Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Solidarity and the 99% - Why teachers should support the Occupy movement

If you are a teacher, you should join the "Occupy" movement. Not since the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization has there been such a large and significant protest movement aimed at the "neo-liberal" economic agenda. Now, a decade later, the reasons to confront the predominant political agenda have never been more pressing and urgent. And in many ways, teachers are in the forefront of this struggle.

In the years following World War II, a significant expansion of the public sector took place, including education. Schools multiplied, many teachers were hired, and a great emphasis was placed on a high quality public education system. At that time the focus was broad not narrow - every child should be afforded equal opportunity to succeed. Schools were places not just to learn how to read, but also to become mathematically and scientifically literate, and to explore one's potential in the arts, sports, music and other areas of creative endeavor. Equity was important, and so schools were free and the emphasis was on quality schools in EVERY neighborhood, not simply the best opportunity for "my child". Into the seventies and even eighties, increased funding meant schools and educators were able to expand programs and tune and develop their pedagogy.

At the same time, teachers unions secured basic benefits for their members - the right to organize, the right to equal salaries between women and men, decent pensions and benefits packages, and fair working conditions secured with limits on class sizes, case loads and class composition limits.

But by the mid-nineties, neo-liberalism came to BC with a vengeance. The first assault was the Federal Liberal program to drastically reduce transfer payments to the provinces. As this money primarily supports health care and education and other public services, these were the areas to be hit. Decreased provincial budgets "trickled down" through the system in a variety of ways: elimination of local bargaining rights, reduced School Board budgets year after year leading to layoffs and cuts, and stagnating wages and benefits.

By the time the BC Liberals came to power in 2001, we were already struggling to maintain our high quality system on the backs of our own extra labour. Teachers were working longer hours for less pay. Money disappeared for things like in-service training in new curriculum and staff collaboration time. More and more the expectation became that teachers did all the "extras" on their own time. Not just marking and lesson preparation, but meetings, parent/teacher interviews, administrative paper work, preparing Individual Education Plans, meeting with School Based Team, department meetings, attendance record keeping and the list goes on. And the "extras"  became an ever growing list. With teachers the only large salaried group of employees, every new initiative, data collection scheme or administrative task was downloaded to teachers. Supposedly the system could "improve" just by giving teachers more work to do.

The policies and legislative agenda of the BC Liberals took us into overdrive. Within three years they took away our right to strike (Essential Services), stripped our working conditions out of our Collective Agreement (Bills 27/28), attacked our professional control over standards by overhauling the BC College of Teachers, and radically changed the focus of education policy from "we" to "me".

No longer was the emphasis on public schooling for society, for equity, for equal opportunity. Instead policies based on "choice" pandered to the notion that schools are primarily for "my child". Fee based Academies created opportunities for some children, but not others. FSA rankings and the opening of catchment areas led to parents "shopping" for the "best school". Rather than a philosophy of a great school for every child, they promote the best school for my child. No matter the children who can't afford the extra programs, the schools that can't fund-raise thousands of dollars, the parents who cannot drive their child to the chosen school.

At the same time, wages continued to stagnate, provincial bargaining proved dysfunctional, teachers were legislated back to work multiple times, and wages and benefits continued their slide.

Teachers, students and society have all paid a price.

Teachers have had significant losses in earnings, benefits, and face increasingly untenable working conditions. In my school District, over a five year period one in ten teachers will take stress related medical leave. Across BC, 3500 teachers lost their jobs, and the prospects for new teachers today are grim. Fewer teachers are working longer hours for less pay, while new graduates struggle with unemployment.

Students increasingly do not receive the services to ensure their social and academic success. A student requiring special education services is now lucky to get 15 minutes per week at a typical middle school. Students diagnosed with autism often receive Educational Assistance support only for half of the week - as if somehow their autism disappears for the remainder. Students in oversize classes get less individual attention, less personalized assessment, and learn in more crowded and chaotic environments.

Our schools are shamefully leaving many students and their families behind. In BC, both aboriginal and special needs students graduation rates continue to hover at or below the 50% range. Rather than the great equalizer of opportunity, schools more and more are exacerbating the social inequalities that already exist. Students living in foster care, for example, have drastically lower success rates and they fall further behind the longer they are in school.

Every aspect of the Occupy movement can be found in a microcosm in the sad history of our public schools over the past two decades. Inequality is rising. Wages are stagnating. Unemployment is increasing. Young people no longer can look forward to a better education, better opportunities, better careers, better benefits and better pensions. Instead, they are drowning under the weight of increased competition for fewer public services, greater debt load simply to get an education, and the prospect of any "decent" job being gone by the time they grow up and finish school.

The most fantastic part of the Occupy movement is the focus on solidarity. The slogan "we are the 99%" perfectly summarizes where the division in society is - between the wealthy and powerful one percent and the rest of us. The "middle class" teacher struggling to keep wages in line with inflation and maintain decent pensions and modernize benefits is not the enemy of the unemployed twenty something deep in student loan debt. The very jobs and benefits we are struggling to maintain are the job and benefits that the twenty somethings need to be available to them, so that they too will have the opportunity to raise a family, own a house, and afford the basics of life through to retirement.

At the same time, teachers and public education advocates need to see the Occupy movement as part of our movement. Only through a broader struggle where we reject massive inequality, attacks on workers rights, fees and debt to receive public services, will we turn the tide and move back towards a truly public, quality education system. And so the onus is also on us to join hands with those in the squares and parks to fight for a better world.

What you can do:
  • Donate to the Occupy movement - online or in person, to support those camping out and occupying
  • Drop by an Occupation to show support
  • Join the rallies to support the Occupy movement
  • Educate others by sharing the literature and information about the Occupy movement

1 comment:

  1. The Neo Liberals want to create inequality; cutting back on Education and eradicating labour unions is a diliberate effort to create a large and desperate pool of labour that can be made to work for peanuts and can be easily manipulated. Equality is bad for capitalism, don't you know????