Recently, the Conference Board of Canada announced that the education system in British Columbia was the best in Canada and the third best in the world, after Finland and Japan.
Even Premier Clark had to reluctantly acknowledge this fact in a recent press conference. She pointed out that in her upcoming trip to India she would be promoting BC as a destination for foreign students because indeed we do have an excellent academic record.
Ours is hardly a system that is “broken” as so many commentators like to say: rather, it is a system that is “broke,” due to twelve years of underfunding.
So, how is it possible that teachers in this province have achieved this remarkable reputation?
Our per-student grant in British Columbia is $1000 below the national average, indeed 10th out of 10. Our student-educator ratio is the worst in Canada. Our teachers are now the lowest paid in Canada after little PEI. A quick check of my old school district, Ottawa/Carleton, for example, indicates that I, as a teacher at maximum with a Master’s degree, would be paid over $100,000, compared to my $81,500 salary here.
What has been the impact on our schools of the budget shortfalls? Remember the abortive attempts to save money with the four-day week?
While the provincial government likes to point out that student enrollment has dropped and funding has increased, it is easy to show that compared to other provinces, BC’s funding increases have not kept up with those of other provinces.
As a result, since 2002 we have closed more than 200 schools, lost 752 special needs teachers, lost 117 counselors, and lost 250 teacher-librarians.
Whereas other provinces have increased the number of teachers by 5 per cent, BC has reduced the number by 2 per cent. Funding cuts have had a huge impact on schools’ ability to buy resources.
For example, my department had an annual operating budget of $1500, enough for a couple of class sets of books. Like most teachers, I spent hundreds of dollars of my own money buying resources for my students.
When Christy Clark tore up the teachers’ contract in 2002 and stripped class size and composition from it – illegally as two Supreme Court rulings have determined – the limits on overall numbers and the numbers of special needs students in each class were removed.
These students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) require extra assistance or modification of their instruction, and whereas before the limit might have been two or three in a class, it became common to have as many as eight IEP students in one class, as I had.
This situation makes it hard to spend enough one-on-one time with the average student in a class. The classrooms of today’s schools are not like the ones you were in 20 or 30 years ago.
The vast majority of teachers are proud, caring, dedicated professionals who daily strive to do what is best for your children – with excellent results, as the Conference Board has shown.
BC teachers have twice given up salary increases to improve class size and composition. The average teacher has lost $6000 in salary during the strike to preserve this clause that we negotiated and that the courts confirmed was a part of our contract.
This strike has not been about wages and benefits: our position on wages differs from the government’s by one percent, and we will still be at the bottom of the salary range at the end of the six years when we settle.
I will not waste time speculating on the reasons Clark and Fassbender have taken so long to reach a deal with the teachers, but I am appalled by the silence of our local school trustees and administrators over the years as we have all struggled to keep this system afloat, and by the parents who, rather than acknowledging the successes of teachers under these difficult circumstances, choose to blame them for the shortfalls that have resulted from underfunding.
Other superintendents, administrators and school boards have had no problems in expressing their frustrations with the impacts of underfunding and the lack of true negotiations. Other parent groups even established emergency funds to assist needy teachers.
Every child has a right to a properly funded public education. Adequate librarians, counselors and special services should not be the exclusive prerogative of those who can send their children to private schools, as our Premier does. It is not too much to expect that per student funding and teachers’ wages should be in keeping with the national average.
The role of government is to collect the taxes and provide the social services we all need, not slash taxes by 25% and pay for the cuts at the expense of education.
When I came to this province from Ontario 25 years ago, I was shocked by the low morale of teachers and the way in which they were vilified by parents, politicians, and pundits.
Sadly, if anything, the situation has worsened. I retired this year and am leaving to go back East, but it breaks my heart that my students had to be out of school when they are anxious to do well in grade 12, and my fellow teachers were on the picket lines for months, enduring significant financial hardships. This is a completely intolerable situation, and would never have happened if the government had lived up to its responsibilities.
I am proud of my fellow teachers for standing up to the bullying government and for making huge personal sacrifices to protect their rights and public education.
I fear, however, that the situation will be repeated in the future and that the atmosphere will remain toxic for years to come, unless parents wake up and acknowledge that BC is fortunate in having one of the best educational systems in the world thanks to its hard-working teachers. Respect education; demand a fully-funded public education system in this province.
Andrew Williams, Terrace, B.C.