Opposition in Victoria devoid of new ideas and initiatives
As BC Liberal leadership hopefuls gather for their upcoming debates it is painfully obvious that after their humiliating defeat at the hands of the Supreme Court of Canada, not a single aspirant to Christy Clark’s mantle has a fresh idea or innovative approach on redirecting our public schools.
The draft platforms of all the challengers to the newly-elected NDP/ Green coalition government contains not a single reference to the province’s K-12 education system, other than Sam Sullivan’s bizarre reference to the privatization of some public schools by introducing charter schools based on an Albertan model.
Some BC Liberal leadership candidates are only now openly conceding the sense of “arrogance” and “entitlement” that permeated the revolving door of seven education ministers going back to Christy Clark and ending with Mike Bernier.
The sad and shameful record of 16 years of BC Liberal mismanagement or our schools is glaringly obvious as school board after school board wrestles with the implications of implementing mandatory class size and composition requirements and begins to cope with both the backed up and pent up difficulties in rebuilding our demoralized and diminished schools.
Without any meaningful support, teachers are increasingly frustrated as they deal with class composition overload (upwards of seven special needs students per class) in many classrooms. Unsurprisingly, documented grievances to school boards are piling up by the day.
The full extent of the cumulative impact of education cutbacks is now emerging, the effects both broad and deep. And because the across-the-board damage is so extensive, it is estimated that it will take at least three to four years to fully rebuild and reboot our schools.
Starting with the decade-long assault on special needs kids and their families, the withdrawal of key programs and services, as well as other drastic social cutbacks to seniors, marginalized citizens, and adolescents in care, the BC Liberals have rightly earned the label “the nasty party”, a label which Theresa May recently, and rather astonishingly, used to describe her own Conservative party in the UK.
Repeatedly downloading expenses, abruptly cancelling mid-year support for new programs or services, and the unrelenting tide of cutbacks destabilized boards and led to a myriad of curricular shortfalls in virtually every subject. The loss of over 2000 skilled, specialized teachers, in eight different categories continues to have a huge negative impact on quality schooling. There were also the so-called “reforms”, including the renaming of school principals as “administrative officers” and school boards as “Boards of Education”.
All this unnecessary disruption led in 2014 to a five-week teachers’ strike (and the admitted bad faith negotiation). Clearly this is the worst relationship with the province’s teachers in living memory, so not surprisingly, all the BC Liberal leadership candidates have taken to the hills when preparing their education platforms on the future of this province.
If the BC Liberals wish to return to government, their desperate June 2017 Speech from the Throne - devoid of any reference to the starving of funding for our K-12 public education system- will simply not cut it .
Reclaiming provincial power and leadership must be made of sterner stuff.
Noel Herron is a former Vancouver principal and trustee
BOLD LEADERSHIP: A KEY CONSIDERATION IN RETURN OF VSB BOARD: Many questions after 16 years of turmoil
After an almost year-long “interregnum” by a single government appointed trustee that replaced nine elected city trustees, the return of democracy to Vancouver Schools (“Twinned by election touted as wise move, Sun August 4 2017) is indeed welcome.
While the implementation of class size and class composition will be a major focus of the new board as mandated by last November’s precedent-setting Supreme Court decision, the rebuilding of parental and staff trust and confidence in a beleaguered system is clearly imperative.
In the absence of any pointed and sustained criticism by members of the province’s current establishment (trustees, superintendents and principals), the BC Liberals’ chronic underfunding and punitive policies whittled away at board services and supports, while the teacher’s federation was left to battle the loss of programs and supports, not to mention their collective bargaining rights.
The only board to consistently oppose damaging cutbacks was the VSB, which made it a target of repeated audits and investigations, including uneven and arbitrary criteria for city school closures. Incidentally, the Surrey School district, the largest in the province, submitted a flawed brief in support of Victoria’s assault on teachers’ constitutional bargaining rights, thereby confirming its lack of constructive criticism in the ongoing debate.
Now we are faced with not only a rebuilding but also a rebooting of our K-12 metropolitan school system. The questions arising from this are many and varied and have broad implications for the restoration of quality schooling.
Apart from re-instituting negotiated class size and composition, will accompanying and closely related program matters and curriculum concerns be addressed? Will attention be focused on the rebuilding of badly weakened school-based teams, which Vancouver once pioneered? Will key curriculum concerns around special needs, ESL, learning assistance, gifted education and fine arts receive the attention they deserve?
What about professional development workshops and in-service (the heart and soul of reform) for newly-hired teachers? And what of the vacuum left by the unprecedented retirement of 20 city principals in June?
Now that the era of punitive confrontation with Victoria has ended, will the new trustees make the case for badly depleted inner city resources? How about the growing number of hungry kids arriving in city schools (and not just in the inner city) each year? Will the hiring of a new superintendent of schools and the rebuilding of a reconstituted senior management team receive the focus it deserves?
These are some of the many issues that will emerge out of the October 14th by-election in Vancouver. And what of the pessimistic predictions by a few former VSB trustees that ongoing disruption and uncertainty will continue? They are mostly unfounded, for a new electoral mandate and obligations to the city’s students, aided by a supportive and fair-minded provincial government will generate a forward-looking and co-operative board climate.
Noel Herron is a former principal and VSB trustee.
Voter Suppression Alive and Well in Vancouver: BC Liberals a no- show at VSB all-candidates meeting -- by Noel Herron
On April 25th, the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Committee hosted an all-candidates meeting at the VSB. Both the provincial NDP and Green parties sent two representatives to this special event, while the governing BC Liberals, unfortunately, were a no-show, despite several requests from the parents’ group to send speakers. The empty Liberal seats sadly spoke volumes about the governing party’s lack of commitment to a return of the democratic process to city schools and to the public accountability of their electoral platform.
Last year, having arbitrarily fired the 9 duly elected school trustees on the eve of the adoption of a balanced budget, education minister Mike Bernier repeatedly refused to reinstate the Vancouver board or call a school board election. This, from the perspective of many Vancouver voters, is an affront not only to local democracy but an abuse of provincial power.
The governing party’s ongoing and antagonistic approach to Vancouver through a revolving door of 7 education ministers since 2001, to date, has included all of the following: the imposition of a ‘special advisor’, accompanied by an 8-person government ‘audit’ team on, not one but on two occasions, plus the continuity, even to this day, of an unceasing stream of cuts to basic programs and services.
All of this came to an abrupt and grinding halt last November when the Supreme Court of Canada handed the Liberals a humiliating defeat in a twenty-minute landmark dismissal of Victoria’s attempt to ride roughshod over BC’s teacher constitutional bargaining rights.
Now the VSB is left with a single government appointed ‘trustee’, purporting to replace the board’s 9 elected liaison-trustees, in a city with over 100 diverse school communities. This single ‘trustee’ is faced with a host of mounting problems that are beyond the capacity of any one individual, no matter how talented, despite the repeated and bogus assurances of the province’s current education minister that all is well, when, in fact, the exact opposite is true.
What follows is a partial list of the ongoing and emerging difficulties that would overwhelm any single individual in a system originally designed to function within a participatory democratic framework, much less someone foisted on schools by an intransigent government.
Here is a partial list of the cumulative problems, all of which have their origin in chronic provincial underfunding. Even more outrageous, is the Liberals’ claim (page 73 of the BC Liberals’ 2017 election platform), that they will “maintain”, despite their dubious record, the province’s “world-leading” education system.
We start with the highly emotional: threatened closures of neighbourhood schools, made worse by the arbitrary and changing mid-stream of provincial eligibility criteria; followed by the urgent need for professional development in-service for over 100 new teachers in a depleted professional development landscape; add to this, a totally destabilized environment as it relates to special needs, aboriginal education, arts and music, race relations, gifted students and learning assistance/skill development programs; the reinstatement of the original, negotiated class size and composition criteria, (province–wide, there were, according to a recent ministry of education report, an astounding 4,186 crowded classrooms with 7 or more special needs kids); plus the reinstatement of the board’s two specialized Teaching and Evaluation Centres - unique to Vancouver; the decimation of programs and services related to English-as-a-Second language programs at elementary, secondary and post- secondary schools; and the very unfair shrinkage to a single centre, within the past few weeks, of the board’s fine adult ed program, (a rally in front of the VSB protesting the closure of two of three remaining adult ed centres was held the day before the VSB all-candidates meeting on April 24th); also, the collapse of essential community outreach initiatives to local parent groups, made worse by over a decade-long delay in seismic upgrading of ageing school buildings, all of which is anchored in parental safety concerns.
Lastly, topping the above list, is the sad and incomprehensible squeezing of support for the most marginalized and vulnerable students in inner-city schools, as documented in detail by the Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School series and frequent other articles.
Our public schools should not have to depend on the kindness of strangers.
The unaddressed backlog of issues emerging from battered services and programs seems to grow with each passing month.
It boggles the mind to even begin to suggest, as Mike Bernier has done, that the VSB with a single appointed “head” and a controversial senior management team can successfully navigate the expanding problems and multiple difficulties in the province’s second largest school system.
Against this uncertain and turbulent background, to continue to insist on voter suppression, or alternately, the failure to announce the date of an upcoming school board election, as the BC Liberals have done, is an insult to students, parents, teachers, support staff, and principals in city schools.
Time for a change of governance in Victoria.
Noel Herron is a former VSB principal and school trustee
They Mustn’t Fail: BC’s Three Political Parties and the Future of Public Education (part 2 of 2) by Bill Bruneau
For the first time since 1972, public education has been near the centre of political discussion in an election year. Patti Bacchus, until recently a Vancouver school trustee, says it’s “a key election issue—finally!” She’s right.
On 2017 May 5, The Tyee published a convenient chart comparing the party platforms on themes—not just education, but also medicare, housing, climate, electoral reform, and so on. The Tyee included a chart showing where parties differ on education funding and control.
It’s good to see this kind of attention to public education. Now we must keep up the pressure. We want discussion after the election to continue, and to go beyond the nuts-and-bolts of money and programmes.
Crawford Kilian, long-time writer on BC education, has insisted (yet again) that “actually, Christy Clark, more money would improve BC education.” But Kilian goes on to give broad suggestions about school reform, ideas that go beyond matters of money and control. The writers of this blog have been doing the same—going beyond matters of money and control.
We have more questions for our political friends and colleagues, and for citizens in the province who don’t necessarily see education as a “political” matter.
WILL YOUR PARTY EMPOWER SCHOOL BOARDS?
Remember that school boards have almost no real authority. They are supposed to ensure a strong and excellent educational programme for every child.
But school boards don’t decide which schools will be built (or closed)—that’s decided by the Ministry of Education and the Treasury Board.
Boards don’t negotiate salaries with teachers (that’s done province-wide).
Boards may have some small influence over the choice of electives taught in the elementary and secondary schools, but only if there’s money, and nearly always…there isn’t.
Boards don’t decide about the amount of special education to be deliver in a district—that’s essentially a provincial government matter.
Specialist teaching—in libraries, or in music and art—has become less and less possible, even in the largest BC school districts—partly because there’s no serious government interest in such things—partly because there’s no money.
And when it comes to dealing with hungry kids from poorer families, children and adults trying to learn one of our official languages, well…school boards have neither the resources nor the power to carry out their responsibilities.
Trustees “advocate” better education. But when it comes to power, it’s in…Victoria.
There’s a fundamental, unavoidable problem here: school boards haven’t the means to reach their ends. There’s confusion and uncertainty in public education, and that’s one reason why education funding has not kept pace with public demand.
All three provincial platforms are silent on local governance in education. The NDP platform speaks of “working with local governments.” The NDP also say they’ll act on the education recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (this is a big deal, actually). This suggests Victoria (not local boards) will be the deciding factor in BC education, if the NDP form government.
But none of the parties has tackled the glaringly obvious problem of power vs responsibility in BC education.
Either we give boards new powers in taxation, and new powers over curriculum and contracts—OR we accept that the central government will run (and pay for) the whole thing. We need clarity.
WILL THERE BE A CAP ON FUNDING FOR INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS? IF NOT, WHY NOT?
Few educational issues cause the blood pressure of voters to go up the way this one does. The matter of public subsidies for private schools causes most voters to get…heartburn. All three parties say they will “review” the way they fund public education.
The NDP has gone a little further, saying it will “look at” the way BC subsidizes private schooling in the province.
And that’s it.
Supporters of the private school subsidy usually say (i) it’s cheaper to have kids stay out of the public schools; (ii) the public system can’t afford to have 12% of school age children migrate from the private to the public sector; and (iii) private schools are socially and culturally diverse, and don’t widen the gap between rich and poor in B.C.
But in fact, the School Act and the public agree--we are committed to providing a solid education, on an equal and egalitarian basis, to every child and learner in the province. There’s money for this purpose, to judge by the platforms (even the Scrooge-like Liberal platform).
The public system would welcome as many of those 12% as would come back to public education. That takes care of points (i) and (ii).
And yes, the private schools are able to choose their customers and clienteles. Some families wish their children to accept a specific religious outlook, to learn to believe a dogma (to use a term that a large number of these schools would understand). Religion is diverse, no doubt about it. So private religious schools have that kind of diversity. And yes, some private schools choose well prepared children from privileged backgrounds, and some private schools don’t; so, yes, they’re “diverse” too—although their aims are not primarily about equality and equity.
Besides, public schools are diverse and excellent, even after decades of underfunding. If diversity and excellence are the deciding factors, then there’s no good reason to spend public funds on the peculiar and particular demands of private—or “independent”—schools.
All three parties fall short on the question of public funding for private schools, although one party offers a glimmer of hope.
WILL POVERTY AND ITS EFFECTS IN PUBLIC EDUCATION BE DEALT WITH?
All three parties make commitments to universal and affordable daycare. The expense and scarcity of daycare are huge barriers to parents (mostly mothers) who would like to join the workforce. One way to tackle poverty is to make it easier for people to join the workforce.
The Tyee’s summary chart reminds us of the parties’ ideas on housing. Here, too, a policy that strongly supports social housing could make a difference to families living near or below the poverty line—and thus a difference to the children who come to the public schools, sometimes from radically disadvantaged homes and neighbourhoods.
There are even bigger questions to be asked about social services—not just in the Downtown Eastside or in Whalley, but everywhere. There’s talk of a “guaranteed annual income” in some debates around the province and around the country.
There’s growing understanding that poverty is too expensive, too costly in social and financial terms. We have to tackle it, quickly.
The sitting government has a track record that does not encourage confidence in this area of policy.
The NDP has a track record of support for social services (and for education that can respond to the divide between haves and have-nots). The Greens have an ambitious plan for social development, including educational development, that might begin to tackle poverty at its roots. It’s a discussion we should have begun a half-century ago, and now that we’ve begun, it’s time to act.
HOW WILL BC BUILD A STRONG WORKING RELATIONSHIP WITH TEACHERS AND THE TEACHING PROFESSION?
None of the parties has even hinted at a new approach to teacher and the teaching profession. It rarely comes up in leaders’ debates and interviews. The party platforms are nearly silent. The parties aim for peaceful labour relations in the school system—and who would not want labour peace?
The Greens say they’ll invest significantly in training teachers to handle the new curriculum, and so do the NDP. The Liberals say they want peace…
But there has been no province-wide discussion of ideas that have had big and positive impacts in other parts of the world—in Finland, Germany, France. The Fins encourage all their teachers to acquire advanced education degrees, something close our Master’s degrees in Canada. The Germans and the French have a sustained commitment to continuing professional education. The results in Europe have been (a) to encourage ever stronger public faith in the public schools, (b) to stimulate an idea of the profession as a partner not just in the work of education—but also in social and economic development. If we are serious about working with kids to realize their “potential” (a word we hear and see a lot in all the party platforms), and if we strengthen the profession—then public education really will move society in the direction of fairness, openness, and democratic practice.
Now, you’ve heard these high-flown sentiments before, and usually they don’t take us very far. But wait, let’s consider examples. Here are three, beginning first the idea of renewed commitment to enriched, specialized instruction at all levels of public schooling.
By international measures and standards, BC public schools are good. But if we want to surpass the standards we see in Finland, Germany, France, and so on, one way is to offer more advanced, intense instruction in the main fields of study from K to Grade XII (and of course, on through technical schools, college, apprenticeship, and university studies). We used to do it, right across the province of British Columbia, with committed principals and leader-teachers and consultants and district principals in the centrally important subjects.
I’m thinking that specialist instruction shouldn’t be limited to libraries, music, and art, but extended to include new professional offerings in language, physical education, mathematics, science, and history. Why not make our schools so good that nobody would want to consider private or home schooling…ever?
Let’s go further. British Columbians talk little about the compensation of teachers. Given their importance, I have trouble seeing why we don’t engage in that conversation.
Lawyers and civil engineers, the traditional comparison professions, have been doing well for decades in British Columbia; teachers have not been dealt with in the same way(s). One wonders why that is so, considering that 80% of British Columbians see the system in a positive light. People widely accept and applaud the idea that a great profession deserves proper compensation.
Let’s go further still. There’s the strange story of the Ministry of Education and its relation to the teaching profession. The new curriculum is said to be the result of a collaboration between civil servants in the Ministry and teachers. Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to find out exactly who is responsible for the detailed development of—for example—subjects that will and won’t be examined in the senior secondary grades—or subjects that will or won’t be “electives” in the secondary and elementary grades.
We’ve already seen how questions about school building, school supplies, and special needs have been “solved” by Ministry fiat, sometimes dictated by politicians and civil servants without much background in public education. For professional teachers, it must be frustrating and bothersome to see all of this.
Meanwhile, school boards and school administrators (the principals who help schools to work and to be truly effective) are caught between the needs of kids and teachers on one hand, and a curiously invisible Ministry of Education on the other.
A new approach to the profession will have to include a renewed and reformed Ministry of Education.
On all these big questions, the parties come up short. It may be that politicians and political parties haven’t the expertise or the will to answer them. In recent articles (and in this blog), there has been discussion of a future royal commission on education. One thing a royal commission could do is to review and revise the way government, teachers, civil servants, and parents could work effectively together.
But there’s no good reason to let politicians off the hook. This is a democracy, and public education is essential to it. In a representative democracy, we ask a great deal of politicians. It seems they’re beginning to rise to the challenge in the area of public education. Let’s keep up the pressure, on the political parties, and on ourselves. There’s work to be done.
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.
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.