New Brunswick opposition parties say they hope to salvage Bill 35

Click to play video: 'Bill 35 returns to New Brunswick legislature' Bill 35 returns to New Brunswick legislature
WATCH: Controversial amendments to the Education Act saw second reading debate in the New Brunswick legislature on Wednesday. One section of the bill would allow resource teachers to administer tests usually performed by school psychologists, which has led to uproar from experts in the province. But not all parts of the bill are controversial, and opposition parties are pushing to save some parts of it. Silas Brown explains. – May 12, 2021

New Brunswick’s opposition parties say they’ll look to strip a controversial section from a government bill amending parts of the Education Act. 

Bill 35, or An Act Respecting Empowering the School System, saw over five hours of debate during second reading on Wednesday. The bill proposes several changes to the Education Act that would lead to greater transparency around teacher discipline and require public schools to teach Indigenous languages alongside history and culture.

Those two portions are being praised by opposition parties. The latter was part of a Green bill that received unanimous approval at second reading last year before dying on the order paper when the summer 2020 election was called.

But section 11, which would allow some resource teachers to perform and interpret Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children tests (WISC), has drawn concern from stakeholders and opposition lawmakers. WISC tests are normally conducted by psychologists.

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“You gotta look at the evidence, you have to listen to those that are trained with the expertise and who have, at heart, the well-being of students in mind,” said Green leader David Coon.

Read more: New Brunswick college of psychologists ‘blindsided’ over possibility of teachers performing psychoeducational assessments

The New Brunswick College of Psychologists has been vocal in its opposition to the bill and have said they weren’t consulted when it was first introduced.

Liberal MLA Lisa Harris criticized education minister Dominic Cardy and, more broadly, the Higgs government for failing to listen to the concerns of stakeholders.

“The government of the day, the minister of education refuses to consult, to listen and to learn,” Harris said.

“We’re trying to force, with the power that we have, to get this government to open its eyes and its ears and to listen and consult.”

Many opposition MLAs who spoke during the lengthy debate said they were happy with much of the bill, but want to see section 11 removed.

“With section 11 as it is, I cannot support it,” Coon said.

“Hopefully we can do something with it and the other positive parts of the bill will go forward.”

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Opposition legislators will be able to try and do just that once the bill reaches the committee stage, after it passes second reading, where amendments can be introduced. But any changes will need support from the PC majority government if they are to stick.

Read more: Psychologist shortage in N.B. school system draws concern as classes set to begin

According to Cardy, the intent of the legislation is to allow resource teachers to put together personalized learning plans for students, not to diagnose them with learning disabilities. The teachers will have to undergo training before administering the test. 

We have 25 or so resource teachers who we’re looking at to be providing assistance and this is in pursuit of providing personalized learning plans that will meet those student’s educational needs. This is not about diagnosis, not about taking work from psychologists,” he told reporters in March.  

Cardy said that some kids wait for psychoeducational assessments for as long as two years and the hope is that using teachers can cut down that waitlist, while freeing up psychologists for other work. 

The college says they worry that children could end up with learning plans, or even diagnoses, that aren’t appropriate for their needs if assessed by people not qualified to conduct the testing. Another worry is that those with mental health issues will be misdiagnosed with learning disabilities.

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The college’s executive director, Mandy McLean, says she’s not convinced the current proposal will do anything to cut the waitlist as intended.

“I think a better solution would have been to bring together all the stakeholders … and to come up with some real legit solutions that are going to solve the problem,” McLean said on Monday.

“I think as it stands, Bill 35 is not going to alleviate the wait-list.”

Read more: ‘There is no two ways about it’ : New Brunswick teachers push for more psychologists in schools

Several suggestions from the college and other stakeholders were read by MLAs during Wednesday’s debate, including increasing pay for school psychologists to similar levels as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland to help spur recruitment. Other possibilities include pre-screening children on the waitlist for psychoeducational assessments and freeing up school psychologists from other tasks to give more time for specialized work.

The issue is gaining attention from professional associations outside the province. The Canadian Academy of Psychologists in Disability Assessment and the Ontario Psychological Association released a joint letter on Tuesday further raising concerns about the proposal.

“The writers of the current letter want to express in no uncertain terms, that we are deeply concerned about this proposed legislation. Minister Cardy has wrongly referred to the WISC as an academic test; however, as psychologists, we know this is not accurate. The WISC is a Level-C diagnostic instrument, plain and simple,” the letter says.

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“Even if teachers are provided with extra training to learn how to score and interpret it, we recognize that it takes a level of education, training and experience that they cannot practically obtain to avoid misattribution of poor test scores, misdiagnosis, and missed diagnosis.”

Second reading debate on the bill was adjourned Wednesday night and could resume Thursday.

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