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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 4, January/February 2007

Education Committee report to the BCFed Convention

Defending the K–12 education system

In the K–12 education system, 2005–06 was a tumultuous year for workers. Teachers and support workers were embroiled in a struggle against the provincial Liberal government education policies, which threaten the very basis of public education.

A prime example of this was the crisis that ended in the job action of teachers in October 2005. During this job action, a systematic series of attacks designed to undermine public confidence in the system and foster privatization and commercialization was launched by the Liberal government.

The assault began with the stripping of teachers’ collective agreements from 2002 (as noted in our 2004 Report to Convention). The crisis came to a head when the Liberal government intervened in a limited teacher job action in 2005. The result was Bill 12, which imposed a one-year contract and ordered the teachers back to work. This piece of legislation, however, had the opposite effect. Despite the Bill and previous essential service legislation, teachers defiantly went out on a full withdrawal of service while affiliates, supported by the BC Federation of Labour, walked the line in solidarity throughout the province. This withdrawal of services lasted two weeks, the longest provincial public education action in the history of Canada. Teachers faced the intimidation of the province, the media, and the courts, and stood their ground. The tremendous and solid support of the affiliates, particularly in school support unions, parents, and the public, led to the appointment of Vince Ready as mediator.

Teachers voted to accept Ready’s recommendations that $100 million be injected into the system, that working and learning conditions (class size and composition) be addressed in public policy and negotiated at the Learning Round Table, and that teacher bargaining processes be reviewed and improved.

The year came to a close with another round of teacher bargaining, an 88% strike vote, and round-the-clock negotiations that ended just before midnight on June 30. The result was the ratification of a new five-year collective agreement in September, bringing a period of stability to an otherwise stressed system.

The struggle is not over, Bill 33, the Liberals’ legislation to control class sizes, remains critical, as do the battles to achieve appropriate class composition and confront the Liberals’ so-called "accountability agenda."

Bill 33 limited Kindergarten to 19 students, Grades 1–3 to 21 students, and Grades 4–7 to 30 students. Up to 30 students per class are permitted in secondary school classrooms.

The legislation also introduced a cap on the number of students with special needs that could be placed in any one class to three.

However, this legislation has never been funded, meaning that school boards will have to rob Peter to pay Paul. The deputy minister has suggested districts "use...non-enrolling staffing" to create new classes, thereby paving the way for the further erosion of the services provided by non-enrolling teachers.

Thus, Bill 33 goes only a very small way to addressing the pressing workload issues facing teachers (and must be compared to Ontario, which plans to reduce all elementary classes to fewer than 20 over the next two years). If it remains unfunded, the provision of programs for children with special needs is threatened, as are the services of non-enrolling teachers such as counsellors, school librarians, English as a Second Language (ESL), and special education and learning assistance teachers.

The second issue at hand, the accountability agenda, is the education policy framework of the Liberal government and its hallmarks include:

  1. Chronic underfunding, resulting in privatization and commercialization. The West Vancouver School District now generates 20% of its budget through privatization initiatives such as recruiting international students. 
  2. Centralized control. Currently, almost every single school in BC has the same identical goals, which are driven by ministry accountability contracts. 
  3. System-wide, high-stakes testing. Tests cannot measure everything of quality that is done in school. If test results are published and schools are ranked as a result, more and more effort is focussed on achieving higher scores. Instruction is therefore increasingly focussed on the narrow content of these tests, while electives are sacrificed. Moreover, such uniformity in curriculum and teacher-proof instruction allows tests to be compared school-to-school and district-to-district, leaving children and entire schools who cannot hope to compete in these tests, viewing themselves as failures. Also, Grade 10 and 11 provincial exams (some harder than the Grade 12 equivalents) will discourage many students from continuing on in school. 
  4. Re-purposing of school boards and school-based budgeting. The government is looking for economies of scale, and so is questioning the role of small, local boards. Larger amalgamated boards will reduce duplication of services, produce economies of scale, and result in less local control of public education. Similarly, school-based budgeting allows the province to offload the cuts necessary when funding doesn’t allow the provision of all services to all children. 
  5. Information control has been accomplished through the BCeSIS information tracking system. Now every student, through their own personal Provincial Education Number (PEN), can be tracked across the province. This includes academic progress, discipline, attendance, letter grades, assignment completion, and marks.

This emphasis on testing and data-gathering over teaching and learning, of individual achievement over collaboration, co-operation, and community-building, and achievement or "product" over the process of lifelong learning, threatens the very nature of public education as we know it. Teachers have called for a dramatic shift away from the accountability policy framework toward an education policy that supports optimal conditions for teaching and learning.

The struggle in defence of workers’ rights and quality public education is now part of our proud labour history, and has forged the strong bonds that will enable us to meet the challenges that face all public services in the province.

Resolutions passed at the convention

Resolution C–2–2006
That the BC Federation of Labour will lobby government to further improve class-size and composition legislation by funding it properly and bringing it closer to the standards set out in the BCTF Working and Learning Conditions Declaration. (Burnaby Teachers’ Association, Local 41)

Resolution C–8–2006
That the BC Federation of Labour call upon all trade union members in BC who are parents to withdraw their children from writing FSA tests. (BCTF)

Resolution C–11–2006
That the BC Federation of Labour call upon the provincial government to provide additional funding for the implementation of improvements in class size and composition that are a result of Bill 33; and be it further resolved that the provincial government develop a three-year plan to further improve learning conditions and to fully fund those improvements. (BCTF)

Resolution C–12–2006
That the BC Federation of Labour encourage trade unionists who are parents of students with special needs to work with teachers to advocate for funding necessary to implement the class composition provisions of Bill 33 to help ensure a quality education program for their children. (BCTF)

– Education Committee report , BC Federation of Labour Convention, November 2006

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