Sunday, March 25, 2012

From public to private: a subtle path

There was some nasty commentary this week in the Province because a BC teacher compared Bill 22 to Nazi germany. It was pretty ripe coming from a newspaper that had itself, a few short months earlier, compared teachers to Hitler in a cartoon. But despite the perhaps ill conceived comparison, the point the teacher was trying to make was valid - you don't go from good to bad in one fell swoop - you do it piecemeal.

In this case we are talking about the following transition: from a universal, quality, fully funded education system which provides every child an equal opportunity to succeed, to a market driven, privately operated system in which the quality of service varies according to the socio-economic class of the child's parents.

How does this transition happen? Incrementally, with a series of small policy changes that on their surface might seem good, or at least not too bad.

In the US, we can follow this transition from the introduction of the federal No Child Left Behind laws just over ten years ago, to the state of the union today, where whole cities, like New Orleans, no longer have any publicly run schools.

In BC, I would put the starting point of this transition back in 1992. This was the first year there were significant budget cuts to local school boards. This change initiated an incremental process whereby the percentage of our budget going to schools has dropped from 26% to a new low this year of 15%.

The second step was the imposition of provincial bargaining with the Public Education Labour Relations Act in the mid-90's. This took voice away from local school Boards and local teachers' associations to work together to meet individual community needs.

The third step came in 2001, when the newly elected BC Liberal government made education an "essential service". This took away rights of teachers to advocate not only on their own behalf but on behalf of improvements to the school system.

A giant blow came in 2002, and had three parts. First, all class size and class composition provisions were unilaterally removed. Second, parents were allowed to register for schools outside their geographic catchment area. While seemingly benign, this has been the single greatest factor in winning parents to a model of school "choice" where some kids win and some lose. It was the greatest blow in terms of a public system with equity and fairness as basic principles. Lastly, 2002 saw a wholesale change in how special education was funded, eliminating most targeted funding. This change led to a total loss in dollars, to the loss of 700 specialist teachers this decade, and to the rights of individual children with designations to specific levels of service.

In 2003, for the first time the Ministry of Education published Foundation Skills Test results on a public web site, and the Fraser Institute published their now infamous school rankings. Along with the opening of catchment areas, this solidified the school choice ethos. Parents began selecting schools based on their rankings and schools began the transition of separating into "have" schools  and "have not" schools.

The teachers action in 2005 caused a brief reprieve. After a two week illegal walkout, class sizes of 30 were reinstated and class composition limits (soft caps - they are often broken) were reintroduced.

Which brings us to today, and Bill 22. In my mind, this is a turning point, just as NCLB was in the US. Bill 22 not only reenacts the elimination of class size and class composition limits, but most importantly it is an act of government than runs rough shod on the Constitution, and on democratic rights of teachers. If it is not repealed, it provides a blue print for future government of how to impose their will regardless of public or professional opposition. For this reason, it must be stopped.


  1. Do we have data on the drop in student enrollment in 3 and %?

  2. Thanks for clocking the NDP as the regime that brought us the per-student accounting model. I understand, however, that schools were running on a corporate model earlier than that.

    For example, in the past, if a Vancouver school needed some windows repaired, the administrator would ask the secretary to contact the maintenance office. A crew would constantly tour the district and schools could get on the tour list. The repairs would be done when the crew got there, sometimes on time, sometimes not. The crew would make a note of what was fixed and what was not, and admin or the secretary would sign to acknowledge the work done. This service was provided as part of a district's responsibility to routinely keep schools in good condition.

    Now every repair request must be paid for out of the school budget in advance. Costs for repairs are apparently listed on a district document. While the repair crew may well still tour the district, the workers won't start work at a school until funds are transferred.

    And then there is the office supply ordering process. Once upon a time, schools got a whack of gear in September, and could top up as needed with a simple phone call to the stores department. Now so many of us have a story about the school Costco/Office Depot/Staples card, or the day everyone got a photocopier code...

    When did this start?

  3. I think that the "beginning" goes back to the So-Creds under Bill Vander Zalm. It was the mid-1980's when local school boards were stripped of the right to set their own taxation levels, and all funds were pooled into the provincial treasury and doled out from there. It was also at this time that principals were taken out of the BCTF and we became a union. So it wasn't all bad!