Thursday, October 8, 2015

The rise and fall (?) of the BCTF

10344213_925733314118798_3056206777592489606_oJust over one year ago, BC teachers returned to class from what was the longest teacher strike in Canadian history. Teachers, upset with over a decade of deteriorating funding and particularly with large and complex classrooms, were unwilling to accept a contract offer which simply maintained the status quo. In one of the highest strike mandates in the BCTF’s history, they chose to strike.
This was not something new for BC teachers. In fact, this was the third strike in a decade. Teachers walked off the job for two weeks in 2005, and for three days in 2012. Teachers in BC have also refused to administer standardized tests, been on various types of work to rule for multi-month periods, and conducted a wide variety of local actions to push for various improvements. It is not for nothing that the union has a reputation for militancy.
On one level, the longest teachers’ strike in Canadian history is a testament to the determination of teachers to win a better deal both for students and themselves as workers. But to truly learn the lessons of a decade of fighting neoliberal austerity, we need to take a realistic account of the many signs of weakness throughout the most recent strike. I believe it is fair to characterize the outcome as a loss – after five weeks, the government essentially starved teachers out, and the resulting contract was little different from what was on offer prior to the strike. The key issue of class size was not resolved. The signing bonus was a small fraction of lost wages. The wage gain was half a percent. Disappointingly, the contract term of six years gives government a free hand to pursue more corporate education reform with little room for teacher resistance. Many teachers understandably wonder if the strike actually improved our bargaining position and I suspect future strong strike mandates will be harder to attain. I also believe it is fair to say that this most recent strike shows significant weaknesses not only in the BCTF strategy, but also in the internal democratic decision making processes that influenced how the strike progressed.
While the BCTF is often lauded as one of the most militant unions in the province, and is even referenced by newly reformed teachers unions in the US such as the Chicago Teachers Union as a source of inspiration, the most recent strike calls into question whether that militancy is in fact on the wane. It is a pressing issue both to have a realistic assessment of the strike, and also to understand the processes within the union that have changed. Specifically, like the CTU, the BCTF is a union in which a left wing, ‘grass roots’ caucus sought and was able to win power of the union. But the trajectory of the union in the fifteen years since should act as a warning to the dangers of seeing electoral success within the union as the most important factor in influencing the union as a whole.
The 2014 strike began as work to rule campaign. Teachers refused to administer province wide tests, attend staff meetings, do lunchtime supervision. When teachers increased pressure with rotating full strike days, the government responded with what they called a partial lockout. Teachers’ pay was reduced by 10% and teachers were told to leave school property during non-instructional time. Frustrated with the lock-out, teachers chose to fully withdraw services in late June. The initial two weeks created limited pressure as the government was able to win a case at the labour relations board declaring secondary school marks an essential service and the BCTF instructed teachers to comply.
From the start of the walkout, the leadership of the BCTF viewed the strike as short term. At general meetings, the message was always that we would have a deal by the end of June. Early on, they had to acknowledge that the strike fund could only provide three days of strike pay. The union, in effect, constructed artificial deadlines that set specific expectations in teachers minds. Rather than prepare for the worst, the union promised the best. In tandem, the union, very early, both moderated its package, and called for mediation. To teachers, this was sold as a way to appear moderate and win parental support. But the leadership drastically underestimated the staying power and strategy of government.
No deal came in June and requests for mediation were rebuffed. In late august, government announced they would provide $40 a day childcare stipends for parents if the strike continued into the fall. While ridiculed by the BCTF leadership (and others) as a cynical ploy, there is no doubt that the tactic was effective in buying the government time to let teachers lose significant amounts of pay. By the middle of September, after three months without pay, many teachers were feeling very financially insecure.
Meanwhile, at a delegated provincial meeting, the union decided to remain on strike, but with no specific plan of action. The BCTF executive committee met during the first week of September, while the strike resumed, and decided to hold a membership vote on a call for binding mediation. Many teachers viewed this as a rather bizarre decision. It was fairly clearly simply a media tactic rather than a real engagement of members in decision making about the course of the strike. No further provincial meetings were called, and no mechanisms for input into the strike strategy were available. Unsurprisingly, the government rejected the proposal.
In the third week of September, five weeks into the strike, teachers were advised a deal was in process. There would be closed door round the clock meetings, but no details or information was shared. It was only after the deal was signed, and the vote completed, that Canada’s national main stream newspaper, the Globe and Mail, ran the exclusive story of how Canadian Labour Congress leader Hassan Yusuf orchestrated a private meeting between Christy Clark and BCTF president Jim Iker. The meeting produced the outlines of a very tepid deal – a way out for the BCTF leadership. Wages remained essentially the same as the government offer in June. Class size – the most important issue on the table – was addressed through a class size fund that effectively meant a repetition of the shell game that previous funds were known to be – money given in one form, but taken in another through reductions in core funding. On the contentious issue of how to deal with a court victory should the class size issue be subsequently won by teachers through an ongoing court battle, the government agreed only to re-open the issue prior to the term end of the agreement. Teachers winced as premier Christie Clark appeared on television gloating of the six year deal within the terms of the public sector mandate.
425891_398041073554694_76793212_nBC teachers are no strangers to job action. In 2005, teachers were on strike for two weeks, and in 2012, for three days. Yet despite this being our longest strike, it wasn’t our most militant or most confident. In 2005, teachers struck after government imposed a rollover contract through legislation. The 2005 strike was very high stakes and very remarkable, because one day into the strike the government went to court and received a contempt order. Teachers were in violation of the law. Yet teachers remained on the picket lines for two full weeks. Although the strike ended with mediation, teachers never asked for mediation. Instead, government used it as a way out of what because an increasingly impossible situation as the spectre and reality of solidarity strikes from other public sector unions loomed. The  union was consistent in saying we would not hand over control of bargaining to a third party, and although we eventually did, we entered the mediation process in a far superior position. All of these factors led to what was arguably a moderate win in very difficult circumstances – $20 million for the teachers pension fund, significant wage increases for teachers on call, and the reintroduction of very limited class size limits via legislation, in the form of Bill 33.  Moreover, the pressure from the strike I believe also impacted the subsequent negotiations, in 2006, which resulted in wage increases that outpaced much of the rest of the public sector.
The internal union processes in 2005 looked considerably different than those of 2014. The discussion of the need to defy back to work legislation began at provincial delegate meetings as early as 2004. Motions came from locals and individuals for actions to prepare the membership for a fight. Even the issue of a potential sell out from leadership was addressed by the delegates prior to the strike. By 2004, two other unions in the health care sector had had their strikes called off by union leaders after government intervention. Concerned that teachers should make this decision themselves, delegates successfully passed a motion that would require a full membership vote to end job action, not just to ratify a  contract.
Sadly, in 2014, this new constitutional rule was misused to force an early vote on a deal when members had only hours to actually look at it. Frustration at the short time frame for ratification was widespread. This was combined with straight out misinformation. For example, the BCTF, in a message to all teachers and in the media, claimed that the new teacher fund would mean 850 new teaching positions. This was an unrealistic and misleading estimate. The BCTFs own research on the previous classroom ‘fund’ showed that it was a shell game. The new money simply replaced other money taken away through taxes on school boards such as medical plan premium increases, carbon taxes, and zero inflation budgets. In a subsequent research report, published six months after the end of the strike, the BCTF reported a net loss of 9 teaching positions despite the new education fund. Perhaps the epitome of the change in the BCTF was the way information was communicated to membership. Most membership meetings consisted of a video live-stream projected in a hockey arena to thousands of teachers directly from from BCTF President Jim Iker. This was hardly a mechanism to allow bottom up decision making, engagement or activism.
Why was there such a change in tactics and strategy, and diminished democratic participation of  the BCTF membership? The BCTF and its local unions have a long history of militancy. The very first teachers in the British empire to strike, were in Victoria, BC, in 1917. A province wide strike took place in 1971 to push for pension improvements. In 1987 teachers won full legal bargaining rights and in the late eighties and early nineties waged three fantastic rounds of bargaining with local school boards that won hundreds of provisions including class size limits. Teachers played a central role in the provincial solidarity movement of 1983. During this period of radicalism, two internal caucuses developed. Teachers viewpoint took a variety of progressive positions such as advocating for full unionization.  Its composition was purposefully grassroots members and the caucus name was a reference to the viewpoint of teachers in opposition to that of administrators, who were in the union at the time and often held many of the union’s official positions. Viewpoint was counterposed to ‘TUF’ – teachers for a united federation, who arguably represented the status quo, or a more conservative and bread and butter unionism. Members of TUF tended to dominate the BCTF executive committee.
During the eighties and nineties, Teachers Viewpoint functioned as an effective, grassroots activist rank and file organization and organized on the convention floor for many democratic reforms in how the union functioned, as well as for a wide variety of social justice issues.
But a significant change took place in the mid-nineties that disrupted teacher bargaining. In the mid 1990’s, in response to the perceived successes of public sector unions in the late eighties,  an NDP government imposed a scheme of provincial bargaining with the Public Education Labour Relations Act (PELRA). All BCTF locals, who up until this time had negotiated locally with school boards, were forced into a single provincial bargaining unit controlled by the provincial federation. While no doubt there were other factors in play in the erosion of grassroots organizing (this was, after all, the period of growing neoliberal attacks on all types of bargaining), this proved to be a death blow to the rank and file-ism that had developed within union locals who bargained directly with school boards. While rank-and-file organizing doesn’t depend on bargaining structures, it is, nevertheless, significantly more difficult to build rank-and-file networks amongst a membership of 40,000 across a massive geographic area than in a local of a thousand within a single city. A bargaining team of five chosen province wide is significantly more remote from the membership than one chosen from the local high school that teachers see in the staff room or at least in the local union hall.
The changes were immediately evident in the first round of provincial bargaining in 1998. This round was significant for two reasons. Firstly, it created a rift between the BCTF and other provincial public sector unions, because the BCTF accepted a government imposed zero wage mandate thereby setting the stage for other public sector unions to do the same. In exchange, teachers did negotiate province wide provincial class size limits. The second important feature of this bargaining round was the way it was conducted in closed door meetings directly between BCTF president Kit Krieger and government. This lack of democratic process and transparency lead to the defeat of the ‘TUF’ caucus and Kit Krieger lost the presidency.
At about the same time, Teachers Viewpoint shifted to a focus on electoralism within the union with the aim of winning control of the BCTF executive. Viewpoint members formed a new electoral caucus, Coalition, which ran a full slate for the executive positions.
Coalition managed to win the BCTF Executive for over a decade, from the late nineties, right up until the 2013 elections. Teachers Viewpoint, although formally in existence, now does little other than act as electoral support for Coalition. Through the 2000s, the position of the Coalition caucus, while remaining in favour of strike action, has consistently moved more and more towards alternative strategies in the face of an openly neoliberal government – namely the courts and support for the NDP in the hopes of changing government.
During this period, government used every tool available to smash the power of the BCTF. In 2001, it enacted essential service legislation which severely limits teachers right to strike. In 2002, it unilaterally removed the provincial class size limits from teacher collective agreements. In three rounds of bargaining (2001, 2004 and 2011) it used back to work legislation to end job action. Once, during this period, teachers stood their ground and stayed out on strike despite the imposition of fines for what was deemed “illegal” strike activity. These two weeks of militancy, in 2005, were in no small measure the result of many members of the Viewpoint caucus engaging in rank-and-file organizing to push for action regardless of the legal threats. Two decades of organizing and a militant orientation provided a coordinated group who argued successfully at provincial meetings for the necessity of action. The result was a strike that ended when government came begging to the union for mediation and the first contract with an openly hostile government that included some improvements.
10472085_925698867455576_4742598241421019194_n-2Yet the 2005 strike did not fully address the single most fundamental issue – the reinstatement of class size limits. Instead of staying on the picket line in 2005 for as long as it took to win back class size, the BCTF pursued an extended court battle over the legality of the contract stripping. Initiated in 2002, the court battle has yet to be determinative now in 2015. Having won twice at the Supreme Court of BC, a recent loss at the BC Court of Appeals has meant a further request for appeal at the Supreme Court of Canada is in process. During this time, an entire generation of students have been through Kindergarten to graduation without class size limits in place.
Concurrently, the union has also focused heavily on a provincial electoral strategy. Although officially non-partisan, there are deep ties between the layer of leadership and staff in the BCTF and the NDP. Both David Chudnovsky, who beat Kit Krieger in the late nineties, and Jinny Sims, president during the 2005 strike, went on to represent the NDP in government as a provincial MLA and federal MP respectively. Couched as an issue oriented approach – make public education a vote determining issue – the millions of dollars appropriated from the strike fund over four provincial election campaigns did little to even convince the NDP to take pro-teacher positions in their platform. The provincial NDP has still never committed to reinstating the class size limits to the collective agreement nor even to ending the practice of publicly funding private schools.
In the lead up to the 2005 strike, there was a healthy debate within the union about what strategy was needed to regain class size language. The initial response in 2002, a one day strike immediately following the enactment of Bill 28 which stripped the language from the collective agreement, was often ridiculed, as failing the test to be the “first day” of action as opposed to the “one day” of action which it turned out to be. It was this sentiment, along with the grassroots organizing developed through the previous two decades, that enabled delegates to win the argument and votes in 2005 to stay out despite the union finding itself in contempt of court.
Looking back, 2005 was a high point. It was the organized work of militants to win arguments at the floor of general meetings. It was a layer of local activists within schools and local meetings who won a vast majority of teachers to the position that we should defy back to work legislation and a court order. Yet since that round of bargaining, despite a commitment to striking and remarkably high strike votes, the leadership has advocated caution. And the network of militant activists has all but disappeared.
With each successive strike, the union has exhibited more caution and less militancy. With no organized rank and file movement from below, militants did not win a plan of strike action in 2012 in response to Bill 22 when the government imposed a collective agreement. Instead, teachers went back to school and engaged in a frustrating and divisive work to rule campaign.  And in the most recent strike, despite staying out for a significant period of time, teachers were instructed by the union to concede on practically every opportunity to create pressure. This included agreeing to abide by a Labour Relations Board order to submit final grades, refusing to picket third party sites such as school construction, failing to picket out CUPE members during the lunchtime lock-out, and failing to picket or disrupt provision of services to international students. Rather than look for ways to increase pressure on government, the union appeared desperate to end the strike as quickly as it could by seeking mediation. Moreover the union’s new style of “member engagement” was typified by the mass meetings in hockey arenas where several thousand teachers would sit silently as they watched president Jim Iker deliver a message via live-stream broadcast. As one teacher aptly put it, “I might as well be at home watching on my own TV”.
What are the lessons to be learned? For teachers in BC, it is that we will need a new grass roots rank and file movement both in the teachers unions and across public sector and private sector unions if we are to build the kind of actions and solidarity necessary to push back on neoliberalism.  And for anyone in the labour movement, it is yet one more prescient example of why labour activists need to orient toward building rank and file momentum. This means working on campaigns that engage working members to get active to win improvements rather than focusing on what the leadership of our unions are or are not doing.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Just more teacher bashing: Deconstructing the Ontario report card debacle

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The mainstream media wasted no time this week to engage in a round of teacher bashing at the news that some school boards would not be issuing report cards in response to teacher job action. Teachers, who are in a work to rule campaign, have produced reports but are not inputting the data into computer systems. Apparently, and unsurprisingly, school principals and administrators just didn’t want to do this extra work, so they cancelled the reports. While these boards have now relented and agreed to produce the reports, the incident provides an opportunity to look at they dynamics of the teacher job action and reflect on why and how both parents and workers should be standing up for teachers.

Across Canada, the US, and even in large parts of the rest of the world, public school teachers have been on the front lines of the fight against austerity. Teachers tend to be highly unionized, are typically a female dominated workforce, work in one of the last standing mostly public institutions (along with healthcare), and play a key role in the transmission of social values to the next generation. All these features make teachers a ready target for neoliberal austerity measures. Where better to smash unions, privatize, instil individualistic and pro-market ideas and put women in their place?

Ontario’s teachers, just like in BC last year, are fighting the austerity agenda. They want smaller classes so they can provide better services, they want to maintain their incomes and purchasing power, they want to stop government legislative interference and they want the autonomy to do their job in the interests of their students.

As Barrie teacher and activist Gord Bambrick describes:

“The main objective as I understand it right now is to stop a total contract strip. Bill 122 was created last year to allow bargaining on two levels, locally with school boards and provincially with the provincial government.

On the provincial front, we are fighting now to protect our working conditions and students’ learning conditions, especially around the issues of class sizes and teacher workload. The Ontario Liberal government, headed by Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals, is pressing for the removal of class size caps and a significant increase to teachers’ duty time. They also want to continue wage freezes imposed by legislation in 2012.

The school boards want to remove protections around teacher prep time and school hours, giving principals more authority to delegate tasks. The boards would also like to change the teacher performance appraisal process and conduct external assessments of students. This, of course, significantly undermines teacher professionalism.”

Deconstructing the report card issue, we can see all of the standard teacher bashing tactics at play. Teachers tried to take full strike action, but were ordered back by the labour board. So they have chosen a job action designed to minimally impact student learning and maximally impact the functioning of school boards. They have provided assessment of their students, but not in the format usually required.

In response, managers (principals) and senior managers and even some school trustees made the decision to simply not do the extra work and blame teachers for not producing the reports. This exposes the presumption that it is reasonable to ask teachers to do more and more work (every extra student in a class is hours of marking time), but not those at the top ends of the hierarchy. It also shows that some layers of management are all too happy to publicly blame teachers when they themselves are not willing to do the job. A remarkably similar thing happened last year during the BC teacher strike when teachers refused to mark provincial exams. The ministry took the written response questions out of the exam to save administrators having to do the marking, despite the fact that teachers were on full strike and administrators were sitting in empty schools.

In addition to showing how government and media use the blame the teacher narrative to distract us from the real issues at play, the report card spat also highlights a more subtle, but equally important feature of the global education reform movement being imposed by neoliberals everywhere.

Both in Ontario and previously in BC, when teachers refused to complete report cards they were careful to continue to provide genuine assessment of the progress of learning. As the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario stated, “teachers have fully assessed your child’s progress”.

In BC, when report cards were not issued, teachers invited parents to speak in person about their child’s progress and many sent home anecdotal remarks directly to the parents, but not in report card form. In Ontario, teachers have submitted progress reports to principals to review and provide to parents. The reality is that teachers are doing what most parents want and expect – a genuine and thoughtful reflection on how their child is doing in school. In my district in BC when we did not provide formal reports there was only a single parent complaint out of 19,000 students.

Yet the corporate education reformers balk at the idea of no formal report going home and into the database. It is not teaching and learning that is central, but the ranking and sorting function that data driven reporting provides. The function that report cards should provide is communication to parents about their child’s learning successes and struggles. But all too often they become first a training ground for children and parents to rate each other and later for employers and post secondary schools to accept or reject them. Like standardized tests, they become a tool to privilege the privileged and stream the rest back into the socio-economic category from where they came.

When it comes down to it, formal report cards don’t matter. What really matters are the teaching conditions in schools and the communication with parents to enable students to meet their potential. My favourite quote this week came from parent Erika Shaker, who put it like this, “when it comes to the delay or absence of this year’s report cards, I would like to make something clear. I. Couldn’t. Care. Less.”

I asked teacher and activist Gord Bambrick how parents and workers can show support to teachers and oppose the divisive message from the government. He said it clearly:

“It’s hard for parents and other concerned citizens to cut through the disinformation coming from the government and mainstream media. Teachers are usually characterized as selfish ‘hostage takers’ despite the fact that they are fighting to protect children’s learning conditions. I would encourage citizens to speak up against the austerity agenda whenever they get the chance – in the blogs, on social media, and with a letter to their trustees and MPs. They could also get out and show support at the many protest activities that will surely be coming this autumn.”

Friday, May 1, 2015

The courts will not deliver smaller class sizes

Yesterday's BC Court of Appeal ruling against the BC Teachers' Federation was a disappointment to teachers and parents across the province. Many hoped that the court would uphold the trial judge's ruling that the actions of the BC government were bargaining in bad faith, and therefore unconstitutional, and therefore must be undone.

While the decision is a difficult pill to swallow, it should also be taken as a guide to strategy and tactics in how to protect and enhance our public services. While court rulings have sometimes prompted progressive change in how these services are administered, what they must provide, and how they are funded, they can just as easily defend and justify the actions of government. Ultimately, they are not the solution to a political problem. And the lessons of the thirteen year legal battle over class sizes in British Columbia should teach us that relying on the courts is not a winning strategy. After a decade of court battles, classes are as large as ever, funding on the decrease, and the teachers' strike fund depleted from legal costs.

Even if the Supreme Court of Canada agrees to hear an appeal (and this is not at all certain, given last year's statistic of only ten percent of cases granted leave to appeal), and even if the Supreme Court of Canada were to overturn the BC Court of Appeal decision, teachers would still be left to try and win back the stripped contract language through a new bargaining round. Given the disappointing results of the recent nine week strike, it is hard to picture teachers engaging in and winning a new strike with a still depleted strike fund and without much stronger, broader and more organized public support from parents, school trustees and the public.

The simple reality is that courts may give governments a slap on the wrist for failing to bargain in good faith, but they are not going to unilaterally remake government policy. And unions and the 99%, if we are to save and improve public services, have to stop looking to the court system as a saviour. Not only will the courts not deliver, but by putting our faith in the court system, we seriously undermine our own movement for change.

A take-away from this court decision is that if we want to win back class sizes, teachers will have to do it ourselves and with our natural allies - the parents and students and public who all benefit from a comprehensive, properly funded education system. Doing it ourselves means not expecting someone else to do it for us - not the courts, not the NDP. Governments and state institutions will play some role in the evolution of public services, but they do not initiate progressive change - they respond to the social movements and trade union movements that push them to do it.

The best thing about the recent teachers' strike was that it planted the seeds for building such a coordinated movement that involves teachers, parents and the community. The recent FACE rallies across BC over education funding were to some extent the organizational off spring of those seeds of solidarity. This is the trajectory we need to take to build a movement to win smaller classes, proper services for students with special needs, and a public school experience based on equity where every child gets educational opportunities as good as the best private school could offer.

Yet why weren't teachers out in the thousands for those education rallies? In part, because we have a mistaken belief that someone else is going to fix the problem for us. Our union has told us the courts will do it. The social democratic left tells workers to just get the right government elected, even though the NDP has never, in thirteen years, even promised to restore class sizes. Many in the classroom think the union can do it if we just elect the right leaders, hire the right bargaining team. But we need to look to ourselves.

Understandably teachers and many education activists feel disheartened and disappointed with the outcome of the last election, the outcome of the last strike, and now the outcome of this court decision. But the takeaway has to be that we must do more of grassroots, community based, teacher/parent/public social movement building. We must focus more on the tactics in the trade union movement that actually have the power to force change - the strike. And we must be sure that teachers and our union are so integrated with parents and community members that when we go on strike the combined pressure of teachers' withdrawal of services and massive public outrage at the degradation of public services pressures the government of whatever ideological stripe to reinvest in classrooms because it would be political suicide not to.

Let's not spend the next decade waiting for the courts to make smaller classes. They never will. Let's put our union dues in our strike fund, not the court system. Let's keep up the connections we've built with parents and the public and turn these into active, engaged, community based organizations. Let's build a new movement for smaller classes based on teachers, parents, student, school trustees and the public.

Pushing back neoliberal education reform is not going to be easy. But there are no shortcuts. It may seem daunting, tiring, and difficult, but the day to day work of grassroots, school and community based activism is what is necessary.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Solidarity key to protecting public education

Hundreds of parents, teachers and students will be protesting education cuts in BC on Sunday. Families Against Cuts to Education is hosting the protests in five BC communities after yet another round of budget cuts for school boards and increased costs surreptitiously delivered through increases to BC Hydro rates and Medical Services Premiums. This, when BC already provides $1000 less per student than the Canadian average for per pupil funding.

The parent initiated rallies are inspiring to see after so many years in which government has fostered divisions between parents and teachers. There is no question that if we are to push back and actually make improvements in our schools, we will need the solidarity of parents and teachers together. This has been undermined due to the "blame the teacher" narrative propagated by government and some sections of the media. But ironically, the latest education legislation of the BC Liberals targets three different sections of the education community. Bill 11 attacks student privacy rights, the independence of locally elected school boards, and the autonomy of teachers to identify and organize their professional development. Combined with a budget that required $29 million in "administrative" cuts - what Christy Clark called "low hanging fruit" - the stage is set for a united response against both the legislation and the budget cuts.

Interestingly, the three components of Bill 11 each, in their own way, demonstrate a different arm of the neoliberal monster.

The changes to student privacy comes in the wake of a fundamental shift in the treatment of student data in the province. The failure of the notorious BCeSIS - the first attempt at a province wide student data collection system - led only to an even larger and more pervasive system, about to be implemented this fall. MyEducationBC will centrally store student data and will collect significantly more information than previous student information systems. The shift to a centralized system, while not explicitly mandates, has been in practice when the BC government refused to accept an alternative proposed and developed by the Saanich school board. Thus every district in BC will be contributing to the "big data" collection of student information. MyEducationBC has more data fields, will be on more computers in more Districts, and will potentially allow massive student data collection by the government. Like other government data collection systems, it is unclear what this information will be used for. As critics point out, these systems violate the basic tenets of privacy protection - collect only what you need, identify your uses prior to collecting data, allow access only in proportion to a genuine need to have access. Student records are thus potentially becoming part of the mass surveillance structure of the 21st century. Bill 11 sets up the legal framework to enable it.

The second component of the Bill involves new mechanisms for government to directly interfere and control the actions of school boards. It is a direct attack on local democracy and is designed to instill caution in Trustees. While the government has always had the ability to remove an elected board (and indeed did so recently in Cowichan), the new powers permit them to mandate specific actions (selling school lands?) or to require a "special advisor" to interfere with and report on the functioning of the board.

This attack on local democracy is not surprising. Boards have become more and more vocal about the impacts of underfunding on the operations of schools. The Cowichan board had the courage to submit a deficit budget that demonstrated the actual needs of students. A number of boards have tacitly endorsed the BC Teacher Federation campaign to ask parents to opt out of the annual standardized tests (FSA) by sending information to parents and accepting without questions their opt out requests. When local democratic structures are actually used to push back on corporate education reform policies, the neoliberal BC Liberals feel the need to shut it down.

The final section of the Bill impacts the ability of teachers to choose and determine how and what type of professional development they engage in. New rules will require specific activities that have been approved by the Ministry. This feature of the Bill is one more in a string of policies that seek to narrow what teachers teach and how they teach it. Christy Clark has long advocated a streamed, vocational style of school system where the primary focus is basic literacy for those who struggle, vocational training for the mass of students in industry specific areas, and access to a university stream for the privileged few. The Ministry has already mandated that one professional development day per year focus on trades training. No doubt there will be a distinctive slant to the type of professional development deemed "acceptable" under the new legislation. As Sheldon Wolin describes: "Privatisation of education signifies not an abstract transfer of public to private but a takeover of the means to reshape the minds of coming generations". Teacher professional development is one small piece of the process of shaping coming generations.

Neither the recent budget cuts nor the new legislation come in a vacuum. BC's education system is being massively reformed. There have been more than a dozen Bills over the last decade that have fundamentally shifted how schools operate. We will need to see beyond the lack of funds and to the more fundamental questions being raised by these changes. Bill 11 is one more in a long line of legislative changes that seek to privatize not only the sources of revenue for schools, but the ways in which schools run and the type of schooling they do. It is one more in a long line of structural changes that undermine public control of schools, the role of public schools in providing equitable access to education, and indeed the very content of schooling. This is all the more reason we need parents and teachers and students and citizens out in the streets demanding change.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Bill 11 - Is the BC government privatizing and seizing control of teacher professional development?

Yesterday the BC government introduced Bill 11 - new law that will, among other things, change the system of teacher professional development in BC. Without any consultation with teachers or their union, the BCTF, the government is legislating a new system of authorized continuing education that may be required to maintain teacher certification.

Not surprisingly, having been rebuffed by the BC courts twice with unilateral changes to teachers' collective agreements, the government is trying a different tack. Leave the collective agreement provisions in place, but add new restrictions through the regulatory framework. Having failed to bargain teacher professional development changes, the government is turning to its tried and true formula: legislate.

The new provisions will depend to a large degree on the accompanying regulations, which of course are not yet known. But the basic framework of the new system looks fairly familiar. It appears to be modelled on the type of mandated professional development requirements that have been put in place for other regulated professions, such as lawyers and nurses. In these frameworks, a certain number of hours of authorized activities are required, sometimes along with a professional development plan, self-reflection, or peer review. What is not yet clear is to what degree the profession itself (teachers) will have control over the authorization process, if any.

The current system of teacher professional development is highly autonomous and predominantly public. While there are teachers and others who run businesses to sell professional development services and materials, most teacher professional development is conducted teacher to teacher, at school, or in non-profit teacher led organizations. In BC we have a system of Local Specialist Associations for the different teaching areas who put on large conferences annually where teachers share new practices. We also have many regional conferences hosted by teacher associations on a non-profit basis. Finally at the school level, most school based professional development activities are organized and run by a professional development committee at the school. Outside speakers are brought in when expertise beyond the teaching profession is required for specific topics, such as to learn about development disabilities.

The system that the new legislation appears to envision, which is modelled on other regulatory professional development frameworks, is considerably different. Like just about everything the BC Liberals do, it is market based. Each individual teacher will have their own private professional development requirements, and will go out to the professional development marketplace to find courses and webinars and activities to fulfil the requirements. I would certainly hope that the major events that currently take place, such as the provincial conferences, will be authorized as approved activities. But it isn't at all clear that less formal school or department based activities, or even individual teacher activities such as reading education journals, will be authorized, or what type of bureaucratic hoop jumping might be required to get authorization. If the process is cumbersome or the approval system ideologically driven, it will open the door for an increase in for-profit professional development services to replace teacher driven activities. In other words teacher credential-ling requirements could be used to force teachers to become the customers of an expanded teacher professional development industry.

The second major concern is the influence of the approval process. The legislation as introduced gives government the power to enact an approval system of its choice. Who approves and what is approved will be key to the degree of coercive control the new scheme represents. If you do not yet have the same degree of scepticism as many teachers about how bad this can be, check out this short video of a test preparation professional development session from the Chicago Public Schools: In the worst case, the approval process could mean direct interference from the Ministry or government or school Districts or Principals into the topics, format and delivery of teacher professional development in a highly prescriptive manner. Rather than teachers identifying their own professional needs based on the subjects they teach, the students they serve and their own individual areas of growth, someone else will be making that decision for them.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Parents protest BC's education budget cuts

Parents and education supports will be out on April 12th protesting the latest round of cuts to BC's education budget (details here: Below is a post I wrote for outlining the cuts and swift responses from parents and Trustees. As Boards develop their budgets for next year, we are now hearing how these cuts will impact our school districts.


Parents and teachers continue to be in a state of shock since the B.C. Liberals announced yet more cuts and expense increases for B.C.'s beleaguered school districts. Teachers were on the picket line for five weeks last summer with parent support to try to address the funding crisis in B.C. schools. B.C. students currently receive about $1000 less per student than the Canadian average. This in a province with a budget surplus.
The strategy of the B.C. Liberals has been privatization by a thousand cuts. This budget follows the usual pattern. There is an outright reduction of $29 million this year and another $25 million the following year. But in addition, there are across the board cost increases that will significantly impact board budgets. For example, there is a four per cent rate increase to Medical Services Plan premiums, which the school boards pay on behalf of employees, and there will be another round of BC Hydro increases. There is no allowance for inflation, and there are continued cuts in capital funding, at a time when many boards are now experiencing increasing enrollment.
The government had plenty of input about what is needed to restore adequate learning conditions. Teachers have been very clear that unless class sizes and lowered and funding restored for students with special needs, we will continue to fail to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students. A parent petition prior to the budget release urged the government to meet the recommendations of their own finance committee. It called on government to provide funding increases, stating:
"In their report, the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services noted that evidence indicates current funding is insufficient to cover the operating costs of public education and recommended an increase. Citizens of B.C. are calling on Premier Clark to do the right thing and remedy the underspending on B.C. education, especially now, when the province is in a state of budgetary surplus. We cannot afford to continue to erode public education through underspending."
Reaction to the budget has been swift and critical. The Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council issued a press release commenting: "To the extreme disappointment of Vancouver parents and parents throughout the province, the 2015/16 Budget announced yesterday (February 17) does not raise public education funding to an adequate level; on the contrary, it provides far less than adequate funding, and requires further cuts by school boards who have already faced more than a decade of cuts".

Notably the budget did include two increases. The first was a very small credit for teachers who coach extra-curricular sports or music activities. They will be entitled to a tax credit worth up to $25. Not only does this in no way offset the costs and time put in by teachers who volunteer to work with children, it also blatantly chooses to target one group of teachers while ignoring those who tutor after school, purchase supplies with their own money, or run other types of activities such as board game or chess clubs.

More insidious, however, is the $30 million increase to independent private schools -- almost exactly the amount being cut from the public system in the first year. This follows a decades long trend of shifting resources from the public to the private system. B.C. private schools can receive 50 per cent of the per pupil funding grant and as they continue to flourish, the amount of the education budget going to private institutions keeps increasing. Enrollment in private schools now accounts for 12 per cent of the student population. 

Thus, in education, as elsewhere in B.C. budget 2015, the news was the same -- increased funding for the wealthy and more cuts to services for the rest of us. So much for families first.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The courts have acknowledged the right to strike: Now it's time to strike

Trade unionists across the country were delighted to see the Supreme Court of Canada finally recognize a constitutional right to strike. The landmark decision overturned legislation impeding the right to strike, and acknowledged that the right to strike is a form of freedom of association. The decision also recognized that legislative interference in the right to strike gives undue power to employers, who already have the upper hand in bargaining. Justice Abella wrote in her judgement: “In essentially attributing equivalence between the power of employees and employers, this reasoning, with respect, turns labour relations on its head, and ignores the fundamental power imbalance which the entire history of modern labour legislation has been scrupulously devoted to rectifying.”

This comes as welcome relief, particularly to public sector workers and workers in parts of the private sector, such as Air Canada, who have been subject to repeated government interference. Indeed it may provide some relief to unions that are habitually legislated back to work or worse, have had contracts imposed by legislation. As Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz have noted, Canadian governments might say that legislation is a last resort, but in practice follow a doctrine of permanent exceptionalism. Every strike is deemed special enough to require government interference. 

Yet it is a mistake if those of us in the trade union movement think this is a panacea. Laws and legal challenges do not win gains for workers. They may influence the environment in which workers’ struggles take place, but no court decision will turn the tide of neoliberalism. To do that, workers need to use the right to strike - big time.

It is no secret that for about thirty years the labour movement has suffered one defeat after another. The approach to this downturn in struggle by unions has largely taken the form of trying to minimize concessions. A placard from the 2004 rallies against the BC Liberal government summed it up with the slogan: "These cuts are too deep." As if small cuts are OK.

It is also no secret that we need an upsurge in the labour movement more than ever. Growing inequality, gutted social services and regressive tax changes are completely eroding most workers’ quality of life. Middle income earners are disappearing, poverty is rising and the division between the super rich and the rest of us is continuing to grow. As a social force, unions are one of the best antidotes to challenge and confront these effects of neoliberalism.

The courts have recognized the right to strike, the challenge now is to use that right. What the courts acknowledged is that the strike is the ultimate and most powerful tool that workers have to confront the unfair advantage of employers under capitalism. Only when workers successfully strike can they win gains -- be they wage increases, health and safety measures, or even gains to the social wage such as maternity leave or paid sick days. 

The last time workers made significant gains was during the upsurge of the 70s and 80s. Public sector workers, in particular, made terrific inroads in improving wages and benefits and the social wage to large numbers of workers. They won legal rights (including the right to strike), they won important social justice battles, such as pay equity, and they reduced the level of inequality in society. Unions did this by striking, and striking often. Numbers of strikes were high, numbers of strike days were high and numbers of workers participating in strikes were high. This meant that employers were scared -- scared that one strike would be the catalyst for more.

That last upsurge came in the wake of growing social movements -- the women’s movement, the fight against the Vietnam war, the Black Power movement. But arguably we are beginning to see signs of growing social movements again today. Idle no more, #BlackLivesMatter, the fight to increase the minimum wage, the disgust with Stephen Harper, the raised awareness of rape culture and gender oppression -- all are signs of an increased politicization across society. These conditions create an opening for workers to argue for much more militant action by their unions.

A change will not come without some struggle, and re-learning some lessons and refashioning our organizations. The recent BC teachers strike is a case on point. After a decade of facing legislative intervention, teachers were not really prepared for a long battle. Our strike fund was low. We were shocked by a partial lockout. We were not ready for the government tactic of trying to starve us out. We were used to three day strikes.

The broader labour movement will also need to re-learn the levels of solidarity needed to win. It will not be enough to send solidarity greetings or even to loan money. We need to re-learn the use of coordinated bargaining and sympathy strikes, and we need to repair broken relationships based on employers attempts to divide us. Most of all, many unions will need to stop looking to legal strategies, expensive advertising campaigns, or trying to elect a friendly government, and instead start actively employing labour’s most powerful weapon: the right to strike.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What could a Canadian Syriza do?

It has been so inspiring to see the Greek people reject austerity and vote in a government committed to radical change. And what is so radical about Syriza? They want to do something pretty much no other government on the planet has committed to: put people first.

Given the drastic impacts of the austerity program imposed on Greece, it is not surprising to see people so fervently reject yet more of the same. One quarter are unemployed, and of those still with work, average earnings have plummeted. It is frightening to imagine one’s own household with one lost job and the other wage down thirty percent. No wonder in these conditions the Greeks are now measuring statistics such as who can no longer afford electricity to heat their homes. 

It is early days for Greece, and no doubt there will be disappointments along the way, but how refreshing to see this morning’s news: they are halting the sale of the state owned port, and stopping plans to privatize their power corporation.

For most Canadians, austerity has not been so drastic - yet. But it has been hard to have much hope in a country where child poverty is on the rise, wages are stagnant or falling, public services are clawed back and privatized, and the only hope on offer from government is the false promise of oil wealth by degrading our environment. 

I am happy that the federal NDP has finally put out a few platform proposals that are genuinely progressive - a promise for $15/day childcare and an increased federal minimum wage. But this comes after two decades where the NDP, like its European social democratic counterparts, has pretty much bought into the "austerity light" form of social democracy. And even these proposals are being accompanied by the usual soft right policies supposedly meant to attract a centre-left electorate. Just today they announced a plan to give small businesses a tax break, which economists say will mostly help families earning over $150,000 a year. What little the NDP has put on the table is, frankly, too little too late.

Imagine instead what a Canadian Syriza could do? Here’s my starting list:

Sound crazy? Every one of these ideas has been proposed by not so radical people in some part of the country. What we don’t have is a political party articulating them as policy.

Many look to the NDP to be that party. I don’t think that will happen. After many attempts, such as the New Politics Initative of the early 2000s, I don't believe it is possible to change the NDP from within. And interestingly, that isn’t what happened in Greece either. The traditional social democratic party, PASOK, supported austerity until they were so unpopular they collapsed. It took a new party, built on the strength of anti-austerity activism, to put a genuinely social democratic agenda on the ballot. Spain is following the same trajectory, with the incredible rise of the brand new Podemos party, built on anti-austerity left wing politics, and rooted in social movements.

Now I don’t happen to believe that Syriza, or any social democratic party that doesn’t challenge the underlying contradictions of capitalism, will ultimately succeed in creating the world we need. But unlike the Blairite practices of most social democratic parties in the west, Syriza is a step in the right direction. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Standardized testing: a pillar of privatization

It's FSA season again. Every year in British Columbia, every student in grades 4 and 7 has their regular classroom schedule put on hold for two weeks while they complete the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) -- a collection of standardized tests mandated by the provincial government.
Every student, parent, teacher and citizen should oppose these tests. There is a litany of reasons for this, but top among them is the role standardized tests play in the very destruction of public education itself -- by privatizing a public service. Masquerading as a test for system quality, they are in fact an instrument of system change, and not change for the better. 
The origin and rationale for standardized testing dates back to the cold war. As early as the 1960s, the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), funded with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, was promoting the use of standardized exams for comparison of states and districts. The so--called "need" for testing was ramped up in the infamous report A Nation at Risk, published by the U.S. government during the Reagan administration in 1983. The report insisted that America's schools had to do better to fend off the Soviet threat.
As an international phenomenon, testing was promulgated by the OECD in the 1990s. It developed the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, as a way to measure member states and compare their education systems. Since this time, member states of the OECD have been only too happy to comply. State-wide testing was mandated federally in the US through the notorious No Child Left Behind act. BC has the FSAs. Ontario the EQAO. 
BC's province wide standardized exam system has been in use since 1974, but it has changed over time. The first testing program, administered in grades 4, 8 and 12, was called the Provincial Learning Assessment Program (PLAP), and was a replacement of IQ tests. The results of the PLAP were not published but rather used internally for curriculum review and to manage the school system. But in 1984 the BC government decided to publish the results of Grade 12 provincial exams and by 1998 the Fraser Institute published its first ranking of BC schools. In 2002 the BC Liberals abolished the school accreditation system altogether and now relies on Accountability Contracts from each school district to ensure school quality. These documents, produced by school boards, in turn rely heavily on FSA test scores and are of dubious quality. All FSA results are now routinely made available by government on their web site and the Fraser Institute publishes rankings annually. Media outlets gleefully report on the best and worst schools.
Thus the FSAs, like standardized testing in many jurisdictions, has morphed in the last half century from a mechanism designed to internally review the quality of an individual education system, to a comparison tool to rank schools and districts.
The changes that took place are not accidental. They are part and parcel of the usual fare of neo-liberalism: deregulation, defunding, market based provision of services, and privatization.
How does this work? In today's BC school system, a parent can pick up the Fraser Institute rankings and use them to choose a school. Because we no longer have closed school boundaries based on neighbourhoods, they can register their child in the school of their choice. As their child progresses, they have access to a litany of special programs, such as Sports Academies and International Baccalaureate, many of which provide enhanced services through additional fees. Of course it is some parents choosing to do this -- typically immigrant families and low income families simply send their children to the neighbourhood school. Many districts are therefore experiencing a form of "white flight" out of inner city schools.
If you were Milton Friedman, one of the intellectual architects of neo-liberal policy, you would look at this happily as a variant of what he called school vouchers. Acknowledging that even in the free-est of markets, the state has a role to play to ensure basic literacy levels, he advocated that all parents receive a voucher for their state education allowance with the ability to use it at the school of their choice. Now admittedly in Friedman's world, these schools would be privately administered, but the mechanism for parent choice (testing and ranking), the market of schools, and the additional resources provided through school fees all mimic the Friedman model. The virtual school voucher is the provincial funding that follows a child to attend the school of their choice. 
The US has taken the testing craze a few more steps. Not only do they have an insane battery of tests (at least two every year from grades 3 - 8), but they have attached high stakes to these tests so that every aspect of the school system becomes "accountable" to a test score. If a school does badly, close it. If a teacher doesn't improve student test scores, fire the teacher. If universities graduate new teachers whose students do badly, shut down the teacher preparation school. 
Unfortunately, the test scores mostly reflect one thing -- the socioeconomic status of the student writing the test. The inevitable result, therefore, is that it is poor (and disproportionately black) students who are losing their teachers and losing their schools. It is no accident that the first jurisdiction to have no public schools remaining at all is New Orleans.
We can learn from our neighbours to the south, where a growing anti-test movement is sweeping the country. We have the opportunity to scrap the testing and ranking before it completely takes over our public school system. If you are a parent, please withdraw your student from the FSA. If you are a teacher, please work with your colleagues to encourage parents and others to refuse to take the tests. If you are anyone else, work with teachers and parents to end the testing mania and advocate for a school system administered by and for the public.
This article has also appeared on my blog