Thursday, March 7, 2013

Will School Board budget woes lead to more inequity and privatization?

The news from the province for School Boards in BC was another disappointment. A "no increase" budget combined with inflation, rising pension costs, PST conversions costs and ten years of chronic under-funding means another round of cuts, layoffs, school closures and reduced services.

Not surprisingly, amid these budget woes, some turn to the private or "choice" options. Parents turn to private schools who can offer class sizes of 10 - 20 while public schools are double this number. Or if they can't afford it, but they can drive across town and pay student fees, they look for the "programs of choice" that segregate the more affluent public school families into particular schools and particular programs. This week's Fraser Institute rankings showed pretty clearly the growing socio-economic divisions in BC schools. Unsurprisingly, private schools topped the lists, where classes are small and resources are high. Next came the schools of choice and schools in wealthier Districts and neighborhoods. Last on the list are the "inner city schools" - where poverty is often at crisis levels. Rather than being the great equalizer, schools in a world of parent "choice" serve to further stratify and segregate students. Growing inequality just keeps growing.

Just as disturbing is the trend towards privatization by some in the education community. More and more school districts are looking towards fees, fundraising, fee-based international student programs and even public/private partnerships as a way to make up for woefully inadequate public funds.

One example is found in a public survey put together by the Maple Ridge school District ( In it they ask if there is community support for the following:

  • Increase or introduce fees for optional programs (e.g. academies, band, bussing)
  • Promote public private partnerships 
  • Should the school district pursue public - private partnership opportunities in any of the following areas? Advertising, playgrounds, sponsorships, naming of facilities 
Or, they ask, should they increase class sizes, reduce special education teachers/assistants, or close schools.

What a false dichotomy! It is unfortunate that Maple Ridge has even posed these questions. The clear answer is to re-invest in public education through adequate public funding. The way there is through advocacy and communities and elected officials working together to pressure the provincial government to do so. If Maple Ridge and every other District facing funding shortfalls had joined with Cowichan to submit a deficit budget based on the genuine needs of the school district, perhaps the education budget today would look different.

Chronic under-funding is not just about money. The current Liberal government has pursued this manufactured "crisis" to lend legitimacy to private options. But this path has only one end - quality schooling for the few, and ghetto-ized schools for the many. Rather than follow this dead end, I hope Trustees and others in the education world will take the opportunity of the coming provincial election and the coming District budget cycle to stand up and speak up for public education.

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