Moms on the Move

Saving Public Education

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.


MOMS: Province, BCTF not putting students first in contract dispute

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. No interrruption of services and an immediate return to teachers' performing their full roles.

Dawn Steele & Cyndi Gerlach, MOMS

Filed under: Education News 3 Comments

Education Minister: Class composition limits discriminate against special needs

Finally, an Education Minister who's making some sense! George Abbott has publicly endorsed the position taken recently by Victoria parents and the Victoria Board of Education, opposing discriminatory class composition caps introduced under Bill 33 by former Education Minister Shirley Bond.

MOMS and other parent advocacy groups, along with trustees and administrators, opposed the caps imposed in 2006 with the passage of Bill 33. Only the BC Teachers Federation supported the caps at the time. Now, with another round of labour contract negotiations once again stalled interminably, the province's teachers are again demanding discriminatory class composition limits as a solution to unmanageable classes.

Below is an analysis I wrote last year on why class composition caps will never solve the challenges of unmanageable classes and unmet needs among students with learning challenges, and what we need to be looking at instead.

I've summed up key points in a letter to the Vancouver Sun:

Kudos to Education Minister George Abbott. He's absolutely right that legislated limits on students with special needs in K-12 classrooms are discriminatory.

Parent groups were united in opposing the class composition limits introduced in 2006. They have proved unworkable, failing to help students or teachers while creating nightmares for administrators.

The solution to unmanageable classes is not discriminatory quotas but better support for teaching and learning that addresses the realities of today's diverse classrooms. That means broader training for teachers, restoring learning supports eroded by a decade of provincial underfunding, flexible models that adapt to actual needs, and appropriate use of technology and innovation to help all students overcome learning barriers without expecting teachers to be superheroes.

Time for the Province and the teachers union to stop posturing and put students first by immediately reinvesting in learning supports and training, addressing gaps in teacher certification standards and supporting new multi-stakeholder frameworks for constructive and collaborative problem solving.

Dawn Steele


Special Education and the Private/Public debate

We recently had a lively but respectful discussion on our email network on the public/private education debate as it relates to special education in particular, with a wide range of views.  Here are my thoughts. Please add  further comments covering anything I've missed, or let me know if we have permission to post your earlier comments shared via email:  

Catching up on a very interesting debate...

To answer the original question about private/independent education (the distinction being really just branding because independent schools are becoming less so as they accept more govt funding and consider unionization, etc), I think we need to consider what is the whole point of having public schools in the first place.

If our forefathers thought the most important features of education were choice, flexibility and competition, they'd have chosen the competitive, elitist British model, as the US did. They didn't. They very consciously chose a different way - one that was intended to give each Canadian child an equal opportunity to achieve their unique individual potential, regardless of the circumstances of birth.


Busy fighting education cuts…

I haven't been able to post updates in the past month, with every spare moment devoted to trying to stop or at least mitigate the horrendous cuts to special education - and everything else - in our public schools across this Province.

Here are some links to information on education and special education cuts:

  • Vancouver Parents for Successful inclusion: letter to minister warning that provincial framework forces districts to concentrate cuts in areas like Special Ed to offset provincial funding shortfalls. Read the letter 
  • Vancouver Special Education Advisory Committee documents loss of special education teachers despite a 35% increase in students with special needs, warns further cuts planned for Vancouver will present safety risks and deny access. Read the brief and district stats 
  • BC Education Coalition/Stop BC Education Cuts: Provincial website and Facebook group gathering information about cuts and various initiatives to fight them.  The site includes a section devoted to special education news and impacts

Boards warn of looming Special Ed cuts

Vancouver and Victoria join the growing list of BC school districts warning that special education could bear the brunt of unprecedented budget cuts projected for 2010-11, due to unfunded costs that the province is downloading on school boards.

Surrey: Last week, Surrey DPAC warned that some $18-20 million in downloaded/unfunded provincial costs will result in program cuts that directly harm students. (Press release attached)

Victoria: Victoria trustees told the Times Colonist yesterday they would have to consider cutting the district's Special Education program to balance their budget.

Vancouver: Last week, Vancouver served notice that up to 800 teachers could be laid off to address a provincial funding shortfall ranging from $17 to $35 million, depending on what the province decides to fund in the upcoming provincial budget. And at a meeting for parents of students with special needs this week, the Board Chair acknowledged that special education was particularly vulnerable to cuts, since staff costs are protected via contracts and class size is now protected by legislation, leaving unprotected services like special education as one of the few areas they can cut.

Virtually every school board in the province is confronting similar choices, given the limited number of unprotected programs, like special ed, that they can cut to make up for unfunded provincial costs, since all boards are required by law to balance their budgets regardless of provincial funding shortfalls. Accentuating the looming threat to special education is that the province only funds half or less of what districts actually spend on special ed - a subsidy that is hard for trustees to defend when schools are being closed and core programs slashed.

At the core of this unprecedented crisis is the growing number of downloaded costs that the province has so far refused to cover in provincial education funding grants. These include further increases for teacher salaries and benefits under contracts that the province negotiated, new provincial carbon tax and carbon offset charges, increases to provincial MSP and WCP premiums, implementation costs of new provincial requirements like Bill 33 and full-day kindergarten, and general inflation, which the provincial funding formula also does not cover.

The provincial government will present its budget for 2010-11 in early March and has to date refused to consider new funding to cover these new costs, leaving districts projecting the largest deficits seen in a decade, and cuts that will seriously impact students.

Vulnerable kids unfairly targeted

Provincial officials are justifying the cuts by stating that districts have to tighten their belts like anyone else. This response fails to acknowledge that districts cannot force most district services to tighten their belts because they are protected by provincially-negotiated contracts and requirements. Staff will not sacrifice pay or benefits and boards must also find a way to cover new pay and benefit increases negotiated by the province. Along with provincial requirements governing a host of activities, from class size to reporting and administrative roles, this means districts actually have very few options or "discretionary" spending that can be cut when they are told to tighten their belts.

In effect, school board "belt tightening" amounts to downloading a provincial budgetary crisis onto the most vulnerable students in our public schools - students with special needs, ESL and Aboriginal students and those who need additional programs and supports to succeed. In failing to provide any policy to protect these programs and students while protecting everything from teacher pensions to teacher-student ratios in law, the province has created an uneven playing field that forces school boards to unfairly penalize their most vulnerable students whenever cuts must be made.

ADVOCACY: What you can do

The harsh reality facing our kids is just emerging and there is very little time to act. Parents and advocacy groups representing students with special needs and other vulnerable groups need to act immediately, by telling their MLAs, Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, Finance Minister Colin Hansen and Premier Gordon Campell that it is not acceptable to target BC's most vulnerable students to solve a problem they had no hand in creating.

1. We need to convince government to cover all education costs in the 2010-11 budget before it is presented on March 3.

2. Strength in numbers. We can be most effective if we join with broader groups of parents, PACs and public education advocacy groups to demand that the province fully fund all provincially-mandated costs, including special education - instead of fighting each other for shares of an inadequate budget and ignoring the roots of the problem.

- Contact your PAC and DPAC and encourage them to write the Premier, FInance Minister, Education Minister and your local MLAs - just as Surrey DPAC has done.

- Join our growing Facebook group "Stop BC Education Cuts" to find out what other parents and districts are doing, to find and share information about cuts and to connect with other parents or advocacy efforts in your community.


New evidence-based Autism manual

The U.S.-based National Autism Center, which released the landmark National Standards Report last July summarizing the evidence base for various options in autism treatment, has just released a comprehensive manual titled, Evidence-Based Practice and Autism in the Schools. The 181-page manual includes important findings from the Center's National Standards Report, touted as the most extensive analysis of treatments for children and adolescents with ASD ever published.

The Center, a nonprofit organization, is dedicated to supporting effective, evidence-based treatment approaches for individuals with ASD.  The manual assists educators in selecting and implementing the most effective research-supported treatments for ASD. In addition to providing important information about newly published research findings, it offers guidance on how to integrate professional judgment, family values, and preferences into treatment selection in order to build capacity and implement interventions accurately.

Although obviously written for the U.S. context, the manual should offer valuable insights for educating students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Canadian context as well.

You can download a free copy of the manual or order a print copy for purchase here: