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Paul W. Bennett: New Brunswick tried to ram through French immersion reforms. Here’s why it failed

Commentary

Tampering with French Immersion is a perilous undertaking in K-12 education. In New Brunswick, Canada’s only officially bilingual province, it is proving to be like “touching the third rail” in education politics. A proposed plan to change French-language education by eliminating French Immersion in New Brunswick’s Anglophone schools is being overridden by a firestorm of popular resistance.  

A series of four scheduled and managed public consultations from January 17-26 attracted huge crowds and not only sparked a backlash, but sent Minister of Education Bill Hogan reeling and put the Blaine Higgs’ Progressive Conservative government at risk. It was exposed by the Canadian Parents for French NB as a rather ineffective attempt to apply the Delphi Technique—a decision-making strategy that utilizes seating in circles and is conceptualized as a learning activity that is designed to contain and diffuse dissent.

Why managed consultation imploded 

As a strategy for managing public consultations, popularly known as the “World Café,” it essentially crashed and burned. The overwhelming majority of parent and teacher participants saw it as a “con job” and every speaker denounced the plan to introduce the changes in kindergarten and grade one, beginning in September 2023. Manufacturing consent can and does backfire, especially when utilized in a thinly-veiled fashion to ram through school reforms or facilitate school facility changes such as school closures. 

Organizers in New Brunswick were totally unprepared for the crowd, mobbed by speakers, and unable to answer fundamental questions. A harried-looking education minister went on the defensive, first threatening to dismiss the unruly crowd, then conceding that, if not enough French teachers could be found, it would be started in grade 1 and delayed at the kindergarten level. By the end of the consultations, he was now insisting it was “not cast in stone.”  

Education Minister Hogan has been dealt a bad hand. Appointed in October 2022 to succeed Dominic Cardy, a confident, fluently-bilingual public performer, he finds himself fronting a massively unpopular French language education initiative that is opposed by as many as three out of four New Brunswickers. What’s worse is that a rushed implementation is planned for September 2023 and the initial 22-odd Language Learning Opportunities (LLO) pilot programs were never properly assessed in terms of their effectiveness in improving the fluency and proficiency of students.  

Signs of implementation disaster

The minister and his deputy minister, John MacLaughlin, were left scrambling under the glare of extensive media coverage. All the signs point to either a full retreat or an impending implementation disaster. After two years of planning and almost two dozen pilot projects, how did it come apart so fast?  

The sacking of Cardy deprived Premier Higgs of his most effective and persuasive communicator and the department never recovered. Without Cardy fronting the project, the remaining trust dissolved among French-speaking New Brunswickers as well as the province’s most articulate Anglophone bilingualism advocates, French immersion parents, and graduates. 

Political skeletons sometimes get released from their closets at the most inopportune times. Few remembered Blaine Higgs’ 1989 Confederation of Regions leadership campaign pledge to eliminate immersion until it resurfaced again in a politically-damaging October 2022 commentary. From that point on, the fix was in on the high-risk policy proposal.  

Absorbing the school reform lessons 

Education Minister Hogan and his senior officials have broken all the rules in the textbook on how to implement successful education reforms. It’s all neatly synthesized in one of my favourite sources, David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s 1995 modern classic, Tinkering Toward Utopia. It begins by taking stock of previous initiatives and learning from the past. 

In the case of New Brunswick and French immersion, that means asking whether any other Canadian province has ever succeeded in eliminating the program and learning from past mistakes. The prime example would be former Minister Kelly Lamrock’s politically-bruising attempt in 2008 to delay the entry point to grade 6, then grade 3, before eventually abandoning it in the face of fierce opposition. Then, as now, it was all based upon the claim that the province was, according to Maclean’s “failing miserably at graduating bilingual students.” 

Education reform initiatives proceed, in stages, from policy talk to policy action to implementation. In the education sector, changes falter mostly during implementation. The key reasons are short timelines, lack of leadership capacity, or insufficient human or resource support to make it work. Implementation is much slower and more complex and governments tend to move on to other priorities. That explains why the evaluation of initiatives, including data-gathering, falls far too often by the wayside. 

Overcoming the gravitational pull of the status quo is not easy and, in the words of American education psychologist Robert Evans, most initially embrace change with as much enthusiasm as they do changing a baby. Inspiring and skillful leadership is required to overcome the initial sense of loss and convey a sense of renewed purpose going forward.

Introducing an upgraded universal French language program in place of French immersion is unlikely to work. With an election ahead in the fall of 2024, it all looks to be based upon election cycles rather than policy change cycles. Even if the change in the French language program gets authorized, it will be far too rushed in its implementation, half-baked in conception, and impossible to staff given the dire shortage of French teachers with the requisite competencies. 

A better path: deliberative engagement

Public engagement is quite distinct from public consultation in that it, under the right conditions, provides an open approach and a genuine commitment to breaking the mold. Being open, transparent, accountable, and responsive does require unique, well-calibrated skills. In the education leadership field, it often involves unlearning ingrained practices and habits. Finding a common cause, sizing up the conditions, leading with questions rather than answers, and meeting groups where they are are all critical ingredients. 

New Brunswick’s disastrous public consultation taught us a fundamental lesson about the critical need to engage citizens and build support for reforms. Canadian public engagement specialist Don Lenihan (Middle Ground Engagement, Ottawa) now calls it “deliberative public engagement.”  It may work in New Brunswick if the provincial government realizes that it’s time to start again, from ground zero. 

There’s got to be a better path forward in advancing bilingualism through the schools. Deliberative public engagement would be more likely to both find an acceptable and sustainable rapprochement and raise the number of bilingual graduates from Anglophone schools. 

Trevor Tombe: Is Ottawa strapped for cash?

Commentary

There’s a difficult fiscal negotiation underway between Canada’s various governments. And there may not be much room for maneuver. 

“We’re very aware of the uncertainty in the global economy right now,” federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said last week following a meeting with her provincial counterparts. 

“At the federal level, this is a time of real fiscal constraint.”

She’s right. And that matters for all Canadians.

Provinces and territories want additional federal dollars for health care, and premiers are meeting with the prime minister today to demand exactly that.”

But as the finance minister correctly noted, there are limits to what the federal government can do, especially with rising interest rates and slowing economic growth.

To see this, imagine grouping federal program spending this year into just three buckets:

  1. Transfers to elderly individuals and families with children: $94 billion
  2. Major transfers to provinces and territories: $88 billion
  3. Everything else: $256 billion

It turns out, planned growth in federal spending is constrained to just the first and second buckets.

Elderly benefits are set to grow 7 percent per year between now and 2027. Child benefits grow by nearly 4 percent per year. And major transfers to provinces and territories grow at 5 percent. 

And of the major transfers, funding for health systems is the largest: roughly $45 billion per year, which will increase to nearly $59 billion by 2027—that’s an average annual growth rate of over 5.3 percent. 

Outside of these two buckets, total federal spending is currently slated to fall. And that’s in nominal terms. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, this bucket of federal spending will be nearly 17 percent lower in 2027 than it was in 2022. That’s significant.

Of course, that’s just the latest plan. And as others like Andrew Coyne regularly point out, the federal government consistently overshoots its own spending plans.

If this third bucket of federal spending instead grows at 2 percent per year, which will barely keep pace with future inflation, then total federal program spending would grow by an average of 3.5 percent per year over the next five years. And if the third bucket of spending grows at 3 percent, then total federal spending would grow at over 4 percent.

These growth rates are large—and potentially unsustainable.

To illustrate, I estimate that if interest rates, program spending growth, total revenue growth, and Canada’s economy all grow at 3.5 percent per year,Economic growth here refers to nominal growth. This rate would be roughly 1.5 percent real GDP growth, which may be optimistic in the short term. then federal debt will increase to over 43 percent of GDP—higher than its current value of around 42 percent and much higher than the planned 37 percent.All calculations in this article are based on the Finances of the Nation Debt Sustainability Simulator. This was recently extended to allow alternative federal budget assumptions from 2022/23 onwards. Errors are my own.

Beyond 2027, federal finances become increasingly unsustainable at these rates as public debt continues to grow faster than the economy. I estimate a tax increase equivalent to increasing the GST from 5 percent to 6 percent would be required to stabilize things.

Canada’s finances are on a knife’s edge, leaving little room for provinces.

If health transfers grow just two percentage points faster than planned as a result of any deal—far less than provinces are asking for, but roughly aligned with what the Conservative Party proposed in the 2021 election—then total federal program spending growth increases by between 0.2 and 0.3 percentage points per year.

That may not sound like much, but it adds up quickly. 

If interest rates, economic growth, revenue growth, and initial program spending growth are all 3.5 percent, then a boost in health transfers of this amount increases federal debt to 44 percent of GDP by 2027 and over 50 percent by the mid-2030s. 

Add in a decline in global economic growth, and the consequent reduction in Canadian growth and federal revenues, and the picture becomes even more difficult.

At 3 percent growth, for example, federal debt would be 46 percent of GDP by 2027—higher than any point since 2020/21 when the pandemic disruptions and government support measures were at their highest.

To be sustainable without increasing taxes, spending must fall. But if we’re not going to touch benefits to the elderly or to families with children (which no party seems interested in doing), then increased transfers to provinces must significantly crowd out all other spending.

And to achieve the government’s debt reduction plan of 37 percent of GDP by 2027 then all other federal spending would need to fall by 25 percent (roughly 5 percent per year).

That’s a bleak scenario. But even if economic growth doesn’t slow so much, and if interest rates ease, federal spending constraints remain tight. With 3 percent borrowing rates and economic growth of 3.7 percent, for example, the third bucket of spending still needs to shrink by over 10 percent by 2027 to achieve the government’s debt target if health transfers are modestly increased.A freeze in all other spending would result in a 40 debt-to-GDP ratio in 2027 in this scenario.

Not all is fiscal doom and gloom. Over the long haul, federal finances remain fundamentally sound. But in the short term, there are only tough choices.

Pandemic pressures combined with population aging have brought many provincial health systems to the edge. But there is only so much the federal government can do to help. 

Provinces will have to make most of the tough choices themselves.