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.