A review of Nova Scotia's public education system is calling for school closures and a reduction in the number of teaching assistants for students with learning disabilities or behavioural problems.
The review and resulting recommendations, compiled by education expert Ben Levin, will now be the subject of public consultation, Education Minister Ramona Jennex told a news conference Thursday.
"At a time when our province is dealing with steady enrolment decline while slowly recovering from a recession, we can no longer afford to do things the way we've been doing them," she said, noting that the province is encouraging people to make their views known on a new online forum.
"We're going to be looking at this and doing further study."
The hot-button issue of school closures amid declining enrolment has bedevilled provincial governments across Canada for years. But Levin's recommendation to reduce the number of teaching assistants is a new approach to cost cutting that could raise the ire of parents and teachers across the province.
"Many services are the result of hard-fought battles by parents and advocates, and supported by court decisions," said the report by Levin, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
However, the report says there's no empirical evidence to show the aides actually help students achieve improved academic performance.
"Some of the evidence says that TAs actually end up isolating kids from instruction," he said after the report was released.
"There is quite a bit of money tied up without much evidence of efficacy as to the spending of that money."
His report also suggests the hiring of teaching assistants has grown out of control.
"More and more children are being referred into special education and there seems no end to this increase," the report says.
"Nobody really knows whether the increases in [students with behavioural and mental challenges] are a result of real change in student performance or increased sensitivity to differences that at one time would have been regarded as part of the normal range of student behaviour."
Bobbie-Lynn Hall, whose autistic son Zach gets one-on-one help at Gertrude Parker Elementary School, said the special instruction has made a difference for her child.
"He learned about being with his peers and interacting with his friends and being in settings with all kinds of different people so that he became comfortable," she told CBC News.
"This is inclusion. This is what we've all been asking for and this is how it works and we have to keep on doing it that way for all these kids, we really do."
Conservative education critic Chris d'Entremont said reducing the amount of help teachers get in the classroom would hurt all students.
"You need those [education assistants] in order to maintain some sanity in the classroom," he said. "The assistant is not just for that particular student, it's for the whole class."
Report needs careful review: school boards
Karen Casey, the Liberal education critic, said it's important to remember that Nova Scotia's education system is based on inclusion, which means students facing special challenges are not supposed to be segregated from the regular classroom.
"If there's an assessment that determines they need support, then we have an obligation … to make sure they have those supports," said Casey, a former education minister and elementary school principal.
"To unilaterally say we need few EAs [education assistants] is based on either lack of information or inaccurate information."
It's estimated that about 20 per cent of school-age students have some kind of learning difficulty, said Vic Fleury, president of the Nova Scotia School Boards Association. He said Levin's recommendation to reduce teaching assistants while increasing resources for teachers needs careful review.
"[Teachers] are already trying to address multiple levels of ability in the classroom. For them to take over some of the support work of EAs, that's a serious question that will have to be looked at."
Alexis Allen, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, agreed.
"It concerns us if it has an impact on the child's education and the teacher's workload," she said.
"We have one in every 120 students with autism. Supporting teachers working with children with autism would be a good thing. It all depends how it works out."
No specific numbers
On the issue of school closures, Levin's report doesn't say how many schools should be shut down. But he provided a range when asked for an estimate.
"It's going to be 20, 30, 40, maybe more. It's not going to be 100. But it's not going to be five either. It's going to be a number that's worth making the effort."
Levin said small, remote schools should not be closed because that would lead to unreasonably long bus rides. However, he said too many cities and towns have too many schools huddled close together.
"This is about where we might have five or seven schools that are all within easy distance of each other, and we really only need three or four to serve the population."
The Education Department says enrolment has dropped by 18 per cent or 30,000 students over the last decade, and that enrolment will drop by another 17,000 over the next 10 years.
Levin's report says school boards should lead the process of selecting schools for closure, but the province should provide materials that will help the boards explain the financial implications to parents. As well, the province should provide funds to pay for renovation of amalgamated schools.