How to Break Public Schools: The Formula

Now that school has resumed in BC we’re back to business as usual or the usual business of the BC Liberal government’s attack on schools. School board funding shortfalls are back in the headlines along with court challenges.

Indeed there is a strategy behind the chaos – at least the parts that can’t be attributed to incompetence. So, here is the four step plan (not in order) of what government needs to do to get out of the business of public education. (And yes, there are many decision-makers who do not believe government should play a central role in educating a nation’s children.)

Step 1: Change how schools are funded.

  1. One of the most important steps was changing the funding formula and rolling fixed costs into the per pupil grant. This has already resulted in a competitive culture between schools that even now, in order to keep the lights on and the school clean, a critical number of students must attend the school. Every student enrolled in a private school results in a loss of at least $6,900 per year to public schools.
  2.  The percentage of the provincial budget spent on K – 7 education has gone from just under 25% in 2002 to about 14% in 2014. Over the same period of time the population of BC grew by about 500,000. Private school enrollment over the same period increased significantly.

Step 2: Change how and who run schools.

  1. Since 2002, the government has eroded the actual decision-making power of locally, democratically elected school boards.
  2. While schools always had parent committees, the government brought in legislated School Planning Councils to develop and approve school plans – including the allocation of resources.
  3. Under the banner of ‘parent choice’ the government got rid of school catchment areas. This allows for the movement of students and the funding that goes with them in response to the competitive marketplace of schools.

Step 3: Erode public confidence in the existing system through negative PR

  1. We are all too familiar with the ongoing funding crisis facing school boards. In fact every spring we might as well just recycle the same media stories.
  2. Changing the criteria for assessing and supporting special needs students means not a month goes by where we don’t hear about a student falling through the cracks.

 Step 4: Destroy professional unions that ensure quality, consistent public education.

1. No details needed.

The $40-a-day voucher payment to parents was an unprecedented response to a labour dispute in BC. The tremendous show of support for teachers, the almost universal rejection of the $40 dollar a day voucher and the absence of a robust private sector response to filling the gap showed the BC Liberal Caucus does not have the public support to radically change how public education is delivered.

Advocacy led by parents, students and citizens must challenge the Liberal’s agenda to erode and destroy BC’s public schools.

B.C. Today: Labour Conflict or School Reform?

Did the BC Liberal government just bluff on that forty-dollar a day voucher plan or do they really want to have THAT battle over public education now?

It was telling that one of the earliest responses to the announcement came from a former top ranking BC Liberal. “Hmm. Did BC govt just take the first $40 per day step towards a voucher system for public education?” asked former Attorney General, Geoff Plant on Twitter.

Yes! Was the resounding answer from those who know what a voucher school system is.

If you don’t know about vouchers here’s a quick explanation. A voucher system is one of several in the ‘school choice’ basket. I use quotes here because ‘school choice’ is a codified term that is synonymous with privatized, typically non-union schools.

The government issues parents a voucher worth a specific amount of funding towards their child’s education. Parents take this voucher, shop around and find a school that suits them. Sometimes the voucher is worth the full price of admission but sometimes it’s only a portion of the school’s fee. The underlying idea here is that in order to ‘stay in business’ schools must compete with each other to attract parents who control the vouchers. Think of it as a B.C. government gift card you can use anywhere, including, according to Finance Minister Mike de Jong, places that aren’t actually schools. And if you haven’t done the math, $40 per day is $7,440 over a 186 day school year.

Here’s why this is not a great idea.

School choice systems lead to further segregating kids by class, ethnicity and ability. One reason for this outcome is basic human nature – we tend to be drawn to people who have the same sensibilities and views that we do. Another reason is the biases we bring to decision-making like stereotypes we hold about others or about a school or neighbourhood.

Public education in Canada was built on the idea of equity; school as the one place where regardless of ethnicity or income, all students had the same opportunities. It’s a lofty goal and one that shamefully failed Aboriginal students. But as income inequality increases it’s a worthy goal that should be renewed not abandoned at the whim of a provincial government.

Modern public schools also play an important role in promoting social cohesion. In Canada that means enhancing cross-cultural understanding by breaking down bigotry through the lived experience of students attending school as equals.

The U.S. does not share Canada’s history of public education. The rise of charter and voucher schools in the U.S. occurred, in part, as a segregationist response to the desegregation of schools in the 1960s and within a long-standing libertarian culture deeply suspect of government-run school systems. Even today, influenced by far-right economists like Milton Friedman, many U.S. law-makers do not believe government should play a central role in educating the nation’s children and most certainly not by unionized teachers. I suspect there are B.C. Liberals who feel the same way. Continue reading

No Child Labour in BC

This issue has been close to my heart for seven years now. If you don’t know about what happened in 2003, you may be forgiven for wondering why on earth I am concerned about child labour – this is Canada after all!

In 2003 the BC government lowered the work-start age (that’s the age you can work without government’s permission) to 12-years-old. Since 2003 children aged 12 and up can work at virtually any worksite and at any time of day (with the exception of the film industry where employers must still get a permit to hire children).

I wrote a report last year for First Call BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition about the increase in work-related injury claims for children between 2004 – 2008 – the period immediately following the change.

Now, we’ve launched a website to raise awareness and gather support for legislative changes to protect children.  Please visit the site and add your voice to the call to protect BC’s children from injury and exploitation.

You can read the full report here What’s Happening to Our Children? A Look at Child Work-Related Injury Claims in BC Over the Past 10 Years.

Debt in Langley Means Cuts for Students

In case you haven’t been following the story, the Langley School District is in a very difficult position. An accumulated debt (8.2 or 9.2 million – depending on who you listen to) is looming. This is a debt – money that is owed to the provincial government from years of spending beyond yearly budgets. To make matters worse, like many districts in the province, Langley will likely face a budget shortfall in the upcoming year.

The big losers in this bizarre situation will be the district’s students who have already seen a significant cut in special education teachers. Read the November 24 Langley Advance article.

In an effort to rally the community around solutions, in November The Langley Teachers Association hosted a Dialogue on the Debt in Langley to discuss the deficit accumulated by School District 35. Participants included Parent Advisory Council parents,  CUPE Local 1260, CUPE local 1851 and LTA members.

I was pleased to moderate this discussion. Continue reading

Children Under Fire (again) in BC

Advocates across BC are dusting off their placards and signs as we face yet another round of funding cuts to public education and support services for children, youth and their families.

Many of us organized petitions and demonstrations in 2002 – a year of unprecedented funding cuts – and now find ourselves resurrecting the slogans and strategies that called us to action back then. The issue, it seems, has not changed. Our decision-makers seem to need constant reminding of the importance of taking care of children when they are children. Continue reading