To begin, I’d like to emphasize that I’ve always believed that teaching is the single most important profession in our society. Each and every one of us has attended school, and that experience has shaped who we are, what we do, and how we contribute to society. So it follows that public education represents perhaps the most important investment government can make for the prosperity of our province.
Public education is absolutely critical in teaching the next generation of British Columbians to think critically, contribute responsibly to society and to become the leaders of tomorrow.
Teaching is a thoroughly rewarding, yet physically and emotionally exhausting profession. It takes a very special person to be able to instruct a class of 20 to 30 young children for five hours every day. Last year I spent a day engaging every grade from kindergarten to grade six at Savory Elementary’s Four Seasons Eco-School (4EST) program.
I only had one lesson plan to deliver to the seven separate classes, from 8:45 to 2:30 on that day. I had no marking to take home, no report cards to write, no parents to interact with, no staff meetings and no administrative activities. Nor did I have to take the students on extracurricular activities. But let me tell you that I was exhausted at the end of the day. And I only did that once, not day in, day out, for months on end.
Let me start my speech by noting that we have outstanding teachers and an exceptional education system in the province of British Columbia. Every three years the Programme for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, evaluates the performance of students internationally in three subject areas: mathematics, science and reading.
The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada further breaks down the Canadian results on a province-by-province basis. British Columbia consistently performs extremely well. In 2012, for example, British Columbia was the top Canadian province in reading and science and was second only to Quebec in mathematics.
In fact, British Columbia students even performed better than students from the much-touted education system in Finland in both reading and mathematics. And while Finland scored slightly ahead of B.C. in science, the difference was statistically insignificant. Of course, we’ll have to wait until December 2016 to get the PISA 2015 results to see how British Columbia continues to fare.
Now, I recognize that the PISA results only provide one metric of student achievement and, hence, the success of the British Columbia school system. Nevertheless, it’s a very positive one. It says to me that we must be doing something right in British Columbia despite what we might read about in the news. It also suggests to me that maybe we should start to celebrate our successes and dwell less on the negative arising from a dysfunctional relationship between the B.C. government and the BCTF.
At the end of the strike last fall the government spoke about “an historic six-year agreement…which means five years of labour peace ahead of us.” Rather than viewing this as five years of simmering anger waiting to boil over when the negotiations next begin, we should be capitalizing on this time to envision bold new ways of ensuring our educational system is sustainable.
This includes teachers being fairly compensated and adequately supported with properly funded curriculum and learning resources. Such support must include sincere and meaningful class size and composition discussions and support that recognizes that teacher burnout affects us all. It must include reinvigorating our educational infrastructure and ensuring that children have textbooks and access to learning materials.
On Thursday the B.C. Court of Appeal will release its decision concerning the rights of teachers to negotiate conditions around class size and composition. Rather than allowing this to serve as a catalyst to incite increased tension between the BCTF and the government, perhaps both parties will recognize the opportunities that will arise from mutual collaboration, no matter what the Court of Appeals decision is.
For example, perhaps there is a compromise on class size and composition negotiations. Why don’t the BCTF and the B.C. government both agree, for example, that the best place to negotiate class size and composition is at the local school district level?
In fact, as noted in the book Worlds Apart: British Columbia Schools, Politics and Labour Relations Before and After 1972 by Thomas Fleming, the BCTF was not pleased with the 1994 Public Education Labour Relations Act which led to the formation of BCPSEA and the BCTF being appointed as the official bargainer for all teachers.
Provincial data clearly show that one size does not fit all. The class-size and composition needs of Haida Gwaii school district 50 are almost certainly different from those in the Gulf Islands, No. 64, or Surrey, school district 36.
Perhaps both parties would consider waiving the right to strike in favour of binding arbitration with respect to salary and benefit negotiations. In 1950 Manitoba teachers did just this. In return, they gained binding arbitration, due process and a provincial certification board. There has been labour peace in Manitoba ever since.
Binding arbitration forces each party to come up with their best offer. The arbitrator then chooses from one of them or some combination of both. One thing is certain. Outlandish requests are taken off the table quickly when binding arbitration is in play.
While the B.C. government and the BCTF play out their decades-long dance of dysfunction as they battle it out, entrenched in what I perceive to be ideological positions, the ones who are paying the price are the children in the classroom, the teachers who teach them, and their parents at home.
But moving this relationship forward requires trust, mutual trust. It’s easy for me to see why the BCTF and other stakeholders in public education are leery to trust the direction this government is taking in Bill 11. This bill is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. Rather than engaging education stakeholders in meaningful dialogue, the government is providing itself with rather sweeping powers to appoint special advisers and issue administrative directives. Nobody knows what the minister has in mind or what cabinet will do with these powers, should this law receive royal assent.
Bill 11 repeals the concept of school planning councils. Frankly, I support moving back to focusing the parent’s role in the parent advisory councils. The B.C. Liberals school planning council model was a failed approach to school-based governance, introduced when our current Premier was the Minister of Education.
I doubt that there will be much public outcry over this, although it would have been preferable to give the public more opportunity for input prior to actually putting this legislation forward. After all, this is public education that we are discussing here today.
Bill 11 takes the very provocative and, honestly, I think, ill-thought-out position of empowering the minister to set teachers’ professional development requirements. Like any profession, teachers require ongoing professional development. That goes without saying. But like these same professions, professional development must be led by the experts. In this case it’s by the teachers, not by ministerial decree.
Now, I recognize that the minister will say and respond that he wants to negotiate with the BCTF as to what this professional development might look like. However, my reply to the minister on this is that he’s lost trust. He’s lost the trust of the teachers, as what the minister had in mind should have been conveyed prior to, rather than after, this legislation being tabled.
Besides, what body would oversee the professional development? The B.C. College of Teachers would have been the natural place, but it’s been disbanded. The BCTF is a union tasked with representing its members in negotiations, not in maintaining professional standards. So they are not the appropriate home for such professional ongoing professional development.
The teacher regulation branch doesn’t seem the right place either. So what does the minister have in mind? We simply don’t know, and therein lies the problem. Why are we bringing forward legislation to discuss this when we do not know what the minister has in mind and when trust has been broken and lost with negotiations on this topic with the teachers before we’ve even started to discuss it?
It’s clear to me that this bill was not ready for debate in the Legislature. In my view, it should have followed the lead of the Society Act or the Water Sustainability Act and allowed extensive public consultation prior to its introduction, rather than afterwards.
Both of those pieces of legislation obtained a social licence, public support. In the case of the Society Act, public input led to a better act, with the removal of section 99. But here we do not have public support. We’ve just come off a prolonged strike, and on Thursday the B.C. Court of Appeal will release its long-awaited decision.
What an incredible opportunity this could be for British Columbians to be offered to come together through an engaging discussion about how we might improve our education system.
Instead of discussing this ill-thought-out legislation whose direction is not actually brought forward with any substance today for us to speak to, we could have had a discussion about education. For example, we could have had a discussion about education funding.
The level of funding allocated to our public education system depends on the priorities of the government. In British Columbia spending on health care has remained a priority since 2000, ranging between 7 percent and 8 percent of provincial GDP. Funding for social services and education expressed as a percentage of GDP, on the other hand, has dropped over this period of time.
In the case of education funding as a percentage of provincial GDP, it has declined from a high of about 6.4 percent in 2001-2002, when the Liberals took office first, to an estimated low of about 5 percent in 2014-2015. Now, that’s a 22 percent decline in the percentage of funding, as a percentage of GDP, being spent on education in our province.
If British Columbians deem education to be as important as I do, surely this drop needs to be rectified. So the question is: where does this money come from? I would argue that British Columbians need to have a hard look at our sources of provincial revenue and the way we spend the money that government receives. Given a decade of corporate and personal income tax cuts, perhaps it’s time to take a look at whether or not we’ve gone too far.
That’s an important discussion to have, as it ultimately affects the availability of funds for our public education system. That’s a discussion we could have had prior to the introduction of Bill 11. With increases in public school enrolment looming, it’s critical that we initiate this discussion now, not later, not tomorrow, not after the next settlement is in negotiation with the teachers in our province.
We could have had a discussion about the ongoing role of the B.C. Public School Employers Association. The BCPSEA was established in 1994. Since that time there has been a continued escalation of conflict between the BCTF and the government via BCPSEA. Perhaps it’s time to consider dismantling BCPSEA and, instead, bringing its operations directly into the Ministry of Education. This would signal that government is willing to start afresh to try and build a new relationship with teachers. After all, it’s the government, not BCPSEA, that holds the purse strings.
We could have engaged in a discussion about the role of school boards in our public education system. Thomas Fleming, in his aforementioned book, noted:
“A history of extremely low voter turnout in school board elections, along with the influence of teacher associations over electoral candidates, has raised serious questions about whether boards in fact actually reflect the public’s educational will or simply serve as a platform for the expression of various special interests — all insistent on greater school spending, regardless of other legitimate public demands government is obligated to consider.”
That quote comes from page 109.
He further points out that only between 5 percent and 10 percent of eligible voters turn up at a school board election not occurring at the same time as municipal elections. In addition, he detailed a by-election in the capital regional district that brought out around only 2 percent of the electorate.
The mandate of school boards has changed over the last century. In the early 20th century local school boards were tasked with hiring the teacher for their often one-room schoolhouse in rural areas, for example, and ensuring that the school was kept up. Provincial inspectors toured the province to make sure that centrally determined educational standards were maintained.
In an extremely influential report authored by Max Cameron in 1946, sweeping changes were proposed to the previously existing model of public school governance. Increased financial efficiency and equitable educational opportunities for all rural and urban British Columbian students required a new approach.
In 1944 there were 650 school districts governed by 437 school boards. Just three years later only 89 school districts remained, and by 1971 this was down to 74. Today there are 60 school districts. Is that the right number? Should their mandate be changed? These are questions the public should have had a chance to discuss and become engaged on discussing prior to the introduction of Bill 11.
We could have engaged in a discussion about whether British Columbians want to follow the New Zealand model, where school boards were eliminated in their entirety, or the Finnish model, where school districts are aligned more closely and intimately with local municipalities for funding, or some other variant.
We could have engaged in a discussion about teacher shortages that will emerge in a few years as projected enrolment increases. All school-aged demographics are expected to rise for at least the next decade. This further suggests that while we may have an excess of teachers being trained today, in three or four years, as the teacher demographic ages and as the number of school-aged children starts to increase, we will almost certainly have teacher shortages, particularly in the areas of French immersion, mathematics and science, where demand exceeds supply even presently.
Rather than perpetuate the boom-and-bust cycle of teacher training and hiring and rather than keeping people for many years on the teacher-on-call list, perhaps a more gradual transition to full-time employment could have been developed. Perhaps we could be discussing this as many of the things in our education system that we could and should have been discussing prior to the introduction of Bill 11.
For example, teacher burnout early on in one’s career is not uncommon. We all know an example of a teacher or two who taught for a few years and moved on, as the requirements placed upon them are simply unbearable, given the support that is lacking at their early age of entry into the teaching profession.
A young teacher might be thrown into a new situation, with multiple class preparations for a range of students with a diversity of skills and backgrounds, with no past teaching material practices to draw upon. New teachers can quickly become overwhelmed with workload. Senior teachers, on the other hand, approaching retirement have a wealth of experience, curriculum resources and best practices. Perhaps it’s possible to negotiate a buddy system, where a retiring teacher signs an agreement to retire gradually over, say, a three-year period, and during that time the starting teacher is paired with the retiring teacher. While the senior teacher gently eases into retirement, the new teacher gently eases into full-time teaching, and the decades of experiences and best practices are passed along from the senior to the junior teacher.
Finally, perhaps we could have started a discussion about innovative ways that would allow school districts to build upon best practices of shared services prior to the introduction of this bill that we are discussing today. Perhaps the government could play a role here and provide the province with a centralized payroll system or legal services, for example. Does each district need to have its own payroll department? Should teachers be employed by the Ministry of Education instead of the board? Are there opportunities for economies of scale?
Bill 11 enables the minister to step in, but again, it would have been preferable to open the bill up first for public and stakeholder input prior to tabling it in this House.
Now, those ideas that I’ve put forward are not any ones that I’m advocating for particularly, or any at all. I’m simply introducing them and putting out these ideas in the hope that they provoke a discussion, a discussion about how public education should evolve in British Columbia. Unfortunately, the approach to educational policy change in the province of British Columbia is viewed by many — by parents, by teachers, by others — in the province as heavy-handed and top down.
Building a social licence for change requires uncomfortable topics to be discussed and new ideas also to be discussed. Sadly, rather than introducing this legislation after such discussions were conducted and concluded, the legislation was brought forward prematurely, and in doing so government sends the wrong message to teachers.
It sends a message that suggests the heavy handed, top-down, rather than collaborative, approach to educational reform is the direction this government is heading.
But please let me reiterate. The status quo between the government and the BCTF cannot continue. The politicization of our public education system serves no constructive purpose. We have outstanding and dedicated teachers in the province of British Columbia. We have a very educated workforce, and we can use it to attract business to our province, as we offer something no one else in the world has — bountiful natural resources and the most beautiful place on earth as our backyard.
Now, the politicization of our public education system is not just the fault of the government. When the BCTF invites the leader of the B.C. NDP to address the 2015 AGM in a partisan speech that ends with him calling on everyone to defeat the B.C. Liberals, which he referred to as “those buggers,” this does nothing to build bridges between teachers and government. It does nothing to build trust in the province of British Columbia. Rather, it further deepens the partisan divide, and everybody loses when that happens. Our children lose, their teachers lose and the parents of those children also lose when public education in the province of British Columbia becomes partisan.
Let’s step back. Let’s let this bill die on the order paper and reintroduce it next year, once a more thorough consultation process has occurred. Let’s get it right, so that we can start rebuilding trust between teachers and government in British Columbia.