Michael Aird: Reframing the B.C. teachers’ labour dispute
To the certainties of death, taxes, and labour disputes, perhaps we should add a predictable onslaught of misinformation and the advancement of thinly veiled agendas. It’s good to see, then, that nothing has changed in the current stand-off between teachers and the B.C. government.
To begin with, it might be worth pointing out to those in the mainstream media that the choice of who you highlight as experts is not innocuous. In this particular instance, the fact that the Frontier Centre has repeatedly been cited as an authority on educational research, especially in relation to class size and composition, is nothing short of a shameless political gesture.
Coming from a long line of “independent” think tanks like the Cato and Heartland institutes, the Frontier Centre’s pursuit of individual liberty and freedom includes studying “consumer-centered schooling models that offer choice, with decentralized school governance systems and merit pay for teachers”.
If this sounds eerily similar to a Naomi Klein shock formula, that’s because an organization of right-wing intellectuals interested in “building a case for a more diverse and innovative range of schooling models” showing up during a crisis in public education is entirely opportunistic.
Let’s be honest, they do not do research that is helpful to understanding what is going on in B.C. public schools. If you wanted to find out what the benefits of smaller class-sizes actually amounted to, you wouldn’t have to do a lot of advanced academic research.
An excellent peer-reviewed study, like Peter Fredriksson et al.’s “Long-Term Effects of Class Size” is readily available on the Internet, as is Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach’s “Does Class Size Matter?” The work of Tennessee’s Project Star is pretty decisive. Even Project Sage comes to the conclusion that reducing class size at least allows teachers to pursue a best practice, which is likely to result in better student outcomes. Alternately, you might talk to any number of teachers themselves—you know, practitioners in the field—none of whom are going to say that they can meet their students’ needs better by having more of them in the class.
Composition is a feature of the debate that often gets mixed in with class size, which is understandable given the fact that if you reduce the number of designated children in a class that presupposes more classes and hence fewer students per class. Still, it is worth underlining the importance of this issue by itself, especially since it seems to have crept under the radar.
From my limited knowledge, I know of three classes on Vancouver’s East Side that have upwards of eight designated students in each. In fact, I know of a kindergarten class that is projected to enrol six designated students, or one-third of its numbers, next September. I’d be highly interested to hear what justification there is for this phenomenon, when 2002 levels stipulated no more than three designated students per class.
Minister of Education Peter Fassbender, in an interview with CBC’s Stephen Quinn, presented some garbled logic about how increased class sizes actually serves as a benefit to some gym and cooking classes. I wonder how he might rationalize how a couple of autistic children, some with chronic health concerns, a few with garden-variety learning disabilities, and a few more with behaviours that require interministerial support benefit from being put in a class together with 20-odd other unique individuals.
The issue of teacher remuneration is a bit of a sore spot, granted. I personally feel that teachers are paid fairly well, whereas support staff, some of whom have gained some far-reaching expertise, receive a dreadful wage. And yet, you can’t expect a hyper-professionalism from teachers, as those right-leaning intellectuals are wont to do, and not pay for it. I can almost guarantee that you would never hear another peep from teachers should their wage be pegged to inflation, or even half the inflationary rate, and that be the end of the story.
It’s also entirely unhelpful to talk about how teachers only work so many months or days out of the year, and only keep such and such hours. In a kind of pataphysical exercise, I’m sure you could come up with some sort of measurement tool to determine the amount of energy expended by a teacher during the course of the day, and then average it out over the entire year, and you would likely come up with the equivalent of what any other “professional” also expends.
While that is thoroughly facetious, it’s not facetious to make some simple comparisons. A doctor, for instance, is responsible for attending to the needs of one or two patients at a time. At any given time, a dentist is responsible for attending to the needs of maybe three or four patients. Upper management are responsible for overseeing the schedule and productivity of x number of chosen individuals. Teachers, to round out this analogy, are responsible for meeting the needs of 22 to 30 individuals who lack the developmental capacity to be independent.
While it may be obscene to demand a wage increase when the “economy” is in perpetual crisis, tossing up a number of zeroes during bargaining discredits the complexity of what teachers are routinely asked to perform.
Debating on this level does, however, only serve to distract from what is really going on. A number of figures have been thrown around that attempt to estimate the cost of remedying the government’s illegal and decade-long stripping of the teachers’ contract. The right-wing intellectuals like to reside in the $2 billion range. Supreme Court documents suggest more like $300 million.
But there is a general bemoaning about what Premier Christy Clark likes to refer as “asking the B.C. taxpayer for more”. The fact is we choose what to fund, and we fund what we value. Vancouver school board chair Patti Bacchus has made some more than reasonable propositions about how to fund our education system sufficiently.
And yet, beyond that, this current dispute opens into a much larger field. Nobody seemed to suggest that there was no money to fund our recent Olympic Games, for instance—remember that two-week-long, corporate love-fest?
If you want to live in a society where wealth is persistently shifted upward, then we have arrived. If you want to live in a society of monumental projects, punctuated by large sporting events, then let’s just legislate a contract. (Why don’t you ask those in Brazilian favelas how that is working out? In fact, ask any South American how a neoliberal, Friedmanite paradise feels.)
But if you want to live in a society where we care for the everyday well-being of all of our members, and where we value our common resources, then it’s time to negotiate a deal that funds this education system in a way that reflects that sentiment.