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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 25, Number 6, April 2013  

A legacy that must change 

By Glen Hansman  

May 30, 1966, The Vancouver Sun carried a one-page feature that boldly proclaimed “Education taking new turns in a world of change: Emphasis for youth must be on how to think.” The article describes the computer as the pacesetter in what has become an “age of rapid technological and social change.” Anxiety about this rapid change is the rationale provided for much of what follows in the article. It is up to the education system to “prepare people to cope with the economic, social, and psychological problems mushrooming around them.”

The conclusion is that BC must make a “complete break with traditional education and its rigid conception of organization, curriculum, timetabling, and teaching methods.” Education must now be “available at various times and institutions offering varied programs.” The standard school calendar and schedule are things of the past, and “[t]raditional emphasis on teaching facts must give way to stimulating thinking.” Why? Because in an era of where there is an “explosion of knowledge,” the curriculum must shift away from “teachers supplying students with factual knowledge to students discovering the knowledge for themselves.” This change in curriculum is mirrored by a swing away from “textbooks and teacher lectures to [the] use of a wide variety of communications media and teaching techniques.” The article itself is accompanied by a photograph depicting the new technological marvel in education—the overhead projector. Trades and technology programs are cited, as is the need for continuous education throughout a person’s lifetime given the likelihood that most working adults will need to be retrained several times.

Printed on the same page (no coincidence, surely!) is a paid advertisement from what was then called the Department of Education, proudly proclaiming that “British Columbia leads in the improvement and expansion of educational opportunities?” The Socred Minister of Education Hon L.R. Peterson, is shown in a photograph above text that highlights the government’s record on education: “The facts speak for themselves: the educational level of British Columbia’s population is the highest in Canada and nowhere are the educational opportunities greater.” In fact, “Thirty-one percent of the total provincial revenue for this fiscal year will be devoted to further improvement and expansion in this important field of human betterment.”

If much of the above language seems familiar, you’re not imagining things. Other than the 31% figure, much of what is proclaimed as bold, new, and necessary in the 1966 Vancouver Sun article is eerily similar to what is proclaimed as bold, new, and necessary in the BC Education Plan. The themes and anxious language are nearly identical.

Some of the themes and language have been repackaged with newer monikers we’re all familiar with: personalization, personalized learning, educational transformation, 21st Century Learning, etc. Some aren’t as new. The “flexibility and choice” mantra of the BC Liberal government has been at play since at least the Public Education Flexibility & Choice Act, rushed through by Christy Clark as minister of education in 2002 and declared unconstitutional by the BC Supreme Court in 2011. The phrase continues to be used by the ministry and is sprinkled throughout the BC Education Plan. Teachers’ experience has shown that “flexibility and choice” is simply code for cutting teaching jobs and services to kids, closing schools, and shifting more public funds to independent schools and other private interests. Corporate and business involvement in pushing for change in public education isn’t new either—but as others have pointed out in recent issues of Teacher newsmagazine, corporate and business involvement in BC’s education system perhaps hasn’t been quite as overt until recent times. Public education in BC is being offered up as something ripe for the picking for Pearson, Cisco, IBM, Apple, Dell, Microsoft, and others—not just those affiliated with the Global Education Leaders’ Program, Canadians for 21st Century Learning & Innovation, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Premier’s Technology Council.

Yes, there have been several attempts at education change since the 1960s, and things certainly haven’t been at a standstill. BC teachers have weathered enough change to be extremely suspicious about education fads—and especially about government-led education change.

The concessions brought by government to the provincial bargaining table in the last round were brought in the name of the BC Education Plan, and were clumsily written, had no funding or other resources to support them, would have had extremely negative effects on teachers’ work lives and professional practice. It appears that the reason why the concessions were brought to the table, and remained on the table so long, was not to solve any real issue in schools but rather for the government to leverage the “bad teacher” narrative as a PR move to deflect accusations that they are doing nothing to address class size, class composition, special education, and funding issues properly.

Using FSAs as a political tool has been reconfirmed in the internal BC Liberal document that was leaked in late February 2013; it outlined how party insiders and government staff would align their efforts and use government resources to win over ethnic voters. In addition to cynical “quick wins” like apologizing for past wrongs, the memo cites the NDP’s promise to eliminate the FSA as something that might be “unpopular in ethnic communities” and therefore something that could be used as a wedge issue. There is little attempt made at this point for anyone at the provincial level to maintain the pretence that there are educational motivations behind the FSA. Political choices matter more.

Education funding is another political choice. The government plans to keep the public education budget frozen for another three years and BC schools will get no relief from chronic underfunding. Once again, block funding for public education will be flat at $4.7 billion even as costs rise significantly across the system. With increasing costs for school districts, a flat line in block funding means further cuts in school districts across BC in the weeks ahead.

We need to move BC back up to the national average in terms of education funding. According to Statistics Canada, BC is last on seven key education funding measures including the following:

  • BC has the lowest per-student funding in Canada—almost $1,000 per student below the national average.
  • BC has the worst student-educator ratio in Canada. This means there are more students per teacher than anywhere else in the country.
  • While public school enrolment declined across Canada, only BC cut teaching positions. All other provinces hired more teachers and invested more in public education.

Since last spring, the BC Liberal government has been touting its Learning Improvement Fund (LIF), which is supposed to provide additional services to students with special needs. This year’s budget document, which is essentially a re-announcement of the LIF, states that the fund has been used to hire 500 more teachers, but the BCTF has seen no corresponding increase in the teaching force.

The fund is no substitute for the guaranteed support levels that were taken away by unconstitutional legislation in 2002. Children who began Kindergarten that year now have gone through their entire school careers in larger classes, with less support for special needs, and with fewer counsellors, librarians, and other specialist teachers to help them along the way. Despite all the government hype about education reform, there is no money in the budget for any new initiatives, such as much-needed enhancements to Aboriginal education, or trades and technology in schools. The flat-lined budget also fails to acknowledge that teachers are currently in negotiations for a new collective agreement.

At the bargaining table, we’re looking for a fair deal for teachers and better support for kids. Teachers have won their rights once again to bargain class size and class composition, and government needs to be prepared to deal with these issues at the table, and bring the resources necessary to do so. The huge gap between BC teachers’ salaries and other teachers in the rest of Canada, is also something that must be addressed. Teachers understand that problems are not going to be solved over night, but there needs to be a meaningful plan to restore services and resolve the many outstanding issues.

Not everything is solved by an election. Whoever forms government in May will have a lot to deal with—on the revenue and on the expenditure side of the government ledger. But in the lead-up to the election, as well as post-election, the BCTF will be continuing to share the teachers’ plan for public education—our Better Schools For BC platform, which is available in hardcopy and in an interactive online format at www.betterschoolsbc.ca  

There must be a change in government. Last spring, BC teachers voted to organize local-by-local to work for a change in government, and though the past few years have been trying and tiring, we are motivated. It is clear that restoring services and resolving so many issues is not going to occur under a BC Liberal government. The worst per-student education funding, worst student-educator ratio, dismal record on child poverty, unconstitutional legislation removing class-size and class-composition provisions, accelerated privatization and corporatization of public education and other public services, continued legislative attacks on teachers, and erosion of public education and public services as a whole in the province—this is not a legacy that should be allowed to continue.

Glen Hansman, BCTF second vice-president