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N.B. government under scrutiny for its ‘data’ supporting proposed anglophone school plan

Click to play video: 'N.B. government criticized for decision-making process in anglophone school plan'
N.B. government criticized for decision-making process in anglophone school plan
Watch: The Higgs government has been facing increasing skepticism over the evidence it's using to make major policy decisions. From education to housing, some say the premier is losing public confidence, which can be hard to get back once it's gone. Silas Brown explains. – Feb 3, 2023

During a crowded public consultation session on a proposed overhaul to the anglophone education system, retired French immersion teacher Donna McLaughlin questioned what data and research the government relied on to create the new program.

“We have yet to see the data that supports your proposed plan. We haven’t seen the research for what you are proposing. You have yet to mention who your experts are,” she said.

It’s a statement that’s become emblematic of a growing lack of public trust in several key priority areas for Premier Blaine Higgs, such as housing policy and crime and punishment. And once the public stops trusting that decisions are based on data, it becomes hard to win that trust back.

“You’d like to think the government has access to data. They have a very large civil service, they can draw on that civil service for evidence,” said Donald Wright, a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick.

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“But when they start using anecdotes, or start using, ‘Well, many people have said’ or ‘I’ve spoken to a lot of New Brunswickers,’ that doesn’t fly, that doesn’t wash. People see through that.”

The province’s proposed overhaul of French second language education will see French immersion phased out, with all anglophone students receiving half their instruction in French and the other in English. The goal is to ensure that all graduates have a conversational level of French at a minimum, with those looking to specialize in the language given the tools to do so as they get older.

Education minister Bill Hogan says the program is also an attempt to end streaming, with high achieving children much more likely to end up in the immersion program, which has smaller class sizes that are often less prone to disruption.

Questions about the evidence behind the proposal began before it was even unveiled. When former education minister Dominic Cardy resigned from cabinet in October, he accused the premier of making decisions based on political calculus and emotion, rather than data.

“You cannot change deadlines on large systems based on your emotional state, without undermining the quality of the work, or the morale of your team. I have worked tirelessly to prepare our system for changes. Many are accomplished, but some will stall because of your micromanagement,” he wrote.

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Furthermore, Cardy’s letter read, in part: “Your behaviour at a recent meeting, where you refused to even read evidence you had specifically requested, instead choosing to yell “Data my ass” at a senior civil servant because you didn’t like what the data showed you; well, that was the end of your political project in my eyes: If you reject evidence because you dislike it then you don’t believe in evidence.”

The core of the dispute was around when a new program would be implemented. Cardy says the department was still undergoing study and consultation on 10 pilots in schools around the province and was looking to put a program in place in the fall of 2024. Higgs wanted that timeline moved up a year, worrying that the 2024 election would see the program undone before it could even start.

Click to play video: 'N.B. French immersion at the core of Cardy’s cabinet exit'
N.B. French immersion at the core of Cardy’s cabinet exit

But according to Cardy, the French immersion issue was just one of a growing number of areas in which he saw the premier drifting from evidence-based decision-making prior to his exit from cabinet.

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“Decisions that could have been better justified with actual evidence weren’t,” he said.

“Once it’s clear that you are just making decisions based on politics, which was evidently clear with what happened with French immersion and a couple of other files, the public loses faith. That’s why evidence-based decision-making needs to be something you do 24/7, not just pick and choose when the evidence suits you.”

It’s a charge that Higgs’ has denied, telling Global News in a recent interview that he “makes a lot of decisions based on fact” and not “abstract comments or the flavour of the day.”

In fact, Higgs says that to ignore the issues in the current anglophone education system would have been to ignore evidence that change was needed.

“We have some major challenges confronting our English education system,” he said.

“To ignore that very basic, fundamental issue is us shortchanging 70 per cent of our English students. That is the crutch of it all. The data is really clear it’s a mess.”

French immersion

Right now, about 60 per cent of anglophone children aren’t in French immersion. In the 2021-2022 school year, 66 of the province’s 205 anglophone schools don’t offer French immersion. Those in the English prime system are also more likely to have learning disabilities or other challenges. The department says that 93 per cent of children with a personalized learning plan were in the English prime system in the 2016-2017 school year.

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For those in the immersion program, only about a third reach the “advanced” level targeted by the program, however the overwhelming majority do reach at least the conversational level targeted by the new program.

Cardy doesn’t deny those growing problems, but he said a more measured, data-based approach is needed and he hoped to continue following the success or failure of the various pilot programs underway before settling on a new program in 2024.

“Those pilots, they weren’t conclusive. They were in progress and they were getting better results in some places than others and we were accumulating evidence based on the results,” he said.

The new proposal has sparked a widespread public backlash from parents and educators, many of whom have questioned what evidence the government used to land on this specific model.

When the framework was first announced in the fall, deputy education minister John McLauglin said the program was based on one used in the Bathurst area in the 1990s that yielded outcomes that matched those in the immersion program used in the rest of the province and that featured a higher amount of French instruction.

Click to play video: 'Premier’s comments spur hope N.B. French-language program could be scrapped'
Premier’s comments spur hope N.B. French-language program could be scrapped

Numbers provided by the department of education show that the number of grads who meet the “intermediate” level of French competency was slightly below average, with 97.9 per cent versus a provincial average of 99 per cent. Only 38.6 per cent reached the “advanced” level, which is the target for the immersion program. The provincial average was 42.3 per cent.

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The “intermediate” level is what the department considers a “conversational” level of French, which is the baseline of the new program, but concerns of parents and educators have been focused on how children will reach a higher level of competency, which is needed for most public sector bilingual jobs.

St. Thomas University education researcher Leo-James Levesque said it’s difficult to draw a direct comparison between the old Bathurst program and the new proposal. Firstly, Bathurst is a bilingual city, where students are more likely to be exposed to French outside the classroom and have friends or interact with those who are bilingual.

That program was also optional, meaning those in it at least had some interest in learning the language. A mandatory program for everyone may not have the same amount of buy-in from pupils and parents.

But Higgs said the people who have the biggest problem with the changes are those with kids in the French immersion program.

“They don’t want their program changed. They don’t want their top-tier program to be influenced in any way. They want to have basically a private education system and publicly funded. So when you have that scenario, of course you’re going to fight that,” he said. “But is that in the best interest of all New Brunswickers and all of our kids?”

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“To ignore (the challenges) is to do a disservice to 70 per cent of the anglophone kids in our province and it’s more than just about learning a second language in a bilingual province and our poor results in that regard, it’s about a better education system in every aspect.”

The skepticism dogging the Higgs government isn’t just confined to education policy. Late last year, when Service New Brunswick minister Jill Green announced that the rent cap wouldn’t be renewed, part of the justification was that it was harming development in the province. She said that residential building permits were down over last year.

But in recent weeks, both Fredericton and Moncton have announced record levels of building permits covering last year, including in residential builds.

Data from Statistics Canada shows that the raw number of multi-unit building permits across the province was down slightly in 2022 from the year prior, to 848 from 861, and that the number of units being created was down from 3,790 to 3,394. Data also shows that residential building starts, the number of new units actively being constructed, were up in 2022 over the previous year.

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At a recent meeting of the legislature’s public accounts committee, the CEO of Service New Brunswick made the same claim, that the rent cap harmed development. But when asked if he had data to suggest the decline in permitting was due to the rent cap and not labour shortages or inflationary pressures on building materials, Allan Roy said the claim was based on conversations with landlords and developers.

“It would have been comments that I received from individuals that were either pulling out of a province because they implemented a rent cap. They told us firsthand if that’s what’s happening in a jurisdiction I won’t be building there,” he said.

“We were advised and certainly made aware in some of the other stakeholder consultations we were having that it was discouraging development.”

Similar concerns have been raised over crime statistics and the justification for a new provincial jail being constructed in Fredericton. The throne speech in the fall included a line that “property crime is rising as thieves steal from their neighbours to get money for drugs.” Public safety minister Kris Austin later admitted to reporters that the assertion was based on anecdotes and conversations he’s had with New Brunswickers.

A press conference with regional police authorities called soon after did provide numbers showing the province’s crime severity index is on the rise, increasing by 26 per cent over the past five years.

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Click to play video: 'N.B. municipalities union says crime and policing top issues'
N.B. municipalities union says crime and policing top issues

The justification for the Fredericton area jail is that the province’s jails are over capacity and a new facility is needed to ensure prisoner and corrections staff safety. Numbers from the department of public safety show that the province’s corrections facilities were not over capacity when the new jail was announced last year, though they are over capacity by 39 as of last month.

But a recent CBC New Brunswick story showing that the numbers include people who aren’t serving their sentences in jail, but could be sent to jail if they breach their conditions, demonstrated that the province’s jails are only slightly over capacity right now.

That story prompted a news release from Austin to be sent out over the provincial communications wire.

“Regardless of how anyone chooses to interpret the numbers, the fact remains that the province’s jails are overcrowded. Throughout the discussions surrounding the plan to build a jail in Fredericton, no one has suggested or shown this is not the case. Overcrowded jails are a safety issue for inmates and correctional staff and the safety of those individuals is our top priority,” he said.

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While the various policy areas receiving heavy scrutiny from the public are supported by data in some places, but not in others, that scrutiny shows that many have a hard time believing the justifications underpinning government decisions. That could be a problem for the premier, according to political scientist JP Lewis.

“Blaine Higgs has attempted to build his brand as someone who is following the decision that makes the most sense, not necessarily follow a certain ideological or partisan track,” he said.

“Any of the recent policy issues … and where they might be losing ground on having a defence or justification that is linked to hard data, that can become problematic and you end having a case of, how much is this government trusted?”

For Cardy, who was turfed from the Progressive Conservative caucus following his fiery resignation from cabinet, he worries that the recent struggles will undermine what he felt were legitimate accomplishments earlier in the mandate such as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a return to fiscal restraint and debt reduction.

“Throughout COVD, when there were a lot of people saying that decisions were being made politically, I never saw any of that,” he said.

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“But he threw all of that away and threw it away based on emotion rather than reason, based on emotion rather than the party’s election platform, based on emotion rather than the experts he said he’d listen to when it came time to make decisions.”

But ultimately, governing is about making choices that are hoped to have an impact and the reality means that decisions are often made based on a mix of evidence, ideology and hope, Wright says.

“Public policy is a balance of data, evidence and political ideology, what do you want to happen,” he said.

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