McNeil's major move: Bill 75 and the teachers

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Nova Scotians to go to the polls on May 30

The first term of Stephen McNeil's Liberal government was punctuated by a series of big moves that led to big fights. In some cases, the consequences of those decisions — and the ensuing reactions — are already becoming apparent. For others, it will take some time to tell.

With that in mind, here's a look at one major move from the Grits during their mandate and what the fallout has been.

Bill 75 and the teachers' contract

The Liberals' efforts to impose a contract on teachers, bringing an end to work-to-rule job action, dominated Nova Scotia news headlines during the final six months of their mandate.

Three times the government reached a tentative agreement with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union — and three times members resoundingly rejected those deals against their union's recommendation. Things came to a head in February, when round-the-clock sittings at Province House were used to pass Bill 75, which imposed a contract on teachers.

From the ashes of that debate came a promise by the government of a committee to review inclusive education and a council made up predominantly of teachers to make recommendations to improve classroom conditions.

Committee's final report

The committee's final report released April 28 recommended that most of its $10 million in funding for the first year of the two-year, $20-million budget, be spent hiring at least 139 teachers and capping class sizes for middle, junior high and high school students.

The province already caps class sizes in elementary school grades.

The Department of Education said it will begin immediately to implement the recommendations.

Eight of the council's 18 initial recommendations had already been implemented by the beginning of April and included fewer standardized tests, simpler report cards, publishing marks less frequently and changes to the way attendance is logged. 

Teachers still frustrated

Despite the council's efforts, NSTU president Liette Doucet said teachers remain frustrated it's taken this long to address problems they've been identifying for years. Issues such as attendance and discipline policies are things that shouldn't have needed to wait for a special committee, said Doucet.

The union has suggested McNeil and his government have made education worse since coming to power, although each year the Liberals have put more money into the education file. That includes the most recent budget.

McNeil said during a recent interview that teachers' anxiety and frustrations had been building for 20 years, but he incorrectly thought steps the government was taking were enough.

"If I missed the mark, it was ... thinking that the things we were doing around capping classroom sizes, changing some of the curriculum — I was believing that was what [teachers] were wanting and what would make a difference for them. Obviously, that has not been enough."

While the council's efforts are expected to make a difference for teachers come September, McNeil said he believes it will be the review of inclusive education and how it's delivered that will have "the greatest impact" for everyone involved in the system. That work will take about a year.