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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 1, September 2004

The Campbell government and the B.C. education agenda

by Noel Herron

In the countdown to the next provincial election, over the course of the next eight months, you can expect to be inundated with advertisements, reports, surveys, and pronouncements from Victoria delineating how the Campbell government’s "New Era" education agenda has wrought wonders for B.C.’s public schools.

Don’t believe a word of it.

The premier has asserted that public education has been his number-one priority since he was elected; yet the Campbell government’s agenda over the past three years has been nothing short of disastrous for one of the finest public education systems in this country.

Chronic underfunding has resulted in closed schools, laid-off teachers, shortages of basic classroom supplies and materials, program disruption and cancellation (particularly for thousands of vulnerable kids), a veritable tsunami of education changes (some superficial), with little or no consultation, increased class size, and record levels of local fundraising by parent groups.

After appointing Christy Clark minister of education—one of the most arrogant and confrontational ministers of education this province has ever seen—and leaving her in that portfolio for two years, Campbell belatedly realized that she would be a severe impediment heading into the next election. (The near collapse of the scandal-ridden Ministry of Children and Family Development provided the opportunity for an overdue cabinet shuffle.)

And so the kinder, gentler Tom Christensen surfaced as the new minister to repair the damaged relationships with parents, teachers, and school trustees.

Christensen was also left, in late August, to mop up the mess from the abrupt withdrawal of Christy Clark’s much-trumpeted and partly fatuous fitness plan for B.C. schools scheduled to be implemented this year.

Whether the new minister is successful in rebuilding relationships remains to be seen, but one thing is painfully clear: his predecessor’s dismissive and condescending approach to teachers is not reparible within a short period of time. And this situation is not helped by the premier’s insistence in his public pronouncements that teachers, through their Federation, constitute a "special interest" group and as such their opinions are to be discounted.

Adding another and bizarre dimension to this overtly political strategy was Global TV’s Victoria political correspondent Keith Baldrey’s statement to a B.C. school trustees’ gathering last December, that a sizeable segment of backbench Liberal MLAs have a "pathological hatred" for the BCTF.

It appears that idealogical extremism knows no bounds for many in this government. And with this attitude it is not difficult to foresee an ongoing and unrelenting campaign to demonize the Federation over the next few months particularly in an attempt to separate the organization from its rank and file members.

But what perfectly symbolizes the Campbell government’s approach to education is, we are told, the premier’s intense interest in "literacy" and its relationship to student improvement. Indeed, this has been the topic in several of his public addresses.

Speaking at the most recent B.C. School Trustees Association (BCSTA) annual general meeting in Victoria, Tom Christensen went out of his way to inform us of Campbell’s abiding support for "literacy" and of his commitment to ensure that no B.C. kid would be left behind. The minister waxed eloquent on this topic.

Never mind the fact that over the past three years the B.C. Liberals have drastically cut school-based teacher-librarian positions—a key component in the promotion of any worthwhile literacy program. B.C. now has one of the worst per-pupil-school-librarian ratios in Canada with "closed" signs prominently displayed on many school library doors.

As the May 17, 2005, election date approaches, we can expect the Campbell Liberals to use two strategies for their return to Victoria—the sweetening of the education pot with added funding for schools, but nowhere near what is required to rebuild the system, and accompanying this will be the time-worn don’t-blame-us-blame-them (school boards) strategy to blunt the criticism of the impact of provincial underfunding. Even the cheerleading Province newspaper, in a mid-summer editorial, excoriated the provincial government as being "irresponsible" for repeatedly using this diversionary tactic.

However, that won’t stop the B.C. Liberals as they are deeply worried about the downward slide in the premier’s personal approval rating, having appointed an internal committee to bolster his performance. Although they are quick to deny it, they will, if past performance is an indicator, be preoccupied with spin and worried about future newscasts from now until next May.

Hold on to your chalkboards folks, as public relations dominate the upcoming B.C. education agenda.

Noel Herron is a Vancouver School Board trustee.

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