Janet Reid (right), whose children Christopher (left) and Jennifer have gone through the public education system, has been impressed by some innovative programs.
By Elaine O’Connor, The Province
In 2012, a small Dawson Creek independent school, Mountain Christian School, outgrew its church-basement beginnings.
Enrolment rose 30 per cent after 2011-12’s teacher job action and the school looked for a new building for its 125 students.
Ironically, it bought Parkhill Elementary, a public school closed due to low enrolment.
“The strike action definitely got parents thinking, where’s the stability?” principal Eva Hutchinson said.
Many parents, she said, switch schools “because their kids are falling through the cracks. There are 30 kids, then you have behavioural children and kids with high needs.”
Eva Hutchinson leads the private Mountain Christian School in Dawson Creek, in a building that once housed a public school.
Vancouver parent Jocelyne Figueiredo put her daughter into independent school Stratford Hall so they could enrol in International Baccalaureate programs and have a politics-free classroom.
“I’m not saying they don’t do that in public schools, but when you have other factors to worry about — government, elections, labour, teachers’ unions — there are too many things coming into play,” she said.
From 2002 to 2012, independent enrolment grew 15 per cent (9,500 students) while public enrolment, according to the government, has fallen by 66,000 students since 2000-01, mostly due to demographics.
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Labour unrest is one reason, said Federation of Independent School Associations of BC’s Peter Froese. After 2011’s job action, enrolment in its 365 schools rose 4.1 per cent.
“We saw the impact of job action, with the lack of report cards and lack of extra-curriculars, and parent uncertainty about where the government is going,” said Froese, a former public school teacher.
This move from public to independent systems is just one of the symptoms of a public system beset by funding issues and labour unrest in a decade of BC Liberal governance.
That could change with polls favouring the NDP. The question is how.
PARENTS’ AND TEACHERS’ CONCERNS
New Westminster parent Janet Reid has watched her son and daughter go through B.C.’s public system and has been impressed with innovative programs under the BC Education Plan and ACE-IT trades training.
With a change in government, she said she’s “afraid that we will at least be back to square one while they get up to speed,” said Reid.
Teachers, too, are nervous, for other reasons.
“I feel we have tried and tried again with the Liberals and I haven’t seen a lot of positive outcomes,” said Coquitlam teacher Amanda Long. “I think it’s time for a fresh start.”
Long said she’s seen the effect of larger classes and fewer supports. Her daughter lost learning support between Grade 2 and 3.
According to the government, classes with over 30 students have fallen from over 9,200 in 2005-06 to 1,360 in 2012-13; per student funding is up from $6,262 per student in 2000-01 to $8,493 in 2012-13.
The teachers’ union counters funding has fallen as a percentage of provincial GDP — 19.6 per cent in 2001-02 to 15 per cent in 2011-12, representing a $1.6 billion shortfall.
It stresses 12,650 classes have over four designated special needs students and 10,300 have over four ESL students.
Debate over statistics, and what they mean, is a familiar feature of the entrenched opposition between teachers and the BC Liberals.
THE FUTURE OF TEACHER NEGOTIATIONS
This January, in a bid to address labour relations concerns, the government proposed a Framework for Long Term Sustainability in Education, a 10-year agreement assuring teachers a voice in allocating funding, a role in education policy, a new bargaining structure and wage increases.
In it, Premier Christy Clark admitted, both parties “have wrapped themselves in the banner of ‘putting students first.’ However, at the negotiating table, the interests of students have … been pushed aside.”
Education Minister Don McRae stressed that the Liberals have won stretches of labour peace, notably with the 2006-11 contract, and that the NDP had similar challenges.
“You’ve got to remember there have been eight job actions in the last 15 years … Let’s not pretend it was rosy under the NDP,” he said.
B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Susan Lambert isn’t buying it.
“That document is full of empty rhetoric,” she said.
The proposal came as the BCTF and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association were already devising a new framework, since approved.
The Liberals, said Lambert, who made some partisan remarks at the union’s March AGM, have carried out “a complex and broad attack on teachers in the past decade that has left teachers feeling disrespected … and … demoralized.”
THE NDP AND EDUCATION
NDP education critic Robin Austin said his party would repair relations and reinvest in schools.
“We’re going to be inheriting quite a challenging fiscal position, so we don’t want to give the impression this is going to be an easy fix. But we will do our best to bring the system back to where it was prior to us leaving.”
In their platform, the NDP promised $265 million over three years for education. Taxpayer groups are wary of the price tag of the NDP’s fix.
“The fear with the NDP coming into power, or with any new party coming into power … is tax increases,” said Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “Are teacher wages and benefits what we really want to go into debt for?”
Teachers haven’t forgotten Clark was education minister when their right to bargain class size and composition were stripped in 2002.
The current contract expires on June 30. It’s the first time in a decade teachers are able to bargain classroom conditions, after earlier legislation was overturned. How it goes this time is anyone’s guess.
UBC associate professor of educational studies Wendy Poole, who studies educational administration and the role of teacher unions, said one thing is for certain: the Liberals’ framework is not the answer.
“No union in their right mind is going to sign a 10-year agreement,” she said, adding, “as long as Christy Clark is in control, there probably won’t be labour peace with teachers. There’s just so much history.”
Terry Berting, president of the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, says parents are praying for an end to labour strife, no matter which party supplies it.
“We just can’t continue the trend of such tension in the system. We are really hoping and wondering: Are things going to change with this election?”
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