Wednesday, April 12, 2006

More on the new provincial Education Minister

And on a warm fuzzy alumni note - Kate Heartfield is a Carleton J-skool grad. We overlapped for a year there in 2001 (of course, I was doing my undergrad in Journalism, and she was doing her Masters - but hey! small program)


PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2006.04.11
PNAME: City Editorial
COLUMN: Kate Heartfield

Pupatello should push libraries

Most cabinet shuffles are times to call for new ideas. I wish Sandra Pupatello all the best as Ontario's new education minister. But I hope she keeps her ideas to herself for a little while.

Nothing against Ms. Pupatello. She's a talented, hardworking MPP with no shortage of opinions. It's just that the education portfolio is already stuffed to the breaking point with the ideas of the last guy, Gerard Kennedy.

Mr. Kennedy resigned last week so he could run for the federal Liberal leadership. Premier Dalton McGuinty moved Ms. Pupatello into the education job. Madeleine Meilleur moved into Ms. Pupatello's old job as minister of community and social services, while retaining the francophone-affairs post. Backbencher Caroline Di Cocco moved into Ms. Meilleur's old job as culture minister.

This increases the number of women in the cabinet by one, although it's not exactly ground-breaking to put women in charge of culture, education and community services. Mr. McGuinty took the opportunity to make a joke that ended up sounding smarmy: "I'm also pleased to say this was the very first swearing-in where I was able to kiss all the new ministers." Blech.

Ms. Pupatello remains the minister responsible for women's issues. Perhaps she could let the premier know some women think it's a bit creepy when men seem too eager for comradely affection.

She might do it, too. Ms. Pupatello is loyal to her premier, but she's also the type to speak her mind. She's known for her heckles in the legislature.

She isn't an education expert, but she seems like a quick study. Besides, Mr. Kennedy is going to act as a transition adviser. I don't expect it will take her long to acquaint herself with the portfolio, despite its size.

And I don't expect it will take her long to develop some plans and proposals. Education is a topic that inspires. It's so important, and so universal, and so vulnerable, that it always seems ripe for revolution.

It sometimes seemed Mr. Kennedy could reach into his pocket and find a simple solution for every complex problem. The kids are struggling? Change the curriculum. The kids are dropping out? Make high school mandatory until 18. The kids might leave anyway? Take away their drivers licences if they do. Sometimes, simplicity is brilliance. Sometimes it is folly.

Still, he gets points for the intelligence and passion he brought to the job, and he leaves the education system better than he found it. The teachers are happier, their classes are smaller, the test scores are rising. Paul Whitehead, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association, praised Kennedy last week for the "astonishing number of new initiatives" during his tenure.

The immediate task for the new minister is to see Mr. Kennedy's many initiatives through. Ms. Pupatello may be tempted to make her mark on the education file right away. She said the premier told her: "This is your baby." But it's one she adopted from Mr. Kennedy. The next election, in October 2007, will be the time for new ideas.

Ms. Pupatello does not have a perfect record of seeing things through. She didn't fix one of the biggest problems in her old ministry: the provincial government's clawback of the National Child Benefit Supplement from people who get social assistance. That's not entirely her fault, but it was her ministry. She should have fought to see that promise kept.

There's more fun and glory in making wild promises than in making them happen. In education, Mr. Kennedy got to announce the ideas: reducing the drop-out rate, raising test scores, reducing class sizes. Ms. Pupatello gets to see these difficult jobs through to the end. But it will pay off if she can finish the Liberals' term with solid successes in education.

In Mr. Kennedy's time, the Ontario government was finally starting to understand just how important school libraries are. A new study, funded by the Ontario Library Association and conducted by a Queen's University professor and People for Education, shows that students in schools with trained library staffs have better test scores. This is one case where Kennedy-style simplicity makes sense. The kids aren't reading? Give them better libraries.

Ms. Pupatello should take the library ball from Mr. Kennedy and run with it. Appropriate, stable funding for school libraries is a goal she can make her own, but it's not some wild idea from the clear blue sky. The Ministry of Education has had quite enough of those in the last couple of years.


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