Authors: John Malcolmson and Bill Bruneau
When BC forests go up in flames, we spend what's necessary to save trees and take care of our communities. When communicable disease endangers public health, we don't count the cost: we send in our doctors and nurses, we make tough decisions and act on them.
So when kids work in overcrowded classrooms, and schools deal with pressures hardly anyone imagined twenty years ago, you'd think we would rise to the occasion. You'd think we would deal with basic changes in our neighbourhoods and the wider society. You might imagine that the stewards of our school system would remember to take inflation into account when they set the budget. After all, good public education comes at a reasonable cost.
But there's no sense of urgency. Educated citizens are needed in the province, yet BC has fallen well behind the rest of Canada. We are the only province where there are fewer teachers and staff workers than five years ago, even though we have had years of population growth. The 2013 budget announces "flat funding" until 2016 for public schools.
The BC Association of School Business Officials estimates the system is at least $300 million behind where it was a decade ago. Funding has not kept pace with cost pressures, new and old. We spend almost exactly $1,000 less per child for public education in BC than the national average.
You would think we had an unlimited amount of time in which to fix our education funding problem. But we don't.
More than ever, BC teachers must act as social workers, public health officers, and fund-raisers, not just educators. They have always taught and they have always taught well. Student standings in national and international surveys continue to show this.
Pressure on schools, individual teachers and support workers continues to grow. School personnel respond as best they can to moving and growing populations, to a blossoming knowledge economy, and to rapidly changing communications.
And still our schools operate with inadequate supplies and support. In well-off neighbourhoods, parents may be able to raise funds for the essential tools of 21st-century education, but elsewhere in urban and rural BC, fundraising for classrooms and needy children is usually Wishful Thinking.
Meanwhile the public system has to find money to pay increased Medicare and pension premiums for its staff, to come up with more dollars to pay rising heating bills, to comply with carbon emission standards, and to deal with contracts signed with teachers, administrators, and support staff. This is not the stuff of myth. This is the daily reality of school funding in British Columbia.
When forests burn, we feel the heat. We hire planes and engineers and frontline workers. When there's a long-term threat from infectious disease, we hire full-time permanent staff to solve immediate problems and prevent new outbreaks.
But when we need education specialists and dedicated full-time teachers in far greater numbers, and a whole generation of children depends on them, we have turned off the financial tap. Buildings are cleaned and maintained less often. Fewer courses and programs are offered. Fewer education assistants are there to care for and solve problems with teachers and students. Clerical workers who once staffed every local school office are less and less available when students or their parents need them.
Meanwhile inflation continues to undermine the education system with visibly negative effects. Parents, teachers, and staff members worry about the breadth, depth, and currency of the education their children receive. They ask what it will take to persuade the provincial government to get moving to make public education BC's highest priority.
The BC Liberal government claims it gives schools the "highest funding ever," but that claim is myth. Think of the many new costs downloaded to local school boards. And remember the government's failure to fund inflation.
We are at the end of a decade of shortfalls. Education funding is inadequate. It is time to face up to that fact.
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.