Friday, August 01, 2008

Kindergarten for three-year-olds a great idea

I've been doing newspapering work for quite a few years, in quite a few places. It's like building sand castles below the tide line in some ways. The best column is forgotten in a few days.
But ask me what I'm proudest of, and I can answer in a flash. It started with a column and ended with a letter from a premier.
Columns can come easily. This one did. I was standing outside a school portable on a freezing day in a suburb of Saint John. (The one in New Brunswick.)
I'd lined up to register our ferociously bright daughter for a great kindergarten.
New Brunswick was and is a have-not province. Kindergarten wasn't part of the school system. If you wanted your child to go, you had to pay.
And I looked at the line of parents, and thought this was crazy. We were affluent and had been able to give our kids a lot already. Now, we were setting them up for success when they started Grade 1.
But in Saint John's scruffier neighbourhoods, or in rural communities, the children who really could benefit from kindergarten didn't get the chance.
Imagine how awful it would be to show up for the first day of Grade 1 and find out a bunch of the other kids - the ones who had been to kindergarten - knew what to do, and you didn't. You're six. You figure you're just not as smart.
That was the column, and it was good. I was in charge and our papers kept on writing about public kindergarten.
I left Saint John for a job in another province. But a few months after I'd headed down the road, New Brunswick introduced public kindergarten for all five-year-olds. And Frank McKenna, the premier of the day, sent a kind note saying that when he had wavered on the change - an expensive hit for a poor province - he had reread some of the pieces from our newspaper.
Which leads, in a twisty way, back to B.C. In the throne speech in February, Gordon Campbell committed the government to "assess the feasibility and costs of full school day kindergarten for five-year- olds."
Campbell also promised a look at much more aggressive agenda - optional day-long kindergarten for four-year-olds by 2010, and for three-year-olds by 2012.
It was a bold commitment. But the government appears to be taking a serious look at a great new approach to early childhood education.
Research from the jurisdictions around the world that have tried such early schooling has been overwhelmingly positive. Children benefit academically and socially and the results are long-lasting. Almost all children make gains, but the help is greatest for those kids who start with disadvantages.
Which shouldn't be surprising. A child who grows up in an affluent home, perhaps with a stay-at-home mom, with parents who have experienced academic success, has a lot of advantages heading into school. Those children have likely done art classes and reading groups and already made a lot of progress.
A kid from a poor home, perhaps with parents who don't read all that well themselves, is likely to have much tougher time in those first critical years in school.
The Education Ministry is seeking public comments on the idea. (You can participate; the website is There's been big interest and the deadline has been extended to Aug. 15.
It's a big project and there are lots of questions, like who would teach and what it cost to provide places for 80,000 thee and four-year-olds.
Perhaps the program could start in a targeted away - offered wherever schools consistently perform poorly on FSA tests, for example.
But this is an opportunity to build a brighter future for the province and give a lot of children a better chance to the most of their abilities.
Footnote: Her's one sign the government is serious. The Education Ministry, which had effectively encouraged school closures through its funding program and by requiring districts to come up with large chunks of cash for capital projects, has now told school districts to hang on to underused properties in case space is needed for new kindergartens.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Innovation in severance, anyway

Les Leyne continues to mine the salary disclosure forms for public sector agencies and discovers that the B.C. InnovationCouncil devoted almosthalf its salary budget to severance payments to executives, including a CEO who only lasted seven months and manager who resigned voluntarily but got severance anyway.
Read it here.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Government’s attack on mentally disabled a moral failure

There's room for disagreement on lots of policy issues.
But when government passes a cabinet order so it can abandon people with developmental disabilities to the streets - or worse - that's just callous, and irresponsible.
We're not talking about borderline cases.
These are people who, by the government's own assessment, need support in making their way in life and face face terrible risks without it. Two court decisions have found the government has a legal duty to them.
But, on the recommendation of Premier Gordon Campbell and Children's Minister Tom Christensen, cabinet issued an edict this month that freed it from obeying the court rulings.
The issue is straightforward. The government has passed laws setting out its responsibility to help people who are genuinely unable to make their way in this world.
But the cabinet didn't really want to provide the support.
So an arbitrary rule was created. No matter how badly a developmentally disabled adult might need assistance, no matter how severe the problems or clear the looming disaster, if he scored 70 on an IQ test, he was cut off services.
Parents could spend years fighting for help for a young person with mental handicaps and serious problems - autism, FASD, emotional trauma. The support - social workers' time, housing, work programs - could be working, giving hope to all involved.
Everyone - doctors, counselors, family, social workers - might agree the young person couldn't make it on his own. They might even agree that without support he would be a danger to others, destined for the streets or jail.
But despite all that, the government said the magic IQ score of 70 absolved it of all responsibility. The same rule denied help for older people with disabilities when their parents, some in their 70s or 80s, could no longer provide the needed support.
A IQ of 70 to 80 puts a person in the bottom 10 per cent of the population in mental functioning. In a competitive society like ours, that's a big disadvantage. Add other problems and the situation is dire.
That's what the courts found when a Victoria mother challenged the policy. Her adoptive son, whose IQ was just over 70, had been receiving intensive daily support. Without it, the agency's own psychologist warned, the young man's disability, FASD, autism and other problems would make him a threat to himself and others in the community.
But Community Living B.C., the agency delivering services to the developmentally disabled on behalf of he government, said it would him he turned 19.
The B.C. Supreme Court ruled the arbitrary IQ cutoff violates the law setting up Community Living B.C., which said it was to provide needed services to help people independently. It didn't say needed services, unless the person scored over a certain level on an IQ test. The government challenged the decision in the B.C. Court of Appeal and lost.
The courts noted the government could pass a cabinet order exempting itself from the requirement.
But Christens said that would be wrong. A solution would be found.
But the cabinet shuffle took responsibility for services to adults with disabilities away from Christensen and handed them to the new Housing and Social Services Minister Rich Coleman.
Wrong became right and Christensen and Campbell signed the edict giving the government the right to deny help based on an IQ test.
Coleman says it's a temporary measure. Another pending lawsuit meant the government had to do something.
Which is rubbish. The lawsuit could have been delayed with an interim promise of continued services. The government consulted no one before making the change, which it didn't announce publicly.
And it has had two years since the court ruling - and five years since cabinet minister Linda Reid acknowledged the arbitrary IQ standard was wrong and should be changed - to deal with the issue.
Now people with serious disabilities, who could live successful lives, are being punished terribly for the government's.
It's one thing to disagree with government policies - that kind of debate is normal and healthy.
But this is a question of morality. The government, for no good reason, has placed itself above the law and chosen to make people whose lives are already difficult suffer
Footnote: Coleman and Campbell didn't consult the B.C. Association for Community Living, the Children and Youth Representative or anyone else on the change. Coleman's bleak record as a cabinet minister has been attributed in part to a failure to consult with those directly affected by government decisions. This decision has added to fears about his new role of minister for gambling, alcohol sales, welfare, the disabled and housing.