The Ministry of Education has vowed to make student achievement a priority of the education sector with Bill 177, Student Achievement and School Board Governance Act, introduced in the Ontario Legislature for first reading on May 7, 2009.

This legislation to amend the Ontario Education Act incorporates many of the twenty-five recommendations called for in the report, “School Board Governance: A Focus on Achievement”, commissioned by the McGuinty government in 2008. The Report was drafted by a Governance Committee constituted to examine the impact of current school board governance practices on Ontario’s publiclyfunded education system. Over a six month period, the Committee consulted with a myriad of stakeholders, including school board trustees, directors, parents and parent representatives, to solicit feedback on the current governance system and its correlation with student achievement. The report ultimately concluded that the role and mandate of school boards must be clarified, including: promoting student achievement and well-being, delivering effective and appropriate programs, and ensuring that school boards’ resources are well managed. “We need our students at their very best, and we need every school board focused on the same priorities,” said Premier Dalton McGuinty, in advocating for the Bill. While the enhancement of student achievement, is seemingly an implicit goal of any modern education system, the expression of this virtue has been notably absent from the current Education Act. In response to this statutory deficiency, the proposed Bill seeks to clarify the specific roles and responsibilities of school boards, trustees, board chairs and directors of education as they relate to the attainment and promotion of student achievement As noted by Colleen Schenk, President of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, “[S]chool boards are the embodiment of local governance in action. Effective governance relies on a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities.”

The Bill further seeks to incorporate and emphasize student success in all school boards’ mandates. According to the Committee, that mandate must include promoting student achievement and well being, delivering effective and appropriate programs, and ensuring that the boards’ resources are well managed. To develop and ensure good governance practices among all school boards, section 169.1 of the Bill requires school boards to promote prescribed student outcomes and deliver effective and appropriate education programs to its pupils. Under section 169.1(1)(d), all school boards must develop and maintain policies and organizational structures that “promote the well-being of the board’s pupils.” Section 169.1 further directs school boards to submit multi-year strategic plans (for three or more school years) that include goals for student outcomes and public annual reports on the boards’ specific progress in meeting these strategic plans. To ensure the effective management of board resources, section 253.1 of the Bill requires each school board to appoint an audit committee as a mechanism of fiscal control.

Section 218.1 addresses the individual responsibility of board members, as opposed to their collective responsibility as a “board”. Under section 218.1, a member of the board must:

  • bring concerns of parents, students and supports of the board to the attention of the board;
  • support the implementation of any board resolution after it is passed by the board;
  • refrain from interfering in the day-to-day management of the board by its officers and staff;
  • maintain focus on student achievement and well-being; and
  • comply with the board’s code of conduct.

To create increased accountability and transparency in board governance, the Bill will require the government to develop a detailed code of conduct for trustees and would require boards to adopt the code of conduct for all its members. Regulations will also be introduced with the proposed legislation to direct when and how the Ministry should involve itself with boards that have fallen short of achieving their strategic objectives. While under the old regime the province could only take over a school board on the basis of budgetary or other monetary problems, the new legislation would seemingly allow the Ministry of Education a wider discretion to intervene if a school board failed to comply with a provision of the Education Act or policy of the Ministry.

While some stakeholders are dubious of increased government supervision and involvement in the operation of school boards, Minister Wynne has sought to reassure sceptics that these legislative changes are not intended to usurp the power of school boards or dilute their effectiveness by subjecting them to unnecessary scrutiny. On the contrary, according to the Ministry, Bill 177 recognizes the importance of school boards and seeks to set certain governance parameters to define their responsibilities with respect to student welfare and success. As Minister Wynne has stated, “[T]rustees are vital partners in boosting student achievement and these changes make it clear that we’re counting on them to make a difference.” In particular, section 1.01(3) of the Bill recognizes that “[A]ll partners in the education sector have a role to play in enhancing student achievement and maintaining confidence in the province’s publicly funded education system.”

Many stakeholders applaud the government’s focus on student achievement and welcome a unified legislative framework that enumerates specific responsibilities for achieving student success; what is unsettling, however, is the tenuous and subjective nature of student achievement. The Bill itself does not define the meaning of “student achievement” or “well-being” and how boards’ actions in achieving these worthy objectives are quantified in practice, remains to be seen.