They Mustn’t Fail: BC’s Three Political Parties and the Future of Public Education First of two parts
On April 16, British Columbia’s main political parties brought out their official 2017 election platforms. Since then, there’s been campaign talk about education, but also about health, seniors care, the environment, and political financing. On April 26th the leaders debated for 90 minutes on province-wide TV, and this article takes into account what they said.
In the debate, the Liberal leader would not acknowledge the Liberals’ fifteen-year record of refusing to pay for a contract it signed with teachers in 2002; in sharp contrast, the NDP and Green party leaders placed heavy emphasis on permanently increased funding for public education.
It’s tempting to stop there. But…for us who care about public education—universally accessible, democratically organized, at the highest possible quality from K to PhD—for truly public purposes, not just job-getting and job-holding—it’s time to put the party platforms to the test.
We must continue to push, so that the parties will fully accept that public education will have at least as high a priority as “the economy.” Two commentators have already started down that road.
Crawford Kilian’s fine essay appeared in The Tyee for 2017 April 17. Kilian thinks none of the political parties ventures into new territory on education funding, or on the governance of schools and universities, the curriculum, children’s needs and rights, and so on. He thinks we’re in for four more years of the same-old-same-old, no matter who wins May 9.
The other article is a sharp paper by Alex Usher (in his own blog, 2017 April 17), almost entirely about post-secondary education. Alex comes out in favour of the NDP platform, demolishes the Green Party position, and finds little good to say about the Liberal position. Usher is a policy analyst. One should complement Usher’s views with George Davison’s Vancouver Sun piece about PSE and its true cost. Davison offers a persuasive assessment of our college and university system in BC, and reminds us of the human cost of high tuition and closed college/university doors.
I’ve formulated five key questions by which to evaluate the platforms. The first is:
FUNDING: CAN BC HAVE CANADA’S BEST-FUNDED SCHOOLS?
Liberals: Their platform doesn’t mention last fall’s Supreme Court decision. They simply say they’ll spend about $300 million—new money—on public education beginning this year. What they mean, of course, is that they’ll obey the Supreme Court of Canada. If elected, the Liberals also promise a “funding review.” The review is intended especially to find new ways of financing public education in rural and “fast-growing” districts.
NDP: There’s a promise to “invest in our kids,” but described in a way that suggests a new and higher priority for public education in government plans. There is to be a new $30 million annual fund for supplies (so parents can stop holding fund-raising drives to keep their kids’ classroom in paper supplies, and so on). An NDP government would conduct a thorough “review” of education funding.
Green: The Green platform proposes to increase funding (above the money required under the Supreme Court decision of last fall) “beginning in 2017/18 at $220 million and rising to $1.46 billion in 2020/21.” The Greens propose more $4bn in new education funding. They offer wholesale reform of the professional and continuing education of teachers and they would restore funding for Adult Basic Education.
It is hard to see where the $4 bn dollars in the Green plan would come from. But it’s clear that for the Greens, education is the very first budgetary priority. Health and economic development come in second and third place.
What conclusions can be drawn?
The answer to the question “Can BC have the best-funded schools in Canada?” is… “Yes, we can”—if we vote NDP or Green.
The Greens are right about the need for a billion or two in public education, in each and every year; but they have no track record, never having been in office. One has to worry about the Greens’ ability to budget and to administer an area as complicated and as demanding as public education in B.C.
The NDP offers a middle-of-the-road solution, adding new funding on top of the money required by the Supreme Court decision (including funding to deal with "the inner city"). They have a much longer track record in the area of public education, and they see the connection between spending on education and the solution of some important social problems.
If ALL we’re talking about is funding, then the NDP and the Greens offer intriguing ideas for the next four years.
But if we talk only about funding, we’re missing some pressing questions. To talk about public education means we have to go beyond the facts (particularly the fiscal facts) to consider values.
In the next post, I deal with four more questions that more sharply reveal differences among the parties, mostly because they point to values.
The three party platforms on public education:
http://www.bcliberals.com/platform/ (go to page 78)
(go to page 33 for material about PSE,
and to page 36 for public schooling)
This Vancouver Sun front page headline says it all: “Kids on Salt Spring Island not immune to poverty and hunger.” (December 26th, 2016, http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/kids-on-idyllic-salt-spring-island-not-immune-to-poverty-and-hunger?__lsa=fc49-3e21).
Despite the idyllic setting and ritzy homes, childhood hunger “ is getting worse every year” on the island.
What has been called the silent but steady climb of childhood hunger is now increasingly a matter of public record and concern, with the province, sadly, opting out of doing anything about it.
Over a decade ago, a Vancouver consultant in a submission to Victoria noted that childhood poverty across the province hovered around 10%. Tellingly, the Ministry of Education insisted that this figure be deleted from the report.
Did you know that BC leads the country in child poverty? According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report Long Overdue: Why BC Needs a Poverty Reduction Plan,
(https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/long-overdue), there are 33,000 hungry kids using BC’s 90 plus food banks. This year, food banks, both urban and rural, are hard pressed to meet the needs of their growing clientele.
Salt Spring Island is not the only ostensibly upscale location with impoverished kids. Last year the Sun pointed to a northeast Vancouver elementary school, in a middle- class area, with a growing number of hungry kids.
The Vancouver Adopt- a-School initiative has literally been a life–saver for many struggling schools across the Lower Mainland and beyond.
It should be noted that 30% of rural food bank clients are children, which, according to one report, is 10% more than urban banks. Rural schools in areas with high unemployment and fewer community resources are left on their own. Recently the province’s largest school district, Surrey, has applied for a $100,000 grant, thus providing additional evidence of the spreading stain of hunger.
Today BC lacks any kind of formal, articulated provincial child poverty plan and the province has no stated intention of developing one, unlike other jurisdictions.
As far as childhood hunger is concerned, the province’s ruling party, after 14 years in power, seems more than willing to let our struggling public schools depend on local fundraising and especially on the kindness of strangers.
All kinds of community groups have stepped up to the plate to fill the growing gap – these range from church, business, and service groups (Salt Spring Island Kiwanis is yet another example), private school kids, sports groups, individual philanthropists, and the list of kind-hearted folks goes on and on.
The influential right wing of the coalition that forms the current provincial Liberal party appears to be strongly adverse to providing any form of relief or intervention, be it breakfast or lunch programs, to our struggling public schools.
With a provincial election in May, the child poverty issue may be a two-edged sword for the BC Liberals. Public opinion could swing against the party’s firmly entrenched hard-line stand (not once has a single Liberal cabinet member or MLA publicly mentioned the words “hungry kids“ in the past decade,). As battle lines are drawn, public awareness will increase and the emerging controversy could hit the Liberals hard. Recall the adverse impact that the “Maggie Thatcher, the milk – snatcher” campaign had on the UK’s right- wing Tories!
As Premier Christy Clark and her Liberal MLA’s sit down to divvy up their massive $2.2 billion provincial surplus, they would do well to consider the searing impact of the axiom: hungry kids don’t learn, before they face the BC electorate.
Noel Herron is a former inner city principal and VSB trustee. An earlier version of this posting appeared in article form in Post Script: The Magazine for Retired Educators Spring 2017.
The arts have been central to human experience for millennia. They give meaning and expression to what is important in our society and in our lives: who we are, where we come from, our hopes, fears and imaginings. In education, the arts nurture individual creativity. They build confidence and foster dreams. They enrich and empower children. The arts bring learning to life. They are crucial to the development of the whole child and are central to the new BC curriculum.
Yet the arts have been treated as expendable extras in our schools.
We British Columbians have allowed the economic values of efficiency, utility and individual achievement to take precedence over equity, inclusion, mutual co-operation and aesthetic expression. At the international level (and here in BC), education is being similarly reshaped by an economic imperative. This has been bolstered by standardized test results like the FSA and PISA, that rank schools and countries on narrowly measurable “outcomes” in numeracy, literacy and science. As critics have pointed out, that reductive view of educational achievement has marginalized other, equally important goals of education, particularly the development of civic, moral and aesthetic capacities. A faulty understanding of “achievement” has helped perpetuate the erroneous idea, not least among anxious parents, that the primary goal of education is to acquire a competitive edge. Subjects perceived to have a direct link to employment have been prioritized in policy and funding decisions at the expense of other subject, like the arts, whose benefits cannot be quantified through standardized tests.
Consequently, the arts have been the first casualty of austerity cutbacks, and BC is certainly no exception. From the mid 1990s, funding cutbacks to public education have resulted in a dramatic reduction in specialist teachers, particularly at the elementary level, and a corresponding dispossession of arts spaces in schools. For example, based on interviews with former district staff, the Vancouver School district, previously a leader in North America for arts education, has seen an 84% reduction in the number of music specialists and a 95% reduction in visual art specialists in elementary schools over the last 25 years. These are conservative statistics; the “real” numbers may be worse.
With the loss of teacher specialization in the arts at the elementary level, the responsibility for arts education has fallen on generalist classroom teachers, most of whom have little or no background in the arts, no funding for equipment or supplies, and likely no access to appropriate facilities. While gyms remain an essential component of elementary schools in the government’s revised area standards, art rooms, music rooms and performance spaces have been eliminated as inefficient use of space. Overall, this has translated into a massive loss of school based knowledge and expertise about art-making and its vital importance in children’s intellectual and social-emotional development.
Even though the arts are core-curricular, the 2015 provincial satisfaction survey showed that only 42% of grade 3s and 4s and 34% of grade 7s answered “yes” to the question, “In school are you learning about art?” Instead of a comprehensive, sequential school-based arts education, arts education is concentrated in a few arts focused ‘choice’ schools, with a sporadic or ‘accidental’ arts education everywhere else. Increasingly, the arts are being ‘supplemented’ through short-term residences that rely on grants, parent fundraising or charitable donations.
Ironically, the core competencies of the new BC curriculum, communication, creative and critical thinking, and personal and social identities, are all intimately connected with knowledge and understanding of the arts. Yet there is a total disconnect between the educational goals and aspirations of the new curriculum as designed by teachers, and the government’s overarching goal to ‘re-engineer’ education to skill students for jobs. Changes to graduation requirements have reduced arts elective options drastically and students are no longer required to take a fine arts course beyond grade 9, seriously diminishing the depth and breadth of educational opportunities for students. Instead, money is diverted to skill students for specific jobs to satisfy workforce demands of potential investors first in the LNG and now in technology. ‘Coding’ is the new ‘hands-on-learning’ in elementary school.
These policy decisions are particularly short-sighted given the growing body of evidence that the arts advance academic achievement and understanding, but also the kind of divergent thinking needed for our future economy. These “habits of mind” that foster creativity – critical reflection, flexible repurposing, persistence, risk taking and open-ended problem solving - that have been identified by business leaders and the BC government as key characteristics for a “rapidly changing world,” are integral to art making and learning. It is entirely possible that these habits of mind cannot be taught without the arts.
Consider the failure of the STEM initiative in the United States, intended to boost the nation’s economic competitiveness through a prioritization of science, technology, engineering and mathematic subjects in K-12. Students performed poorly on higher level critical thinking and problem solving tasks prompting a growing number of schools to integrate the arts in order to develop creativity (STEAM). Reductive stereotypes of the arts as elite anachronistic activities limited to landscape painting or classical ballet, have blinded decision makers to the real contribution of the arts in society as the creative enterprise that it is has always been, an integral part of technological and scientific innovation.
But the arts are important for more than just cognitive development, they are also crucial to the social emotional well-being of children and our whole society. The arts open all children up to the complexity and aesthetic beauty of the world and one another, through a felt perception that engenders both empathy and care, consistent with aboriginal ways of knowing and learning. The cultivation of critical perception or visual literacy skills is simply crucial if students are to resist stereotypes, and navigate critically the consumer aesthetics of a media-saturated and increasingly virtual world.
The arts allow children to re-integrate their senses and to process experience in tactile, material ways that is deeply grounding and develops self-regulation, persistence, resilience and grit. The arts give space and value to the unique voice and creative potential of each individual child, building confidence and self-esteem, and promoting the generosity of being essential in any inclusive community.
We acknowledge the proven positive impact of the arts on the mental health of children by funding carefully targeted art and music therapy programs in schools for at-risk youths. But we have failed to examine the social emotional impact on children of reducing or even removing authentic arts engagement from schools. Anxiety, depression and substance abuse are on the rise, and here again, a complete arts education must be part of the solution, promoting healthy self-expression and self-worth for all children.
The role of the arts in developing a healthy sense of self and belonging within the world, and for promoting cross cultural understanding cannot be overstated. For UNESCO, the arts are an essential component in education for peace in a diverse world. Participation in culture is recognized and identified as a universal right by the United Nations. In our own country, we see the psychological impact of denying authentic cultural expression to aboriginal people groups and the centrality of cultural revival and participation in their political empowerment. The arts give children agency. They teach children that they can be makers and transformers of their world. Without the arts, we consign children to passive consumption of culture.
One of the most serious consequences of declining commitment to arts education is the resulting inequality of access of children to the arts. One in five children in BC—a shocking 109,331 school aged children—live in poverty. Their parents cannot afford the basic school supply fee let alone the cost of private music lessons, art classes, dance or theatre instruction. Longitudinal studies show that high arts engagement narrows and sometimes closes the gap between the life outcomes of students at risk and those of their socially advantaged peers. This holds true for academic achievement, university graduation, employment and civic engagement. If public education does not include equitable access to quality arts education, then we deny all children access to a fundamental educational right.
The arts are essential, not extra.
Mother of three and a long-time artist, art educator and art historian, Maggie Milne Martens is one of the co-founders of the Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education.
Education and Social Policy: a Jubilee for Children Leading to a Democratic Future by Michael Zlotnik, PhD
A couple of days ago, the President Dalton character (from Madam Secretary) said, “The shifting baseline syndrome – each generation accepts their version of nature; plunders it; then leaves the next generation to accept the depleted version; and so on.” The episode dealt with climate change and political tactics of denial and obfuscation. Since 1969, when landscape architect Ian McHarg coined the term “shifting baseline syndrome,” that expression has extended to all aspects of change. It is a way to lose track of the aspirations of each generation. I suggest we British Columbians (and Canadians) are losing our sense of what justice is, of what democracy is and what equality means; and thus what the transformative purposes of public education should be.
Consider the Canadian political scene. Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau says this year's budget is about “creating good middle-class jobs.” This is a change in the political rhetoric of our country. Following World War II, we moved toward a more democratic society where every young person would have opportunities to flourish, learn, grow and take a participating role in the society. We aimed for a more equal society where children whose parents were poor or undereducated would have public support for their education and be provided with the essential goods and services children require. Canada was to be a land of mutual freedom and open opportunity.
In practice, we fell short of that democratic vision. Still, from the early postwar years until the 1980s, we made progress towards a more equal society; with public services, public health care, social security, public pensions, workplace pensions and public education. But recently, class divisions have sharpened. The rich are getting proportionately richer and far too many children and young people are living in substandard housing, on inadequate incomes, and sometimes in unhealthy neighbourhoods.
Equal opportunity has not only failed to arrive but is receding as a goal. The rhetoric of support for the middle class ought to be unacceptable, suggesting as it does a paternalistic government that will look after only a section of Canada's people. It signals the acceptance of class differences and it marks retreat from the goal of social equality.
Moreover, as the social and economic opportunities of children have become more unequal, public education has been underfunded and the provincial government has funded and supported private education – policies which undermine the social equality which is the bedrock condition for a democratic society.
On the provincial scene, we have seen a whole generation of K-12 students pass through an underfunded public education system in British Columbia. It is good that the Supreme Court has ruled against the province but the denial of adequate funding afflicted and undermined the work of teachers and, more importantly, the learning and opportunities of public school students. Despite those setbacks, the promise of democratic freedom and equality should remain the goal of educational, economic and social policy. Canada is still one of the better countries in which to live. But the baseline by which we assess who we are is retreating to the caste-and-class systems of some countries in Europe and elsewhere. We’ve lost a strongly democratic aspiration.
Our political priorities have shifted to the rich, the comfortable and the privileged. We are agonizingly slow in redressing the unjust treatment of indigenous peoples, many of whom do not have the necessities of life such as clean drinking water. We do badly by our children! UNICEF says Canada ranks 24th out of 35 economically advanced countries in relative child poverty (relative poverty is defined as living in a household in which disposable income, when adjusted for family size and composition, is less than 50% of the national median income). The United Way says that one in five British Columbia children live in poverty. In the wake of the neoliberal counter-revolution that has reshaped the global social, political, economic, religious and cultural world order, too many governments are trying to bribe their citizens with tax cuts that come at the expense of justice. It has become more important for the upper class and the middle-class to have luxury items than for the poor to have the necessities of life and equal opportunities to learn.
That is enough talk along the lines of…“ain't it awful.” Let's see where to go from here.
As a youngster, I had opportunities to attend wonderfully supportive camps, which were heavily subsidized. My mother said she could not afford to feed me and my brother for the amount she paid to send us to camp. One of the camps, Camp Jubilee, is still operating today. I suggest that public education can and should be a Jubilee opportunity for all children and youth.
In the Hebrew Bible, Jubilee is a year that proclaims liberty throughout the land. Jubilee ends slavery. It ends the dispossession people may have suffered from their land or family. Although we have abolished chattel slavery, some of our Canadian citizens are still subject to wage slavery and debt slavery. The Hebrew Jubilee recognized that society and the economy tend to drift towards inequality; wealth gets concentrated, which splits a society into classes. On another occasion, we might explore the devastating costs of class divisions to a society in, for example, the alienation of people, in wasted human potential, in conflicts that prevent us from working together to solve impending catastrophes, among them environmental destruction and climate change.
Class divisions mean we are a house divided. The feeble current efforts to address environmental destruction and climate change show our distrust of one another and our lack of shared purpose. In our society and economy, in what some call turbo-charged capitalism, things get out of alignment much faster than in the ancient world. We need a public sector and a government that is concerned for all of the people and for the public good to ensure that things stay balanced and especially that children shall not be sacrificed on the altar of private wealth, greed, property or tax cuts.
Children do not deserve to be born into poverty. Children do not deserve to face discrimination on the basis of their gender, parents' or their family's race, sexual orientation, religion, culture of origin, geographic locality, etc.
When children grow up in a class-divided society, when their family life, religious instruction, schooling, media and political deliberations presuppose a class-divided social order, the inequalities, injustices and foreclosed opportunities become normalized. They are seen as natural or necessary. While Canada has never yet accomplished a fully democratic, just and free social order, after World War II, the experience of uniting to defeat fascism and win freedom and democracy, after so much bloody and costly sacrifice, emboldened Canadians to strive for an equal opportunity society. Now, after several decades of neoliberal globalization, the idea of a hierarchy of socio-economic classes has been pressed forward as the new normal. Selfishness and consumerism are the gods of many.
But a society where the few rule is not a democracy. If wealth can buy political power, democracy is stifled. Today, we are much richer economically and financially than the generation that survived the Great Depression and fought for freedom and democracy in World War II. Yet too many of us have an impoverished sense of our obligation to serve the common good and to ensure that Canada provides equal opportunities to all its children and youth. We do have the economic and financial capacity to abolish the poverty afflicting so many children. But to do so we would have to care for our neighbours' children as we care for our own children. We would have to use our taxes and our public political power to make Canada a place where every child and young person has equal access to the conditions for a flourishing life and a high quality public education. That would be an even more beautiful, loving, just, peaceful and free British Columbia and Canada.
The Charter for Public Education, reflecting a consensus heard during public hearings across British Columbia in 2002-2003, states, “Public education is a sacred trust. As a community we promise to prepare learners for a socially responsible life in a free and democratic society, to participate in a world which each generation will shape and build. We promise a public education system which provides learners with knowledge and wisdom, protects and nourishes their natural joy of learning, encourages them to become persons of character, strength and integrity, infuses them with hope and with spirit, and guides them to resolute and thoughtful action.”
In this post, I have emphasized the economic, social and financial conditions necessary if all children are to have equal access to high-quality education. I leave for another occasion the discussion of what is required pedagogically in classrooms, schools and homes so that all children and youth will learn what they need to learn.
As we enter another provincial election campaign, we must renew our commitment to a baseline of equally high quality learning conditions for every child in our province. Let's not continue to oppress thousands of children for want of a sufficiently just and ambitious aspiration.
PS: I concur fully with Bill Bruneau's call for a royal commission. In an earlier post, Noel Herron
rightly stressed the problems of poverty and hunger. Thus the terms of reference of the royal commission should include the conditions of life for children who are being educated.
Michael Zlotnik, PhD, is a philosopher of education. His ongoing field of study and struggle is the relationship between the pedagogy of public education and the democratization of society.
Seekers-after-wisdom used to travel deserts and oceans looking for advice, often from philosophers with big reputations. In Ancient Greece, the Platonic Academy attracted students from Asia, Africa, western Europe—the “known” world. Later the seekers went to Alexandria and Rome. They hoped for answers to educational, political, legal, and financial questions, not just philosophical and religious ones.
The pattern changed in the 17th and 18th centuries when monarchs realized they were in over their heads--on economics, education, foreign relations. Catherine the Great of Russia asked Voltaire for help, and Christina of Sweden persuaded Descartes to move to Stockholm for the last year of his life.
With easy travel and fast communication, we have learned to invite wise people to come to us, not the other way around. We may call them consultants, and less often we give them an impressive label, “royal commissioner.”
In parliamentary democracies, royal commissions are invitations to sensible and experienced persons to examine difficult problems from all angles, then give reliable advice. It takes a year or two or three for commissioners to complete their tasks. Sometimes governments act on their commissioners' advice, as Canada's federal government did in the 1930s (the Rowell-Sirois Report) and the 1980s (the 1985 MacDonald Report on economic development).
Sometimes a royal commission report gathers dust. Some will say a royal commission is just a way to avoid the subject (whatever it may be). But this time, the sceptics are wrong.
Our experience of royal commissions on education has been (mostly) constructive. BC's first commissioned study of public education (the Putman-Weir Survey of the Public Schools, 1925) made the case for active and individualized instruction in all subjects. It insisted on the importance of charging no fees for schooling, and gave clear guidance on the best ways to finance and govern the system. Although parts of the Survey were/are depressingly wrong (on the use of labelling for special needs kids, for example), it is still the best and most consequential study of public education we have seen in British Columbia. Alas, it is out of date.
The Putman-Weir survey was written and researched by just two people. They did the thing in a year, long before the internet or decent highways. They listened carefully to hundreds of parents, trustees, and officials across the province. It's available online at https://books.google.ca/books?id=p4qgAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false .
Since 1925, the province has directed four more big commissions on education. There were two studies, one on finance and another on the role of school boards (1935 and 1945--online at http://www.llbc.leg.bc.ca/commissions/rc_dates.asp ), then two reviews of the whole system, the Chant Report of 1960 and the Sullivan Report of 1988.
We are living through an economic shift (to human and financial services and to computing technology), even as we deal with rapid population growth and a wave of renewed immigration. The Ministry of Education has, for a variety of reasons, been unable to cope with these changes.
Indeed, especially since the late 1960s, there has been government confusion on education. The Social Credit premiers of the day were not especially happy with what they saw in the pages of the 1960 and 1988 reports. The curriculum that resulted from the 1988 commission met a sad fate; some school principals and teachers will tell you how they ended up reading the curriculum and then...discarding much material in the “new programme” post-1988.
Yes, it's time for another Royal Commission on Education in B.C.
Among the most persuasive supporters of such a commission is Crawford Kilian. His latest article on the subject appeared March 9 in the Tyee (see https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2017/03/09/Vancouver-School-Board-Bullying-Report/). Sullivan, it seemed to Kilian, may have asked for too much. Sullivan called for a common curriculum across Grades 1 to 10, and abandonment of the rigid system of age-related grades, so kids and their education could be more closely tied together. By the time Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark came on the scene (2001-present), government had decided it would take a quite different approach. It was the era of “technology-plus.” By 2017, it was fairly obvious that the Liberal-Conservative coalition under Clark had no clear goals in education, except to starve the public schools of adequate funding, and to retain public subsidies for private schools (which cost more than $300 million by 2017).
Kilian correctly notes that school boards are supposed to run a tight ship, to make the system run with whatever funding Victoria chooses to provide--with a minimum of fuss and bother. By 2017, it wasn't all that unusual to hear critics and commentators saying that school boards were an annoyance, an unnecessary layer of government in a system that is dominated by Victoria. Either we give school boards real power and adequate funding, or we should consider eliminating them altogether.
Like Kilian, I think a royal commission on education could think the unthinkable. It could show what a system would look like if it were run exclusively by Victoria, without school boards. Or it could show what a system of strong, independent-minded, well financed school boards could do.
I'm on the side of long-term, generous public funding for public education. After all, public education is a common good that becomes more essential every day. A commissioner might recommend access to the income tax, or the creation of new sales taxes, or taxes on hotel rooms. All I'm saying is that we must get imaginative about the way we fund public education.
Few politicians will find it convenient to make an argument for more taxes, even for something as desirable and obviously necessary as schooling. But a royal commissioner could make that argument. And it well worth saying, loudly and clearly, that even while the commission is at work, reform can and should begin.
In a year when every single Vancouver School Board trustee was fired it is plain that government isn’t neutral or disinterested in matters of control or finance. Government is so closely entangled that it cannot get the distance it needs to make sustainable policy about funding or control. A Royal Commission would have that distance.
There is much more to be said about the role of the teaching profession in all of this. A Royal Commission could and should clarify the role of BC teachers and principals in the system.
I'm a former school trustee (Vancouver). I was immensely frustrated by the weak position of the Board on which I served. Parents rightly insisted on enriched instruction in whole new areas of the curriculum; meanwhile kids were coming to school hungry. We as a board did as much as we could, as fast as we could, but found it wasn’t enough. Our responsibilities were out of alignment with our means. A Royal Commission could and should find a new balance between ends and means, a recommend ways of achieving that balance…quickly.
Since 1970, the Ministry has had difficulty making good, lasting policy--on curriculum, on access, on funding, or on governance. If we are to move forward, we should move beyond mere partisanship to tackle the systemic failures that dog the Ministry and school boards, not to mention educators, parents, and the public at large.
In the end, public education belongs to us all. It is the work of students themselves, of their parents, of professional teachers, of well-placed principals and superintendents, of the entire community. It's a commitment for the long term. A Royal Commissioner can help all of us in the province to make that commitment.
It is election time in B.C. At public meetings, citizens (parents and non-parents alike) have an opportunity to ask if a Royal Commission is possible, and to offer a reason or two for appointing one. If that isn’t possible, citizens might want to write a note to the BC School Trustees Association, the president of the BC Teachers Federation, or the Minister: letters matter.
It’s time for public education.
Hunger to Learn: Will BC’s hungry kids finally receive the hearing and help they need ? By Noel Herron
The ratification of the recent agreement between teachers and the province on moving forward with the many issues emerging from the November Supreme Court’s ruling on class size and composition, holds out, for the first time, the promise that the ongoing and dramatic rise in the numbers of hungry kids in our schools , over the past three decades, will get a fair hearing.
Based on last year’s analysis, by the province’s leading child advocacy coalition, First Call, there are currently 1 in 5 kids living below the poverty line in BC , or a shocking total of 163,260 kids in all.
Nor is the problem confined to the Lower Mainland schools as witness the following poverty rates in other locations: North Island (37%): Port Alberni and Duncan (30%); Prince Rupert (30% ); and Central Coast Regional District (52%). Surrey however, has a 21% poverty rate and because it is the largest school district in BC with 71,000 students, it has a whooping 23,480 kids living in poverty.
Visiting Vancouver in February, Canada’s UNICEF CEO, David Morley , was “ shocked at the depth and extent of child poverty in a province as rich as BC “. The internationally known child advocate spoke at both SFU and UBC and his candid analysis came as no surprise to local activists, as BC has the dubious distinction of leading Canada in child poverty for the past several years. The title of UNICEF ‘s report is: “ Fairness for Children : Canada’s Challenge “.
Now, with the recent signing of the new provincial agreement which establishes a joint committee to hammer out the broader and more complex issues related to class composition, in our diverse and changing classrooms, hungry kids will, at last, be on a provincial agenda, despite previous deferrals and repeated denials of their very existence.
Not once has the premier of this province, or a single member of the BC Liberal party, referred publicly to the plight of BC’s hungry kids . It’s as if they don’t even exist.
Currently the governing party seems perfectly happy leaving the deepening and continuing problems of malnourished children to the generosity of strangers. Initiatives such as the Vancouver Sun’s Adopt – a –School program, or private church, corporate, business and individual citizen and philanthropic contributions step into the breach to provide as much help as possible.
It must be noted that the if the joint provincial committee can’t reach an agreement on class composition by the end of the upcoming school year, June 30.2018 , the matter will be referred to labour arbitrator, John Hall for binding arbitration, by January 31, 2019.
Finally, the case for equality of educational opportunity, plus accessibility to “ an inclusive learning environment which provides an opportunity for meaningful participation and the promotion of interaction with others “ for our vulnerable and impoverished kids-- perhaps the most vulnerable of all—will now be on an official agenda.
David Morley, in his recent powerful Vancouver presentations listed 5 impediments that leave our hungry kids in the lurch. They are :
The growth and development of these kids should not be dependent upon inadequate nutrition or upon catch- as- catch-can initiatives and the generosity of private citizens.
It’s time for the province to step up to the plate.
As a society we must begin to seriously examine the neglected status of disadvantaged children and to dispel the studied silence surrounding the issue.
And finally , to right the wrongs these kids have endured for over three decades.
Noel Herron is a former VSB trustee and author of “ Every Kid Counts” , a history of Vancouver’s inner city schools. He has worked in inner city schools for over 15 years and has closely tracked the upsurge in child poverty since then.
The British Columbia budget for 2017-2018 is out. It reminds me of a board game we played in my village years ago—“Snakes and Ladders.” That’s the one where you roll the dice and if you’re lucky, you advance up a ladder to the winner’s circle. If you’re unlucky, you slide snake-like to the bottom of the board. There’s a winner and a bunch of losers. You can be the nicest kid on the block and still spend a lot of time down with the snakes.
Supporters of public education must wonder if B.C.’s provincial government is playing a version of this game. Now and then the dice favour public education and there are modest increases in government grants. Up the ladder we go.
This year there’ll be about $250,000,000 of “new,” additional, annual funding for public schools. It’s a first instalment of funding required under the Supreme Court judgement of last year. Later this spring there will be more money for this same purpose, to bring class size back to reasonable limits and to begin the work of providing special needs education. For fifteen straight years, the government has simply refused to pay for the terms of the contract it signed in 2002.
That adds up to $3 billion the government simply refused to pay, until forced to pay by the highest court in the land. If our elected officials were serious about public education, you’d think they’d want to make up for all those lost years and lost opportunities: but nope! This is Snakes and Ladders, educationally speaking. I suppose one should be grateful that for once, the dice sent us up a Ladder.
There’s a revealing list of things that parents have been forced to pay for, through volunteer fund-raising, during those fifteen years. That list was provided last fall to the BC Legislative Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services (it’s at http://www.panvancouver.ca/uploads/6/7/1/4/67145647/pan_response_to_questions_on_notice_select_standing_committee_oct_2016%5b1%5d.pdf). This document is an embarrassment, that is...it's an embarrassment IF you think governments should live up to their word, and if you think they should fund public services as required by their own laws.
But the document also shows the commitment of citizens to our school children. These citizens have cared so much about public education that they have regularly done voluntary fund-raising to provide finances for schooling that government is legally supposed to provide—automatically and freely.
The way I read the new BC budget, that voluntary fund-raising will have to continue into the future—the indefinite future. The “new” money for public education in the budget merely begins the process of getting us back to where we were in 2002, and it deals almost entirely with the contractual matters settled at the Supreme Court.
That leaves unanswered a list of extremely pressing questions.
Here are four major questions the legislature (all parties, not just the governing majority) must answer if we are to move past the status quo as it was in 2002:
1. Public education funding has declined since 2000, using real inflation-adjusted dollars as the measure, and considering the proportion of the provincial economy devoted to public schools, colleges, and universities. Will the government commit itself to recover that lost ground over the next four years? How about over the next eight years?
2. Volunteer fund-raising has allowed some schools, especially in areas where parents have disposable income they can give (or somehow find), to support quality public education. This patchwork of voluntary fund-raising has produced significant inequality in the provision of public education. Will the government re-examine the way it funds public schooling so arguably high-quality instruction is provided everywhere to all BC students?
3. Public funding for private and independent schools in British Columbia leads to more educational inequality. This year public funding ($383 million in 2017-8) supports private schools that do not provide for special needs kids, do not offer a wide range of programmes, do not reach kids in all social classes—rich or poor—and are under no obligation to change their ways.Now, there is new money in the BC budget (not much, mind you) to support special needs education in private schools. Some private schools will likely make use of that funding. Morally speaking, this is a step in the right direction.
But it is an unpleasant fact of life that public funding of private schools enables more, not less social inequality. When will government put a cap on public funding of private and independent schools in British Columbia?
If there is to be no cap, can the government put in place a system that requires private schools to meet the same standards public schools do—educating for special needs kids, offering ESL, providing a broad education for children from a variety of social backgrounds? That’s exactly what the British and the Australians do when they fund private schools. Why not B.C.?
4. For nearly a hundred years, provincial governments have blamed school boards for inadequate funding of public education. Truth is, the provincial government has control of all major and most minor financial decisions in public education. Boards have the responsibility of administering building maintenance, and making personnel decisions—but little more. Yet the public thinks (and maybe the public is correct in wanting things to be this way) that local boards should have significant control over curriculum, assessment and evaluation of student work, and a direct say in negotiations with their teachers. So…when is the government going to give local boards the powers they need to live up to the responsibilities given to them under the School Act?As things stand, the Boards have a big job to do, and not enough powers to do that job.
Next time, this blog will ask more questions about the public funding of private and independent schools in B.C. The post will include 12 reasons why it’s time to cap or eliminate that public funding. To be fair, it will examine arguments offered by proponents of public subsidies, including their demands for special deals on taxation and inspection.
This is a longstanding problem in BC education, and it raises a big question: why do we want, need, and insist on equally accessible, quality public education? Private school supporters and providers have constitutional rights, but what of the broader public interest--and the common good of public education?
This sounds like at least two blog posts, maybe three… See you then!
The Valentine’s Day Speech from the Throne
2017 February 21
A week ago the government gave us an idea what it plans to do this year and next. It came in the Speech from the Throne, the document read by the Queen’s representative in Victoria, Judith Guichon, in full dress in the Legislature.
We have one of these speeches at the beginning of each new full session of the legislature. It’s expected to give a vague and broad idea of government planning. A local commentator (Vaughan Palmer) summarized this year’s speech as he does every year: “It’s a laundry list…”
But there’s more to it than that.
Since 2001, the Speech from the Throne has sent a message to voters. It is that we should get used to a government that puts economic and industrial matters first.
In distant second place, the Speech includes statements about public education, public health, and social assistance. These are the things we talk about every day in the street, the things we live by and wish for in British Columbia. They are simply not the first priority of government.
Now, that is an odd system of priorities. Without schools, hospitals, and social assistance, our society would retreat to the conditions of 1875, or maybe 1775. After all, the primary reasons for having a government at all are to help ensure the rule of law, and to put into practice our collective wish to have good schools for our kids, to have assured access to health care, and to be assured that people in need—the elderly, the poor, the new arrivals in our province, and many more—will have the support of public institutions. It is not the public’s job to manufacture things or to sell them, no matter what the Speech from the Throne may suggest.
The word “public” matters here. For we expect our public services (education included) to be offered because they are in the public interest, an activity carried because it is a common good, available universally and equally, free of charge.
This way of looking at government would put education and the other great public services—common goods—as the first government priority.
The Valentine’s Day 2017 Speech from the Throne runs to 12 pages in the version I have (you can read it at: http://engage.gov.bc.ca/thronespeech/transcript/
In the 12 pages of the printed version, one finds education on page 4. It announces how much it’s spending on schools ($5.1 billion) and re-announces $50 million of the new funding required—now that the province has been forced to pay for the contract it chose to break in 2002.
And that’s it for education. We hear nothing about the steady decline of funding for public schools over the past fifteen years and more—with consequences: over-full classrooms, erratic curriculum reform, disappearance of art and music programmes children need and parents demand, weak commitment to the education of special needs kids, and so on and on.
For the sake of comparison, I looked up the Throne Speech for 2013 and discovered that on p. 9 there’s a brief discussion of apprenticeships. On p. 14, there’s a reference to bullying and a government commitment to do all it can to end bullying. The word “school” occurs in 2013 only where the government says it wants a 10-year agreement with the teachers (as we know, they did end up, after a nasty strike, with a six-year agreement).
But the 2013 Speech is honest and open on one important point: “Revenues help make community investment possible – new and improved schools like Port Edward Elementary Heritage Mountain Middle School and Chilliwack Secondary…” It then returns to the ten pages of praise it gives to the extraction of natural gas.
It’s to be money and business first, if you please.
(You’ll find the text of the 2013 speech at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/verbatim-full-text-of-the-bc-speech-from-the-throne/article8512922/ )
Justine Hunt’s excellent article on the results of this tergiversation is extremely helpful. She helps to show why it’s time to turn the world right side up. You’ll find her essay in the Feb. 19, 2017 Globe and Mail.
This afternoon and tomorrow, I’ll be reading the budget to see if there are signs the government wants to turn the world right side up. And I’ll report my findings right here in the PENS blog.
We begin a new PENS blog series on public education—its aims, its funding, the way it’s governed in BC, and what it’s like to be a student, a parent or a teacher in BC schools.
The series isn’t in strict chronological sequence since BC, Canadian, and world education continues to move quickly. Nor will the blog be limited to matters of elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schooling. Considering the speed of social and economic change, posts will move far and freely. After all, if it isn’t Christy Clark in BC it’s Betsy de Vos in the USA. If it isn’t a new approach to the teaching of mathematics, then it’s the education of gifted kids. If it isn’t classrooms that take into account individual differences, then it’s the pull toward standardized testing. The list goes on and on.
When there’s relevant news from the American experience, the Ontario experience, or a more distant corner of the world (Finland or China, say) it will turn up in this blog. Either I (Bill Bruneau, the main blog writer for now) will deal with it, or another PENS writer (or friend) will cover it. Later, we’ll find a way to invite reader comments.
Some posts will be short, some long (next post about the BC Speech from the Throne, delivered 2017 February 14, will be short-ish—but the post about the provincial budget on February 21 will take, well, days….).
There’s space in the blog for posts about budgets, provincial and national; for talk about curriculum change; and for discussions of big social problems that affect public education. But there’ll also be occasional comment about the personalities and institutions who want to change BC public education.
You can acquire a feeling for this PENS blog by reading the PENS Charter, and previous blog entries. Some of our writers will talk about the PENS Charter, how it came to be, and how it fits with the protest movement now in full swing in BC.
Somebody once asked Martin Luther King Jr. why he thought the timing was right for a campaign to end segregation in the United States. His answer was simply that “It’s always the right time to talk about fairness and equality.” Well, the same is true of public education: the time to talk about public education (and about the wider society) is always…now.
The government decision last fall to fire the entire Vancouver School Board certainly helped to concentrate the public’s mind. Several months earlier BC teachers found it necessary to strike to draw attention to underfunding, an action they took because of government policy. That too concentrated minds. Then there was the Supreme Court decision of late last year, a decision that compelled the provincial government to live up to contractual promises it had simply refused to carry out for fifteen years. And the destruction of elementary school music programmes, the proposed closure of more than 200 schools across BC…
What is the best way forward? How should we respond to events like these? Should local school boards be given real and lasting financial and curriculum powers? Faced with changing demography, cultural diversity, and economic uncertainty, what kind of curriculum makes sense in schools, colleges, and universities? What level of funding is really needed in public education?
With the help of active parent groups, media work by folks like those at Your Education Matters, and active support in the universities and the media (The Tyee, and with less argumentativeness the Sun and the Globe), answers are beginning to be clear. In the next few blogs, you’ll see some of those answers.
Three Long Campaigns
To begin, I’ll tell the tales of three long campaigns for
*more education funding,
*more local autonomy, and
*re-commitment to education as the first priority of government.
One campaign was and is federal even though education is provincial. The feds play a big role in education in Canada. They have to be considered, and they certainly shouldn’t be forgotten in the fight for public education. There’ll be a post about this later on. We’ll start for now with BC.
2017 is, of course, an election year in BC. There will be more public education action than usual in the legislature, in communities across the province. By “communities,” I don’t only meant towns and cities and regions, but also interested groups of citizens demanding a voice in the way their and our kids are educated, and the way we provide education for adult learners. The recent work of the Parent Advocacy Network, the FACE (Families Against Cuts to Education), Protect Public Education Now, and many other groups—all that work is forcing more of the decision making into the open—where it belongs.
It’s a big, broad story. But this is a big, broad blog.
The provincial campaign for proper educational funding, in its current form, goes back fifty years. Indeed the direction of the recent BC campaign owes much to activists, some from far outside the province, some of whom are nearly forgotten. We’ll look more than once at those fifty years as the blog proceeds.
Next: The Valentine’s Day Speech from the Throne
Welcome to the PENS Blog on public education! Our bloggers include parents, teachers, education researchers, and other strong supporters of public education in BC and in Canada. Taking the lead is Bill Bruneau, Professor Emeritus UBC, ex-Vancouver School Board trustee, ex-President of his faculty association, and ex-president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.