Tuesday, February 28, 2012

BC Teachers' Day of Action: It's about priorities...

Here is the speech I gave yesterday at our Rally to support teachers for a fair deal:

Thank you so much everyone for being here today. Some of you are teachers, some of you are fellow trade unionists, some are parents, some concerned citizens. All are here to support fully funded public education and the fair treatment of teachers. Thank you so much for being here. Your support means the world to us.

Today, teachers are protesting across British Columbia to make this government listen. From Prince Rupert, to Nelson, to Kamloops, to Surrey, teachers are protesting.

We have been brought to this point by a government that refuses to listen. A government that thinks it can simply impose its will on teachers, on workers and on citizens. A government that is threatening, for the third time in a decade, to impose a contract on teachers. A government that is refusing to respect the democratic right of teachers to a free and fairly negotiated collective agreement. A government that has stolen three billion dollars from our education system.

What do teachers want? Teachers want to be treated with respect and dignity. Teachers want a fair and freely negotiated collective agreement. Teachers want a fair salary increase, we want class sizes back and our rights to bargain class size back, and we want an end to a public school system that is chronically underfunded.

Minister Abbott has other plans. Minister Abbott wants to impose a “net zero” contract on teachers. Minister Abbott wants to impose draconian concessions, taking away hard won rights to seniority, job security and due process. Minister Abbott wants to eliminate class size averages, and remove any requirements to ensure classes have suitable composition.

This government says they have no money - not even for cost of living increases for public sector workers. But this government has plenty of money when it comes to their friends, when it comes to their corporate backers, when it comes to the one percent. This government found the money to give twenty nine percent pay increases to MLAs, and cost of living increases every year. The money was there to pay BC Ferries CEO over a million dollars a year. A billion dollars was found to install smart meters, and another billion will go to Telus to re-wire government buildings. But when it comes to BCs public sector workers, when it comes to our public services, the coffers are dry.

The Minister says he will be introducing a “package” of bills this week. One part of the package will likely be the governments response to class size and class composition. Last year, the Supreme Court of BC found that in 2002, this government illegally removed class size limits from teachers’ collective agreement. Then, as now, this government decided that it alone had the right to unilaterally rip up contracts. In one weekend, they stole teachers democratic rights, and they robbed our public schools of three billion dollars of funding. Kids and teachers have paid the price.

Despite the Court ruling, this Minister has refused to work with teachers to find a solution. He has refused to restore the funding taken in 2002. He has refused to restore teachers’ democratic rights.

Instead, last week, this government hinted that it will be removing even what few protections we have to ensure that classes are educationally sound and properly resourced. The Minister said he is thinking of removing class size averages and the Minister said he is thinking of removing class composition limits.

These few guarantees to properly resourced schools and classrooms were won by teachers in 2005, when we walked out for two weeks. Now, in the face of a court ruling chastising the government’s actions, this same government wants to take them away.

And this government doesn’t just want to impose net zero on teachers, they want to impose net zero on the whole school system. In last week’s budget, the Minister announced his thirty million dollar fund for classrooms. But what he didn’t announce so publicly is that the same budget will take one hundred and thirty million from existing school board budgets. That is a net loss of one hundred million dollars, packaged up to look like something for students and classrooms. But teachers, parents and citizens will not be so easily fooled by such smoke and mirrors. We know that education funding has fallen from twenty five percent of the total government budget to less than fifteen. We know what this means for kids and for classrooms. And we are prepared to do what it takes to ensure schools and classrooms have the resources they need.

I read today a post on Kids in Victoria, a parent forum to discussion children’s issues. One parent eloquently described the type of impact that a decade of cuts has had on our school system:
In my opinion our children are being affected much more severely by what the government funding cuts are doing to education in our province than the job action itself. For example:

- Class composition and size affect the learning environment for everyone. The wide range of academic ability and behavioural issues in classrooms and the sheer amount of students per class has a daily affect on the learning environment. Because teachers are not provided with the specialty services needed to support the children who require more attention everyone suffers.

- Early intervention support is not adequate. Funding for the grade one Reading Recovery program at our school supports a maximum of eight participants. There are at least 14 children who desperately need this service this year.

- Learning Assistance programs are suffering. At our school those who are fortunate enough to qualify for support receive a measly twenty minute session twice a week.

- Counselling Services are almost non-existent. There is one elementary counsellor for all of School District 63. School staff try to find outside support for students that the school is unable to help but are met with long wait lists and costs that are, in some cases, prohibitive.

- There are no programs to support gifted children. High level learners are not being challenged to meet their full potential in the classroom because there are no programs or funding available.

- Parents are being relied on to fund essentials. Currently our Parent Advisory Council is attempting to raise over $25,000 to help pay for basics like text books, classroom technology, art and physical education programs and library books. Items that used to be covered by our tax dollars are now being paid for by chocolate and magazine sales.

I am willing to give up written report cards and no field trips if the teachers can make progress on ANY of these issues.

The stakes are high. This government wants to yet again run rough-shod on teachers democratic rights and further undermine the wonderful school system we have all built together. But collectively we will force this government to listen.

Thank you again to everyone who took the time out of their busy day to be here. You support is so appreciated.

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