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!
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.