“The act can’t do everything.”

Ed Picco’s less-than-perfect school solution


Ed Picco, the education minister, squirms in his seat as he is needled by Hunter Tootoo, MLA for Iqaluit Centre, during a standing committee hearing last week on Bill 21, the new Education Act.

Picco fidgets. He clicks his pen. He swivels his seat, searching the room for sympathy. He mutters the words he can't keep in. Talking, for Picco, is a compulsion.

But even Picco's rapid-fire rambling can't get around the fact that Bill 21 has its opponents.

Chief among them are district education authorities, the small groups of elected residents who are supposed to represent parents by helping in such matters as setting the school calendar and reviewing the contract of the school principal.

Picco says DEAs will get new powers under Bill 21, including the power and money to set up an early childhood program, such as a kindergarten or preschool, in each community.

But DEAs want more power, including the ability to hire and fire teachers, and they're unhappy that the new law would still give the minister final say over the decisions they make.

They say they should be given final say on decisions, rather than him.

"The minister is ultimately responsible for the education system," Picco replies. "I don't think we'd want a system where the minister of education could stand up and say, ‘It's not my problem, I can't do anything about it, go back to the DEA.'"

Picco also insists that he has never overturned a DEA decision, although Tootoo disputes this.

Also unhappy are Inuit organizations such as Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which maintains that bilingual education from Kindergarten to Grade 12 ought to be introduced by 2011, or "immediately," even if this means replacing qualified teachers with Inuit who lack formal credentials.

Picco calls this proposal "irresponsible" and "impossible to fulfill."

Under Picco's plan, by 2019, students in Nunavut should be able to attend Grade 10 classes in biology, earth sciences and geography in the Inuit language. Overall, half of all classes from K-12 would be taught in the Inuit language.

Even this is "a tall order," he says. To succeed, Picco says Nunavut needs to train at least 160 additional Inuit teachers.

But he will surely need more, because that figure does not cover replacing the first generation of Inuit teachers, many of whom are expected to retire over the next few years.

NTI also wants schools to be more culturally relevant to Inuit. In response, Picco points out that, when he grew up in Newfoundland, no teacher taught him how to tend lobster pots or how to shoot a moose.

In contrast, students in Nunavut are treated to land trips, which include hunting lessons for senior students. Nunavut's schools could offer a lot more, but they give students more cultural curriculum than Picco ever received as a child.

Many of the complaints aimed at Bill 21 speak loudly of distrust in the territorial government and its ability to administer the school system.

Critics either want to remove the government from schools, or to wrap government in another layer of bureaucracy, called divisional boards of education, that once stood between the Department of Education and DEAs prior to the creation of Nunavut.

Many people didn't like divisional boards when they were around, but they appear to be preferred over school operations bureaucrats today, who DEAs say usually ignore their requests.

During the hearings Picco acknowledges that Nunavut's schools aren't working as they should. Only one in four children in the territory will finish school.

Tootoo pounces on the remark, saying, "It's good to finally hear him admit the school system is failing kids."

Any discussion about Nunavut's schools at some point returns to Thomas Berger's influential report on the implementation of the Nunavut land claims agreement, and the standing committee hearing was no exception.

Berger recommended that Nunavut's abysmal graduation rate could be fixed by an expensive bilingual school system. Since then, pretty much everyone who talks about the school system repeats this assertion, including Picco, who is quick to say he endorses Berger's recommendations.

But he also contradicts them with a simple remark. He says most students who regularly attend class do graduate.

And, in Picco's opinion, there is a long list of reasons why kids stop attending class. The absence of a fully bilingual school system does not top the list.

It's the absence of parenting.

He hears of many parents who stay up late playing cards, drinking and doing drugs. And, driving home late at night, he sees many young children riding their bikes along the city streets past 10 p.m. on the week night.

"I'm sure a lot of those kids didn't go to school this morning," he says.

Meanwhile, Picco says he hears the same thing from the teenagers who do graduate in Nunavut: they're thankful their parents shook them out of bed in the morning.

Nearly every big social problem in Nunavut contributes to the territory's drop-out rate. Teen pregnancy is a big one, Picco contends. He knows of one high school class with nine pregnant girls.

Yet there's little public discussion about teen pregnancy in Nunavut. The issue is not nearly as high-profile as the desire to introduce bilingual education.

All this may help explain why a piece of legislation such as Bill 21 probably faces impossible expectations. Schools are easy to blame for Nunavut's ugly social problems. Homes, less so.

"The act can't do everything," Picco says. What's also needed, he says, is a "buy-in" among Nunavut's communities. And that's not something government can force.

The Education Act is Nunavut's oldest piece of legislation. Millions of dollars have been spent on community consultations during the past eight years.

Bill 1, the first attempt at a new Education Act, died on the order paper in March 2003. Since then, the current government has spent $1.2 million on holding more than 100 consultations with the public and stakeholders.

Picco admits Bill 21 isn't perfect. But he says it's a lot better than the old Education Act inherited from the Northwest Territories.

MLAs will almost certainly vote on Bill 21 during the last session of the legislature to be held sometime before the October territorial elections. Until then, Picco will surely have plenty more talking to do.

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