Spring break, 2012
My only child started his journey through BC's public school system in 1999 and it's a huge relief to know that he will graduate this year. It feels like those movie scenes where the building explodes just as the hero hurls himself out the door -- except I know there's 500,000 other children still trapped in the building, and thousands more joining them every year.
I remember the first day of kindergarten like it was yesterday. We've encountered wonderful people and survived many challenges. We've both learned and grown a whole lot and I couldn't be prouder of the young man now going forward to face life as an adult. I'm also proud to be part of a progressive society that has valued and invested in ensuring that every British Columbians child, regardless of wealth, connections or intellect, gets an opportunity to realize their potential.
But these past 13 years have also shown the dangers of complacency, inertia, short-sightedness, and political expediency. Every year, special education resources critical to our son's success have been steadily eroded due to Provincial underfunding, which started under the former NDP government and accelerated under a decade of BC Liberal rule. Expertise and capacity amongst those who work with the most challenging students in the system has also been steadily eroded. Despite endless talk about putting students first, those with the power to reverse these changes have failed utterly to stop the damage.
For over a decade, MOMS has led advocacy efforts for increased provincial funding to address growing gaps in public education, and especially in special education. We have advocated for respectful, collaborative partnerships that bring all education partners together to address funding and other challenges and to develop effective solutions that put students first. Our silence in recent weeks has prompted questions about where we stand in the current teachers' contract dispute. As a broad ad hoc provincial network, we know there are MOMS supporters who strongly favour of both sides.
However, we do not support the positions taken by either the Province or the BC Teachers Federation. We believe neither side is putting students first, with key positions by both parties that are harmful to students with special needs in particular.
Our previous post addressed what to us is one of the key issues in the dispute -- class composition caps -- with links to a 2011 MOMS brief arguing that class composition caps are an ineffective, costly and discriminatory solution that has failed to address the problem of unmanageable classes, while accelerating the erosion of special education resources in our public schools.
This post focusses on funding, in particular funding for special education and other critical learning supports.
The bottom line is the Province has failed to fully fund public education costs for more than a decade. Students across the province have faced cuts to service levels almost every year since we were first thrown into the role of parent advocates in the late 199os.
In the 1990s, teachers traded pay increases for improvements in "working conditions": i.e. contract provisions limiting class size, composition and supplemental staffing. Those provisions were always controversial and they were lost when former Education Minister Christy Clark illegally tore up the teachers' collective agreement in 2002. In 2006, the Province restored a new variation of class size and compostion limits through Bill 33, despite near unanimous opposition from other education partners, including parent groups. We argued that class composition caps, in particular, were discriminatory and ineffective. Six years later, with parents and teachers more frustrated than ever, students being left ever further behind, and parents avoiding having their children formally designated to avoid discrimination, those concerns have been vindicated.
When Christy Clark tore up the teachers' contract in 2002, she imposed a new agreement offering salary and benefit increases that added hundreds of millions in new education costs. She also eliminated targetted provincial funding grants for most students with special needs, creating enormous pressures for boards with relatively high proportions of students with learning disabilities, for example. The failure to fund these cost increases forced local boards to make unprecedented cuts and to close scores of schools, sparking grassroots campaigns like the 2003 Vancouver SOS movement and a hunger strike to save the only school in remote Wells Barkerville.
Since then, despite acrimonious relations between the Province and the BCTF, several more imposed contracts have each granted further pay and/or benefit increases. Increases in the average salary for BC educators since 2001 have outstripped inflation (Consumer Price Index) by 6%. Meanwhile, total provincial education funding has lagged inflation, and lagged actual costs even further, since staff salaries are (naturally) the primary component of education costs.
The result: BC's public school students have financed the growing gap by absorbing repeated reductions in front-line service levels.
Since the introduction of Bill 33 helped reduce class sizes and/or limit further class size increases, boards have been forced to cut other services to cover the costs of smaller class sizes, which the Province again failed to fully fund. This is why supplemental learning services like libraries and special education have been disproportionally hit, resulting in a devastating erosion of services for the most vulnerable students in the public education system.
(It is worth noting here that while overall enrolment has declined since 2001, the number of identified students with special needs in BC's public schools has continued to climb.)
The above spreadsheet was initially developed 2 years ago, to support our advocacy efforts as public schools faced another round of harsh cuts in 2010 due to a Provincial Education budget that failed to cover rising costs, including teachers' salary increases. We have updated it to reflect the 2011/12 data.
In light of all this, we believe a position that puts students first would include the following:
- A significant increase in provincial funding for special education (the Province's current offer doesn't come close to making a dent in what has been lost - a minimum would be $100 million in new dollars for special education in 2012/13, with more in year 2 as determined collaboratively under #3 below).
- Agreement between the Province and teachers that any Provincial education funding increases will go first to restoring lost staffing and other front-line supports for students (e.g. libraries, special education, ESL and Aboriginal student services, early assessment and intervention for learning challenges, training, etc), before the Provincial government grants any further increases to staff salary and benefit costs.
- Agreement by the Province and the BCTF to sit down and work collaboratively with parents and other education partners to identify all the causes of class composition challenges (including underfunding, teacher training and other structural barriers) and to develop and fund effective and mutually-acceptable solutions to class composition challenges.
- No interrruption of services and an immediate return to teachers' performing their full roles.
Dawn Steele & Cyndi Gerlach, MOMS