Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How to reduce income inequality

The last time there was such severe income inequality in Canada and the US was the 1920's. Political pundits of all stripes lament this fact, and point to the heady days of the post-war era as the high point in social and economic equality. But they fail to address a key question: How did that come about and how did we get there?

The most recent report from the OECD (Organization of Economic and Cooperative Development) says this about Canadian inequality:

Two factors explain Canada’s growing gap: a widening disparity in labour earnings between high- and low-paid workers, and less redistribution. 'Taxes and benefits reduce inequality less in Canada than in most OECD countries

What is the way forward to address these two issues?

How did workers react to the Great Depression? They organized. In the US, workers went from one of the lowest rates of unionization in the 20's, to one of the highest (around 50%) by the end of world war two. The 1930's was the decade of sit down strikes and incredible labour militancy. It was the decade that saw the historic rifts between skilled/unskilled and black/white workers overcome. It was the era that converted many blue collar unskilled work into well paid middle class jobs with decent wages and benefits.

It was unionization that led to wage increases and the development and expansion of many social programs. It was unionization that pushed governments to deal with joblessness (through the New Deal) and provide social supports for periods of unemployment.

Through the early post war years (50s and 60s), well established unions were able to consolidate gains and push for some benefits to be extended to all citizens through social programs. For example, it was the Canadian Union of Postal Workers that first bargained for paid maternity leave. These benefits are now extended to all workers through the Employment Insurance program. Through political bodies like the Federations of Labour and Canadian Labour Congress, unions have used their power to improve life for working people beyond their own individual unions.

The attack on unions that began in the Reagan/Thatcher era has led to the long and slow erosion of the labour movement. This erosion has been accompanied by a long and slow degradation of incomes and progressive tax schemes. With a weakened union movement, wages stagnated. With a weakened labour movement, government's repealed progressive taxes (income taxes scaled to tax high incomes more) and replaced them with regressive taxes like the GST, the HST, and user-fee premiums such as MSP.

Unionization in BC has gone from 50% to closer to 30%. This is good for no-one but the 1%. Not only does the 1% use this to put downward pressure on wages and benefits, but they pretend that they are not the problem by blaming middle income workers who still have some of the benefits of unionized jobs.

The teachers strike is a classic example. When Gordon Brown writes in the Province that teachers should stop "whining" because ...

"All the other hard-working British Columbians have to pay your salaries and you're wearing them out with your complaints and wage and benefit demands that are well beyond what other B.C. workers have received or the government can afford."

we need to look closely at his argument. He is saying that because other workers have not successfully fought for better wages and benefits, no one should get them (and in particular, not public sector workers). So Gordon Brown wants teachers to accept no wage increase and fall behind, in line with other workers. This is a race to the bottom.

To improve the quality of life for ordinary working people (the 99%), we need to support all workers in their struggle to improve pay and benefits. We need to support Caterpillar workers who earn $33 / hour. A general rise in wages will impact wages throughout the economy. And successful labour struggles will motivate others to look to unions and organize to improve their own wages and benefits.

This is how we will close the gap on income inequality.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

BC Schools: A decade of choice, a decade of decline

Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of Bills 27 and 28. These two pieces of legislation began a dramatic shift in the framework of BC schooling towards a policy of "choice" - market driven public schooling.

The most dramatic impact was on funding and class size and support for students with special needs. Over ten years, the government removed over $3 billion from District budgets leading to over 12,000 overcrowded classrooms annually. This was the "choice" to dramatically shrink education funding by eliminating 3500 teachers and 700 special education teachers.

But other aspects of education reform reinforced the market ideology - open catchments, per pupil funding (as opposed to targeted funding for students with special needs), school district "corporations", testing and ranking of schools with the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA).

Education Minister Abbott, and those before him in the BC Liberals, like to promote the words "flexibility" and "choice" for parents. They suggest that this what the majority of parents actually want for their children. But is this a mechanism so that only some parents and students will receive the highest quality education within the public system?

One of the best ways, I believe, to see what parents value and what actually works in K-12 schooling is to take a look at private schools. After all, the ultimate "choice" is to afford whatever money can buy.

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted schools in New York City that now charge upwards of $40,000 per year. What do these schools have?

Unsurprisingly, they have very nice facilities and grounds. But here are the points mentioned by one mother interviewed by the NYT:  “The school’s always had an amazing teacher-to-student ratio, learning specialists and art programs with great music and theater,” said one mother whose children attend the Dalton School ($36,970 a year).”

Hmmm. Sounds like some of the very same things that BC public school teachers are advocating in their proposal for education change, Better Schools for BC (http://bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/Publications/BetterSchoolsForBC.pdf). Smaller class sizes for more individual attention. Learning specialists, appropriate class composition and resources to support students with special needs. Diverse and fully funded programming to ensure quality elective programs in arts and music (and no doubt sport would be in some lists too) in every school in every community.

Unlike private schools, public schooling also needs to ensure equity of opportunity and should be a place for those with economic and social disadvantages to be able to have the same ability to reach their own individual goals. This is why addressing inequality in society and in schools is also so important. Poverty reduction is also included in teachers' proposals to improve schooling.

The mantra of "choice" is folly. Choice is choice for those who can pay, not choice for everyone. Parents might not be paying $40,000 a year, but they pay through home location, through transportation, through school fees, through after school tutoring, and through fundraising. Choice is a euphemism for market driven policies in education and will lead to better schools for some, and worse for others. As Linda Darling Hammond wrote recently in an excellent article for The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/165575/why-congress-redlining-our-schools), "The truth is that the competitive market approach leaves the most vulnerable children behind."

The market driven approach to public education in BC rests on three pillars: open catchments, FSA testing and ranking, and under-funding.

The open catchments allow parents to choose schools. This is great for the parents who can, and the schools that are chosen. It is a disaster for the rest. It is a particular disaster for those at the bottom, where parents flee except for those who can't flee. It is the stratification of a public system based on socio-economic levels.

The FSAs provide the mechanism for ranking to allow parents to decide.

The under-funding means that those schools with the family capital will be able to do far more than those without. Here are a few statistics on school generated funds from the BCTF (http://bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/Publications/2011EdFacts.pdf):

School-generated funds are funds collected and used at the school level. Revenue sources  may include vending machines, cafeterias, field trips, yearbook sales, school fees, graduation  fees, band fees, and fund-raising. 

2009–10 Audited Financial Statements show that a provincial total of $245.3 million in  school-generated funds was available in that year. This sum was equivalent to 5.4% of the  2009–10 Recalculated Operating Grant for the province. 

There are huge differences between districts. For example, the proportion of school generated funds available compared to the district‘s recalculated Operating Grant is lowest in  Stikine, where it was equal to 2.1%; in West Vancouver, where it was highest, the proportion was 12.78%

If we want an equitable public education system, the decade of market driven reforms must be rolled back. We must address child poverty and inequality in society. And we must return to a philosophy of fully funded, excellent, comprehensive neighborhood schools for each and every neighborhood.

Monday, January 23, 2012

What is fair and reasonable?

Sadly, BC politics took a turn south this week, with Education Minister George Abbott fueling a backlash against teachers during bargaining.

It is frustrating to see so many misconceptions in some of the reporting. But then again, they aren't ignoring us, and that means something.

The usual myths began just shortly after the BCTF announced a new, reduced package at the bargaining table. The package represents a significant reduction from the original set of proposals. It included a wage increase of 3% cost of living in each of three years, plus a 3% "market adjustment" for the second two. This totals 15% over three years. The BCTF costing puts the total increase in year one at $305m, and an additional $130m in each of years two and three. The total increase over three years is $565m.

After one day of media coverage on the new package, the so-called pundits decided to weigh in. The Bill Good show. Jon Ferry at the Province. The Principals and Vice Principals Association.

Let's deconstruct of few of the non-facts out there.

Teachers are greedy. Well, since we took 0's in four of the last fifteen years (1998, 1999, 2004, 2005), I have a lot of trouble with this one. We have fallen from 3rd to 8th in cross Canada teacher comparisons. Other workers are getting increases (in both the public and private sector - see the Vancouver police, BC nurses and the recent agreement at Viking Air for some examples). The 15% over three years will perhaps only push us up to maybe 5th. The BC Liberals thought a "catch up" for MLAs at 29% in one year was just hunky dory. Who is greedy? 

The cost is too high. This one is a matter of perspective and doing fair comparisons. The day after we tabled our package, BCPSEA asked to cancel the following day's session. They also suggested that costing should be cumulative - that is, each increase for each year had to be added for each year. This is a bit non-sensical as you cannot compare different term contracts - it would mean a "costing" for a one year contract would always look considerably smaller than a "costing" for a three year contract or five year contract.

To have fair comparisons regardless of term, it is the total increase over the term that is relevant. It is notable the government never uses this method when they are the subject of the dollar amount. For example, they never describe the $330m per year removed from education budgets for class size limits over the ten years it has been in effect. That would be $3.3 billion. A big number indeed. More than enought to cover the costs of teachers' "demands". Fair and reasonable means you use the same costing criteria for everything. If they want to remedy their illegal removal of class size limits with $3.3 billion, teachers will be very happy.

My favourite came from Abbott himself during an interview on the Bill Good show. As reported by Janet Steffenhagen, in the Vancouve Sun: "he said government wants to change post-and-fill rules so seniority doesn’t trump everything. A social studies teacher shouldn’t get priority for a math posting simply because of seniority. he said. “It is so commonsensical I don’t understand the fervent objection to this as somehow contract stripping.”

What's the truth? Current contracts ensure teachers are qualified for the subject area they teach in. They won't even be considered without qualifications (regardless of seniority). Qualifications are based on objective criteria: formal education, previous teaching experience, additional informal training. What does Minister Abbott have on the table? The Principal decides. Yes, the government's definition of "qualified" includes "suitable" according to the Principal. So in fact it is the government proposal that could end up placing a social studies teacher in the math class. I try to be very careful with what I say, but it is fair to comment that the Minister is just plain wrong on this point - seniority doesn't trump everything. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Twitter tale - Consultation, Minister Abbott style

There's been some online discussion about Minister Abbott's tweet up...seems he wasn't actually doing the typing...although he was apparently in the room and directing the typist.

Here are a few comments after the news was leaked:

Randy White
  Funny how George Abbots wouldn't even twitter with us over his . Says alot about govt
Heidi Hass Gable
 Deliberate misinterpretation of the situation? How does dictating mean he didn't participate? 

And this one made me laugh:

Jeremy Reid
Having someone tweet for you is like lip syncing at a live concert
But perhaps more interesting than who was at the keyboard, is who Mr. Abbott (or whomever it was deciding) chose to respond to.

A teacher friend of mine tallied the interactions with @georgeabbottbc and reported his findings:

For the second time this year, the BC Minister of Education had a meeting today online using Twitter to discuss the New BC Education Plan. While it seems like a simple way to actually ask him questions it has, for the second time, proven itself to be an exercise in futility for teachers and more of a Public Relations exercise for the Minister. In the end, Minister Abbott spent an hour online, which seems like a lot but in reality, the conversation was exclusive as to people he actually had a dialogue with. Looking at the numbers, we see that he responded to 6 principals, 5 parents, one Assessment Workshop facilitator, 2 university professors, one community school advocate, 2 unknown people with no discernable background or information who signed up on Twitter today and tweeted (as cheerleaders) for the first time during the meeting, one private school teacher, 2 companies that support the BCED Plan, 3 distributed learning teachers, one learning assistance teacher, and one grade 3 teacher.

This does not reflect the actual number of teachers who went online today to attempt to discuss the BCED Plan with the Minister. Several teachers did go on Twitter and did ask lots of good and relevant questions. There was a fair amount of dialogue among the teachers and some of the people I mentioned above, it just did not involve the Minister of Education for the most part.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Alberta teachers in negotiations

Details were leaked this week from the talks between the Alberta Teachers' Association and the Alberta government.

Alberta teachers are currently the highest paid outside of the north, with salaries up to $20,000 higher than BC teachers. Their previous agreement provided for automatic increases relative to the growth of average weekly earning in the province, as well as a $2.2 billion contribution to the pension fund.The government is projecting a deficit in 2012, but even in this context, the government is looking at wage increases of 0%, 2%, and 4% over three years.

For the teachers, the issues are workload and working hours. Teachers report working double their instructional time when marking, preparing, communicating with parents, and mandatory professional development are included. This puts their hours upwards of 50 per week - very similar to the workload that BC teachers report.

The new premier, Alison Redford, showed her commitment to public education when she reinstated $107 million in budget cuts almost immediately after assuming office. This level of commitment to funding bodes well for reaching a negotiated settlement.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

BCTF presents reduced set of proposals

In an effort to get bargaining moving, the BCTF provincial bargaining team is presenting a new set of proposals at the table today. The proposals represent a significant reduction:

* reducing "wage parity" with Alberta/Ontario (roughly 20%) to a Cost of Living increase of 3% in each of three years plus a market adjustment of 3% in each of years 2 and 3 (total of 15% over 3 years)

* reducing improvements to preparation time

* eliminating some paid leave provisions and reducing others

* removing teacher teaching on call minimum monthly stipend

The total estimated cost of the package for year one, including salary, is $300 million.

During the press conference, BCTF President Susan Lambert called on Minister Abbott to have his government's actions match the rhetoric. Despite many olive branches to improve the relationship with teachers, the concessions at the bargaining table angered teachers.

See the full press release here: http://www.bctf.ca/NewsReleases.aspx?id=24886

School boards discuss 'net zero'

At least two School Boards discussed motions last night to ask the BC government to bring a new mandate to the provincial bargaining table with teachers. Teachers are seeking increases to keep up with inflation and to catch up with other provinces in Canada. The government has refused to discuss any increases.

Vancouver School Board passed a motion to write to government seeking a new mandate. In Victoria, the motion failed but with three Trustees (Edith Loring Kuhanga, Deb Nohr, Diane McNally) in support. (Trustee Catherine Alpha is a teacher and could not participate due to a conflict of interest).

School Boards have a direct interest in ensuring that teacher wages, benefits and preparation time keep pace with other jurisdictions in order to attract and retain excellent teachers. Boards are members of the provincial bargaining association and participate in provincial bargaining decisions.

Currently teachers in BC are eighth in Canada. The 'net zero' proposed by the BC government contrasts with recent increases in Saskatchewan and Alberta. An Alberta teacher currently earns $20,000 more than a BC teacher. See a full listing of teacher wage comparisons here: http://www.bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/BargainingContracts/2011-12SalaryRankings.pdf

Monday, January 16, 2012

Will grouping by ability mean re-segregation?

One of the aspects of the "BC education plan" most touted by the government recently is the notion of grouping students by ability, rather than age. A quick perusal through the moderators remarks on the government website shows that comments favourable to this viewpoint are highlighted. The topic also made it into the Vancouver Sun and Janet Steffenhagen's education blog.

On it's face, it is an attractive idea. Teaching a group of students with a wide variety of ability levels is very challenging and time consuming. One of the simplest and yet most important theories in the educational literature comes from the Russian educational psychologist, Lev Vygotsky - the "zone a proximal development". In regular words, this theory states that optimal learning takes place when the learning is attempting to do a task just outside their current ability level. Too far, and the learner is lost. Too close, and nothing is learned.

Clearly in age-segregated classrooms, it is difficult to consistently reach every student's optimal learning "zone". Because children learn at different rates, age segregation does a poor job of filtering students according to ability. In addition, ability level varies across subjects and tasks. A typical classroom in BC today can easily have a grade level differential of 5 or more years. This means a Grade 8 class can have students with a Grade 2 reading level and students with a Grade 10 reading level, for example.

On one level, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world is to simply re-organize according to ability, not age. And yet there are some significant consequences.

Schools and classrooms are not only for academic learning. They are social places. Children are impacted by which groupings and which schools they are placed in and can become stigmatized by these choices. Grouping by ability automatically sorts children the same way a report card or a test score does - into "winners" and "losers".

A look at some similar educational philosophies reveals some of the dangers inherent in this approach.

There is a considerable body of research on "social promotion" - keeping students with their age cohort rather than retaining them in a grade level. This research generally shows no academic benefit to retention, and that a number of social effects of social promotion are positive - fewer drop-outs, less high risk behaviours and less bullying. Particularly in early years, research supports the finding that there are negative impacts associated with retention as opposed to social promotion (http://www.ericdigests.org/2001-3/policy.htm).

Another form of "sorting" of students was the exclusion of students with a disability from the "regular" classroom - a practice that was successfully challenged and eliminated under the Charter of Rights. Prior to integration, many students with disabilities were segregated into separate schools and separate classes within schools. Research assessing the impact on educational outcomes of different models of inclusion have been mostly inconclusive. As one researcher acknowledged, integration took place at the same time as the beginning of the long decline in school funding, the mid-1980's. It is therefore difficult to judge the success of inclusion (http://www.cesc.ca/pceradocs/1999/99Dor%E9_Wagner_Brunet_B%E9langer_e.pdf).

Some argue that age grouping is an artefact leftover from the factory model of schooling introduced in the early twentieth century. This is the argument put forward by Sir Ken Robinson, and has gained some traction with some educators. And yet Britain already went through a long process of eliminating forms of streaming, which is a form of ability grouping (albeit within an age cohort, rather than across age cohorts). In the 1960's the government eliminated tested entry into levelled schools, in favour of comprehensive schools based on geographic catchment. This was a progressive change aimed at eliminating the advantages of the wealthy in a publicly funded system.

One of the difficulties with ability grouping is the impact on equity. Students with advantages from outside of school factors (home life, socio-economic status) will tend to enter school at a higher ability level. When they are then streamed into a higher level class or school, the school system will serve to exacerbate the differences, rather than diminish them. It was precisely this effect that comprehensive schools based on geography were meant to eliminate.

Call me cynical, but I believe the government's interest in ability grouping is actually a way to save money while satisfying well off parents whose children are likely to do well and who can pay for outside tutoring and extra assistance when they need it. For these children, the streaming into ability grouping may well lead to better outcomes over the same time period with the same funding. Meanwhile those who have traditionally cost more to educate and who need additional supports, learning assistance and intervention, will be streamed together in their own class. Sounds like a new form of segregation to me.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

BC teachers describe workload issues at bargaining table

This week, several teachers came to the provincial bargaining table on behalf of the BCTF to share their experiences teaching in BC. Here are some excerpts from the reports:

January 12:

The BCTF began the day with a presentation from Sarah Newton, an elementary school teacher from Revelstoke. Her presentation described her work as a teacher in and outside of her classroom, which demonstrated the need for increased preparation time for all of our members. Sarah has felt it necessary to go part time this year to .85 so she could “be a good teacher.” She described how 90 minutes per week of prep time is insufficient with all of the demands and pressures placed on teachers. Sarah outlined how, despite all the time spent at recess, during lunch time, after work and on weekends, it is still very difficult for teachers to do all the work needed under current conditions to try to meet the needs of all of their students. Sarah described some of the tasks that she does when she is not teaching her class. They included: preparing meaningful lessons that involved continuous hands-on experiences/activities/stations for students in most of her subjects, preparing the computer lab for lessons which had to be done after hours at the school because of the nature of the school district server, prereading novels, researching, preparing alternative activities for different faith-based students, homework club, communicating with support staff, working on IEPs, communicating with all her parents on a weekly basis. On top of this, there are all the volunteer activities in which she and other teachers often get involved as well as family responsibilities.

It was interesting to note that, once again, prep time is having to be purchased by individual teachers in order for them provide the students with the education they deserve.

In response to Sarah’s presentation, BCPSEA acknowledged that the net-zero mandate made it challenging for them at the bargaining table. BCPSEA stated that they want to “provide foundational elements that will support teachers” and that they want to have a discussion with us “on how we can support teachers.”
BCTF reminded BCPSEA that they have not provided one proposal nor counter thus far that will provide support for teachers. We encouraged them to provide a counter on preparation time and other areas as “foundational elements” that would actually show that they are serious about supporting teachers and the work they do with our students.

January 11:

The BCTF began with a presentation from Tracy Yarr, a senior English teacher from Victoria, to support our proposal on increased preparation time.

Tracy presented a detailed and holistic description of her life as a teacher. She works part time, .86, so that she has additional preparation time (commonly known as “buying a block”). After 12 years of teaching, she earns only $58,000 and is concerned about the impact on her pension. Despite getting part time pay, she works far more than full-time hours. She described spending 18 hours on the weekend marking, the extra time spent running the Youth Combating Intolerance club in her school, the hours spent helping students apply for university, and the hours spent with students in crisis.

Tracy described the situation of overwork as one which “fosters an environment where teachers are just surviving.” She described how teachers feel demoralized when students are not able to reach their full potential, and how the vast majority of colleagues work long, long hours to do their absolute best to help students.

She described a colleague who teaches calculus who puts in 70-hour weeks. She described the increased demands from expectant parents and from students who have grown up in a “screen” culture and come to school unable to focus. 

She finished by stating: “My job has outgrown itself. It cannot be done well in the hours available.” She told the employer that “you have a legion of teachers in the system who are committed.” She urged the employer not to “railroad us into burnout or mediocrity.”

Thursday, January 12, 2012

BC public sector enters 2012 bargaining

This week saw the beginning of a new round of public sector bargaining, with most public sector unions entering negotiations for 2012 agreements.

The government has already stated their intention to continue the "net zero" mandate through Mandate 2012. The government will only agree to gains if they are "off-set" by cost savings elsewhere in the agreement.

There has already been media speculation of potential job action, as the government is asking workers who have just had two years of no wage increase, to take two more years of no wage increase.

At the same time, many union members have told their leadership this is not acceptable. "No more zeros" is the quote from BCGEU president Darryl Walker on his blog (http://www.bcgeu.ca/2012_brgaining_blog_111202). He continues: "Eighty-five percent of BCGEU members’ contracts expire on March 31, 2012. Our members that provide key services to British Columbians have been under a wage freeze for the past two years. When you take inflation into account, our members have lost four-and-a-half percent of their income."

The Hospital Employees' Union secretary-business manager Bonnie Pearson made similar remarks about Mandate 2012: "I think all of you know that on the front lines of health care where you work, there’s not a lot of savings to be had,” said Pearson. “Any low-hanging fruit – it’s been picked. It’s been canned and it’s been eaten....And I’ll be damned if we’re going to spend this round of bargaining looking under the seat cushions for spare change. We’re not at the bargaining table to find ways to cut services to patients and residents – we’re there to provide quality care to British Columbians.”

Health Sciences Association of BC (HSABC) similarly stated: “HSABC/NUPGE members served notice at the beginning of this year that continuing to fall behind our counterparts in other provinces is not an option."

The Conference Board of Canada has stated that BC is expecting  economic growth of 2.5% this year and 3.5% growth in 2013. This comes after a 3% expansion in 2011. BC is not experiencing a recession. BC is experiencing moderate growth.

Inflation shows similar trends. BC's inflation rate now sits at 2.3% but is higher for food, which is running at 3.6% In fact, many of the costs for families are growing at a much faster clip: electricity - 6.7%, home owner insurance - 12.7%, energy - 8.9%. (see: http://www.gov.bc.ca/keyinitiatives/economic_indicators.html)

These expenses are rising as after-tax pay cheques shrink due to increases in MSP premiums, CPP premiums and EI premiums.

So what is the impact of Mandate 2010 and Mandate 2012? Significant decreases in the purchasing power of public sector workers. Otherwise known as a pay cut.

This impacts not only those workers' families, but also the communities in which they live. Middle income earners typically spend more of their income than high income earners, having a greater benefit for small businesses in their local communities.

It is no wonder so many of these workers are telling their leadership - no more.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Superintendent of Greater Victoria received 10% wage increase

The Public Service Employers' Council (PSEC) recently released the public disclosure of executive compensation for school districts. This comes shortly after we learned in the media that the Greater Victoria Board of Education secretly renewed the contracts of both the Superintendent and the Secretary Treasurer at the last meeting before the November elections when a new Board came into office.

You can find the public disclosure here: http://www.pssg.gov.bc.ca/psec/disclosuredocs/sddisclosures11/sd61_11.pdf

Given the government's steadfast insistence that teacher do not deserve to even keep up with inflation, never mind catch up with our colleagues in the rest of Canada, it is interesting to see the 10% wage increase (over one year) for our Superintendent.

In 2009/10, Superintendent John Gaiptman received a base salary of $158, 711. In 2010/11 he received a base salary of $175, 073. This is an increase of $16, 362, or just above 10%.

There is some complicated formula relating to averages across BC, but I was interested to read that although Greater Victoria ranks 7th in size, the Superitendent's salary and benefits rank 4th in BC. (See: http://www.langleytimes.com/news/136677488.html)

In addition to this base salary, he receives another $32, 730 in benefits. Much of this is pension, but there are some other items included, such as "all reasonable expenses" for professional development, a home computer,  a professional association dues. He also gets a membership to a Health Club.

Let's compare this to teachers in Greater Victoria. We received a 2% increase between 2009/10 and 2010/11 and we received a 0% increase this fall. (I don't know what Mr. Gaiptman received this fall, as the disclosure from PSEC comes at the end of the year). Teachers in Greater Victoria receive $87 per year for professional development - a number that has not changed since 1992. We have to pay our professional dues ourselves. We do not get a membership to a Health Club. For most teachers, in "category 5" with 5 years of university education, the starting salary is $48, 626 and after ten years of full time experience, the top salary is $74, 353.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Should BC teachers get a salary increase? Myths & Realities

NOTE: There is an updated version of this post for those of you reading it in 2014!

BC teachers are in contract negotiations asking for a fair deal. What do we mean by fair exactly?

Teachers would like improvements in three areas: class size/composition, salary and benefits, and changes to the bargaining structure.

As far as class size, we want only what was taken in 2002. We want the government to go back to the class sizes in place at that time and restore the funding so Boards can achieve this.

For bargaining, we want to negotiate more items locally with our elected Boards. This facilitates diversity, community involvement, and local programs and solutions. It is not a cost item and is how teachers used to negotiate in the 1990's - very successfully.

For salary and benefits, teachers want to "keep up" and "catch up". What do we mean by that? We want to keep up with inflation, and we want to catch up with Canadians in other provinces. Teachers in BC now rank 8th in salaries across Canada, despite the fact that our cost of living is one of the highest and that BC weathered the recession better than most other provinces. BC has been out of recession since 2010 and is forecasting moderate growth for the next year.

Unfortunately, the government's position has and continues to be 'net zero'. The government claims that taxpayers cannot afford increases to public sector wages and that wages must remain flat because the government is running a deficit.

Do these arguments make sense? Are they justified? Or should teachers receive a wage increase?

Here are my answers to these questions.

Myth #1: Teachers should not get a wage increase because of the government deficit

Reality #1: There was no deficit when the Liberals took power in 2001. Through a series of income tax cuts and corporate tax cuts, the Liberals went from a surplus to a deficit. Yes, the recession of 2009 impacted government revenues. But not as much as tax cuts have. Moreover, the government has found plenty of money for spending when it feels the spending is a priority. There was money for the BC Place roof ($500 million). There was money for the Olympics (over $1 billion). There was money for smart meters ($900 million). There was money for new government network systems ($1.2 billion to Telus). There seems to be plenty of money for the CEO's of crown corporations like BC Ferries (David Hahn's pension value - over $10 million). The fact is that the government is using the deficit that it created as an excuse to take money away from public services and the people who provide them. The money is there. It is a matter of priorities.

It is simply unfair to make one group of workers pay for a deficit created by tax cuts to other people and corporations. Private sector workers are seeing increases. Other public sector workers are seeing increases (for example, Vancouver police with 8.8% over 33 months). Why should one group be singled out? Moreover how is it fair to make middle income earners pay for tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the wealthy and corporations? It just isn't.

Myth #2: The 'net zero' wage freeze is fair because it impacts all public sector workers

Reality #2: Only those workers covered by the Public Sector Employer's Council are impacted, and that does not include all public sector workers. Fire fighters are not under 'net zero'. Police are not under 'net zero'. Even school Superintendents are not under 'net zero'. Nurses are not under 'net zero' because they negotiated in 2009, supposedly before the 'net zero' mandate was implemented, but certainly at the height of the recession. How is it fair that these workers can negotiate increases and other workers can't?

Myth #3: BC teachers already have high salaries

Reality #3: After five years of university training, BC teachers begin with a wage in the low $40's, if they are full time. Many teachers only get part time work for the first 3-5 years of their career. It takes ten years of full time work to reach the maximum salary, which is about $75,000 for most teachers. BC teachers rank 8th in Canada compared to teachers in other provinces. A teacher in BC earns on average $20,000 less than a comparably experienced teacher in Alberta and $15,000 less than one in Ontario. Yet BC has the highest cost of living and the highest housing prices in the country (http://www.theprovince.com/business/City+house+prices+continue+ascent/5943834/story.html).

Myth #4: 'Net zero' isn't a pay cut, so it is fair

Reality #4: In September, when the new school year began, year over year inflation was at 3.2% according to the Consumer Price Index. When teachers got their first paycheque of the year, they had 3.2% less buying power. This is what matters. This January, teachers, along with other workers, will see increases to their CPP payments, their EI premiums, and their MSP premiums. Many contracts have automatic cost of living increases, but ours does not. Without any increase, teachers will fall behind.

Myth #5: Teachers are asking for too much

Reality #5: Teachers want to keep up with inflation. Teachers want to catch up with their colleagues in other provinces. Teachers took four years of zero increases since 1998. Teachers traded salary for smaller class sizes and those class size provisions were later eliminated. It is perfectly reasonable to ask for cost of living increases and wage adjustments to catch up with our Canadian colleagues.

Myth #6: Teachers are asking for $2 billion

Reality #6: The true number is probably many times less. BCPSEA (the employer) made many erroneous assumptions in order to come up with a hyper-inflated costing number. For example, they assumed that every single teacher would take their full bereavement leave entitlement every single year. In fact, teachers often take bereavement leave once or twice a decade or once or twice in their whole career. They assumed every teacher would take extra sick days if they were available. In fact, we know from Statistics Canada that teachers take an average of 7.7 days per year which is already less than their entitlement, so increased entitlement would only be used by a small percentage of teachers who become very ill. The assumptions used by BCPSEA were unrealistic and result in highly inflated costing estimates. They are not justified and do not reflect the true cost of the proposals teachers have put forward.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A year in review: waking the sleeping giant

Photograph by Richard Hurd via Flickr
How apropo. At noon today, halfway through the first working day of the year, Canada's top CEO's had already earned an average worker's salary. This little statistical nugget seems so emblematic of the year passed, and the year ahead.
In 2011, my first blog post was titled: A new year, a new attack on teachers? Kevin Falcon had just floated the idea of "merit pay" for teachers during the Liberal leadership campaign. How a year changes things.

But only a few short days later, a dictator was toppled with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak by popular protests. And although this event took place on the other side of the world, the inspiration of "people power" taking on a decades long dictator was euphoric. It also spread like wildfire.

Shortly after hundreds of thousands filled Tahrir square in Egypt, tens of thousands occupied the state capitol building in Wisconsin to protest attacks on collective bargaining rights. Foremost in these protests were teachers.

The message from Wisconsin teachers was a foreshadowing of the fall and the Occupy movement. The main focus of the Wisconsin protests was not the actual cuts to pensions and health premiums, but more generally an attack on the middle class and union bargaining rights. I remember my surprise, hearing a speech from a Wisconsin teacher at the British Columbia Teachers Federation Annual General Meeting in March. She talked about class politics. The middle class. The working class. She talked about the assault on what workers in the US and Canada and so many parts of the world have spent the previous century fighting for - decent wages, good pensions, working conditions, health care. Just those things that every citizen ought to have. And she talked about how unions were integral to obtaining these rights and benefits.

Closer to home the summertime brought the culmination of our own populist movement, the HST recall campaign. Again, the themes of economic fairness and democratic rights were evident. Peoples' anger at how the government hid their intentions prior to the election was just as great as the frustration that the impact of the tax is disproportionately high for low income earners.  The HST was the last straw for BC residents who have seen tax fairness decline over the decade with significant increases to user fees. The BC government now collects more revenues from medical services (MSP) premiums than it does from corporate income tax. See the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative for a discussion on the erosion of tax fairness: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/BC%20Office/2011/10/bccfall2011.pdf

Fast forward to October, and the incredible (or should I use my daughter's word of the year - "epic")  demonstrations and occupations protesting the vast and ever increasing disparity in wealth, power and opportunity between the 99% and the ultra-rich 1%. Not in my lifetime has there been a worldwide coordinated demonstration on such a scale and in so many countries. Finally, the issues of income inequality and the influence of money on politics have come to the forefront and even mainstream media acknowledge the impact this movement has had on public debate. See, for example, the CBC commentary - "The year capitalism became a dirty word in the US": http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/12/29/f-rfa-macdonald-capitalism.html

In education news, 2011 saw the awakening in the US to the disastrous failures of the education "reforms" instituted by George Bush and continued by Barack Obama. Progressive parents and educators have finally reached the mainstream in countering the "No Child Left Behind" agenda. The US public received a shock with the suicide of a Los Angeles teacher after the local newspaper published teacher rankings based on student test scores. Americans are finally looking at the role of poverty and outside school factors in student educational outcomes. With Charter schools unable to provide a panacea for failing students, US educators and parents are beginning to "occupy" their school boards and state governments and to contest failed "accountability" policies. Some Americans are even looking to Finland as an example of a very different type of reform agenda, based on respect and autonomy for teachers. See Diane Ravitch for an excellent review: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/sep/29/school-reform-failing-grade/

Unfortunately, this was also the year that some Canadian politicians tried to adopt many of these failed US education reform ideas. It began with Kevin Falcon's "merit pay" proposal, and the year ended with BC teachers facing unprecedented demands from the BC government for teacher contract concessions on job security rights and professional autonomy provisions. The BC government also refused to restore class size provisions that a provincial Supreme Court justice ruled were unconstitutionally removed in 2002. See my earlier blog post about this topic: http://staffroomconfidential.blogspot.com/2011/11/19th-century-labour-relations-for-21st.html

In both the US and Canada the myth of technology and education continued unabated. In BC, the government has propsed "BYOD" - bring your own device - so that BC students will keep up with so-called 21st century skills. This is a recipe for a failed education initiative and exposes a government that "talks the talk" but doesn't want to spend a dime (or even a penny, for that matter). In the US, the drive of budget cuts has sped up the trend towards "blended" and "online" learning - whether they make pedagogical sense or not. Following Florida's lead, several States have now mandated that every public school student take at least one of their courses online through a ditributed learning program. This is the logical extension of the erosion of education budgets. An online American teacher (working for a privatized distributed learning company such as K12 Inc) can typically be assigned over 100 students compared to the classroom numbers of 20 - 40.  See this excellent article published in The Nation, for example: http://www.truth-out.org/how-online-learning-companies-bought-americas-schools/1321627144

But despite these setbacks, the year overwhelmingly was characterized by an upswing in debate and action on a host of issues including quality public schooling. It has been an inspiration to see so many take so much action to work for a more just society. The decade of apathy is over. The sleeping giant has awoken.