establishing audit committees and parent involvement committees.
The Provincial Government is also given significant latitude in determining by regulation the respective roles and responsibilities of school boards and their trustees. Section 218.2 enables school boards to establish a provincial code of conduct for trustees, and the Minister may regulate the imposition of a code of conduct and the matters to be addressed by a code of conduct under this section. Enforcement provisions at section 218.3 enumerate sanctions to be imposed on board members who breach the board’s code of conduct, including:
- censure of the member;
- barring the member from attending all or part of a meeting of the board or a meeting of a committee of the board; and
- barring the member from sitting on one or more committees of the board, for the period of time specified by the board.
While these provisions provide the government with unilateral authority in respect of trustees’ codes of conduct, it represents a significant dilution of the regulatory oversight previously included in earlier versions of the Bill. "What has come back is a bill with more consensus," said Liz Sandals, parliamentary assistant to Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne. "There's still an intent to do the public-interest regulations – the minister is committed to this and I've spoken to school-board association presidents on this.”
There remains a pervasive concern among stakeholders, however, that school boards will become local offices of the Ministry of Education rather than local governing bodies responsible to their electors as part of the democratic process.
School Board Responsibility for Student Achievement
Section 169.1 enumerates school boards’ responsibility for student achievement and effective stewardship of resources. According to subsection 169.1(f), boards must develop a multi-year plan which includes specific measures to be met by the board that are to be specified in future regulations. While this regulation has not been finalized, a Ministry of Education Provincial Interest Regulation Public Consultation Paper, published in the summer of 2009, proposes that the regulation have two kinds of measures:
- Those for which a board is responsible to the public, as outlined in its annual report; and
- Those for which the government will hold boards responsible and which could, after all other efforts and supports have been exhausted, “trigger” a process that could result in the supervision of a board.
One of the proposed triggers is where a board has 40% or more of its schools in the bottom 20% of the schools in the province based on EQAO Grades 3 and 6 scores in reading, writing and math. Other triggers include a board’s failure to develop and make public its annual report and insufficient meetings with the Parent Involvement Committee.
School boards argue that their ability to satisfy many of the potential triggers is directly correlated with its resources. As school boards are entirely dependent on provincial funding, there is a serious concern that school boards are being held accountable for matters over which they do not have ultimate control.
The purpose of Bill 177 is to strengthen school board governance and to inject school board accountability for student achievement into Ontario’s educational paradigm. The Ministry of Education maintains that it will continue to provide supports to school boards to improve student outcomes, reduce gaps and enhance public confidence in public education. With significant public interest regulations remaining to be drafted, the practical meaning of “student achievement” and the manner in which it is to be measured by the Ministry remains to be seen.