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 ( 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 (, "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 (

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.

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