Education News

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.

In 2006, the BC Liberals and the Opposition NDP ignored the advice of all education partner groups except BCTF when they passed Bill 33, the Class Size and Composition Act. MOMS was one of the provincial advocacy groups representing students with special needs that penned a joint letter opposing Bill 33’s class composition caps in particular as both discriminatory and pointless.

Our fears were realized, as Bill 33’s class size limits forced schools to cut even more special education teachers, to gut more school libraries and shutter more schools in order to fund extra classes. Boards were also forced to divert millions more in scarce resources to fight futile Bill 33 teacher grievances – futile, because successful challenges only forced the Boards to rob Peter to pay Paul. Without new Provincial funding, it’s a zero sum game, and all you’re doing with rules like class size or composition limits is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

In a context of inadequate resources (which even I have to admit isn’t going to ever change!), giving local Boards, schools and teachers the flexibility to allocate resources to meet the most urgent needs they face on the front lines, to use creativity, or to do things the way it works best for their unique situation is the most effective way to mitigate the harm to students. I’ve watched committed, resourceful staff over 13 years find ways to make the system work despite its flaws, precisely because they were given scope to do things differently. This is not an argument for underfunding or for letting staff go wild, but a powerful rationale for believing in people.  The BCTF continues to vigorously oppose this argument, and insists on restoring some version of the rigid class size/ composition limits that the BC Liberals finally repealed last week via Bill 22.

Having learned quickly how to advocate effectively for my own son, my own journey through K-12 included many desperate pleas for help over the years from families of students who weren’t as fortunate. While the system provides costly and elaborate conflict resolution mechanisms for disgruntled teachers, it still provides almost no recourse for the student who is wronged or failed in any of this, or for the families who try to help them fight for their rights.

Surely such opportunities should be the cornerstone of an effective, responsive and accountable system? Perhaps if more attention were paid to providing student-controlled accountability instruments in a context of more flexibility and more resources, all the rest would be forced to fall into place. But despite the rhetoric, neither the Province, the Boards nor the teachers have ever made any meaningful attempt to promote reforms that would really, seriously and effectively ensure that students’ interests were first and foremost in all decisions.

I’ve supported teachers in their last three bargaining rounds since 2001, because in the previous round they’d given up wage increases in exchange for contract provisions that Christy Clark decided to strip illegally in 2002. But each time the BC Liberals approved another compensation increase for teachers, they failed to fully fund it. So students had to finance the gap, sacrifcing more core services, or watching their schools shut down in order to balance Board budgets.

I have great respect for most teachers, their dedication and commitment and the amazing work they do. But their compensation has risen more in the past decade than that of most taxpayers paying the bills, many of whom work just as hard and demonstrate equal commitment and dedication in their own work. These are tight economic times and BC’s teachers do not have a hardship case, but after almost a year of “bargaining” they’re still demanding a 15% pay increase — a demand that would guarantee more cuts and more sacrifices from students. Many dedicated public sector workers who serve our children out of school and in adult services have a much stronger argument for pay increases and yet they’ve settled for zero this round, asking that any new Provincial dollars go directly to addressing service gaps.

Despite the economic climate, BC taxpayers need to consider the business case for urgently reinvesting in public education, given the far higher socioeconomic costs of failing to do so. Today’s students cannot wait until the economy is booming again. The window of opportunity in K-12 is all too brief, as any parent of a Grade 12 student can tell you. But the first priority for reinvestment today is to restore crticial student supports and programs cut over the past decade — not another major increase in staffing costs that will provide no net benefit to students.

Many parents like me joined educators over the past decade to advocate for funding to restore the cuts we’ve seen on the front lines at our children’s schools. We built a solid coalition and generated broad public support, finally forcing even the BC Liberal government to admit their cuts to special education had gone too far. But the BCTF’s militancy and isolationism this time has severely fractured the teacher/ parent coalition that fought so hard in the past to mitigate a decade of provincial cuts. And our fractured opposition has only emboldened hard-right elements within the BC Liberals to strengthen their attacks on public education with some of the ugliest components of Bill 22 passed last week.

Fed up with the rhetoric and intransigence of both parties, most ordinary citizens are simply turning their backs on what might have been a pivotal rallying point. No matter how many millions both sides spend on costly TV propaganda campaigns, or how ideologically convinced they might be that they are the ones fighting the good fight, the only message that’s coming across loud and clear from both sides is the self-serving one — it’s a message that turning off the public, forcing taxpayers to tune out and eroding the solid base of public support that we built together in support of public education..

I find it extremely sad to watch the very people who think they are trying to save public education ending up unwittingly helping to destroy it. The teachers are now threatening an illegal strike and/or withdrawing non-core services again, actions that will only further punish the innocent children caught in the middle of this, alienate more parent allies and support proponents of privatization, by further cementing and radicalizing public opposition to BCTF demands. Already, we are seeing growing calls for school vouchers, union-busting and the like. And while the Education Minister has finally confronted some key changes that put students first again, his poisonous pill is so full of toxic additives that it will do far more harm than good.

British Columbians go to the polls in another year. Public education certainly has the potential to be a defining election issue, as it was in Ontario when the McGuinty government swept the Conservatives out of office in 2003.

In our last provincial election, British Columbians concerned about public education had slim pickings indeed, with equally insipid and uninspiring platforms offered by both the BC Liberals and the NDP. We can ensure that’s not the case in 2013, if we start pressuring all three parties – NDP, Liberals and Conservatives – to spell out what they’re offering in terms of detailed plans for fixing our ailing public education system and putting students first, while respecting the roles of both teachers, funders and the broad public interest.

Success in placing Education at the top of the political agenda for 2013 is what will save public education. Not this.

Dawn Steele, MOMS

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