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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 5, April 2004

Wake up the neighbours!

by Janet Amsden

"Some things are worth fighting for in life. Education is one of them," said Pam Fitzgerald, one of two veterans of Mike Harris’s war on Ontario schools. She and Jim Libbey were in Richmond talking to teachers, parents, students, trustees, and other educators at the Public Education Conference in February. I wondered if the audience felt as I do, that I’ve been fighting against education-budget cutbacks for too much of my teaching career.

"I was mad as hell, and I wasn’t going to take it any more!" said Jim Libbey, describing his state of mind when he chaired the Ottawa–Carleton Board of Education during the troubles. Libbey and Pam Fitzgerald, who represented the Ottawa–Carleton parents, told the story of their public opposition to government underfunding: a campaign that led to restored funding and the eventual defeat of their MLA.

We were a concerned audience. A UBC professor decried lack of access to his campus for post-secondary students. A parent rep reported that many parents are now feeling that their children with special needs are being neglected in understaffed schools and would do better in segregated classrooms. A trustee spoke of his frustration at being forced to close schools and cut programs while the government misleads the public with statements about surpluses and funding increases.

Fitzgerald advised, "When you’re fighting with a bully, use your words." She described how they ensured that their message about the effects of funding cuts got out to parents. Those parents got involved in the election—wives convinced their husbands to change their votes, and that swing vote defeated the Harris government. Fitzgerald also stressed the importance of working in coalitions with all the partner groups in education. "You can win. You have to work together," she said. "Talk to your friends. Talk to anyone who disagrees with you."

I’ve done this in the past, and I well remember the unsympathetic looks my unemployed neighbours returned when I complained about underfunding. My neighbours need to understand that the issue is not about my wanting higher wages; it is about protecting public education, the institution that reduces stratification in Canadian society.

I need to convince them that for some students, doors are closing. Can they comprehend that education can erode to the point that the government spends more on prisons than on schools? It has in California.

I have the information I need for talking to my neighbours. The BCTF research staff shared detailed information about the cuts in direct services to students since 2001 and facts about misleading ministry funding announcements. It’s all on the web site www.bctf.ca.

I have the tools. Vancouver trustees Noel Herron and Angela Kenyon shared their Advocacy Toolkit, which is part of Vancouver School Board’s campaign "People for Public Education." The campaign, by trustees, teachers, parents, representatives of staff associations, and unions and senior district staff, focusses on getting the word out. The brochure contains easy, practical suggestions. (Information is available at www.vsb.bc.ca).

For me, there are two differences between today’s insult to public education and those of the past. One is the ideology of the Liberal government—one that supports privatization of public services, one that operates on the premise that competition is good, despite that, in a competition, someone loses. The other difference is the realization that, this time, we have strong allies in the community. We need to build coalitions with parents, trustees, seniors, students, and other public-sector-union members, and work together to get the message out. Let’s wake up the neighbours.

"Democracy must be born anew in every generation, and education is its midwife." – John Dewey

Janet Amsden teaches at Fairview Elementary School, Maple Ridge.

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