By Noel Herron and Marcy Toms
Next week, the Coalition of Progressive Electors will hold a daylong conference—Justice, Not Charity—to discuss the collapse of the Vancouver school board’s Inner City Schools Project and the allied impact of creeping corporatization on Vancouver schools. Nearly 25 years ago, responding to the growing alarm of inner-city elementary-school educators about the deplorable state of education in their schools, immediate action by VSB trustees created the innovative, broadly-based project.
Fast forward to the present, and frequent heart-wrenching stories about the shocking situation of kids in inner-city classes point not only to the failure of the VSB project, but also to the deepening crisis of child poverty. These stories attract great media attention, and the Vancouver Sun has run a series documenting the ravages of poverty on children, families, and schools throughout the Lower Mainland. This, in turn, sees the newspaper launch its Adopt-a-School initiative to help struggling schools. Private citizens and corporate donors descend on schools with food, clothing, and cash.
Despite the heart-warming community response to urgent food security and educational needs in Vancouver, troubling questions and unaddressed issues remain.
For how long will inner-city schools be forced to rely on the efforts of parents, teachers, reporters, and charitable organizations to meet basic needs? Is it defensible educational practice for inner-city parents and teachers to spend time and energy fundraising? Local parent activist Gwen Giesbrecht calls this “supplemental funding”, because it attempts to fill the gaps caused by provincial cutbacks. Is this practice random, arbitrary, and unfair, as critics claim? Is the dramatic 30 percent increase in funding for one year from Breakfast for Learning (a national nonprofit organization) to support 249 schools across B.C. a troubling trend? Are people aware of the “backpack program” in some Vancouver elementary schools and that the food in these packs takes only some of the bite out of children’s hunger on weekends? What will happen in schools when funders are unable or unwilling to continue their work?
At the federal level, new cuts contained in the controversial 425-page omnibus bill will have a devastating impact on the award-winning Red Fox Healthy Living Society, whose special programs serve 200 aboriginal youth in Vancouver and also reach kids in 10 East Vancouver schools and community centres. Is this sensible public policy?
The upcoming November 3 COPE conference at the Peretz Centre (6184 Ash Street) will be the sixth consecutive public event in a six-month span to address the issue of child and family poverty in this city. So, why the ongoing public concern about this topic?
The persistence of child poverty in one Canada’s most prosperous provinces and cities alarms and deeply troubles many people. Ironically, B.C. is a leader both in high housing costs and in incidences of child poverty. Are British Columbians content with the fact that we live in a province where 87,000 children are poor?
The issue of inequality and widening family income gaps across this country ought to be one of pressing concern to Canadians. Anti-poverty coordinators Laurel Rothman and Cheryl Mixon, commenting on the impact of this topic, note: “Canada’s high level of poverty not only affects the country’s fiscal bottom line and economic health over the long term, but also jeopardizes social solidarity.” Poor children live in poor families, and these families need help. In June, Statistics Canada reported that B.C. had 510,000 individuals living in poverty, the highest number in Canada. Clearly, comprehensive and meaningful municipal, provincial, and federal family policies are needed to address this escalating national issue.
This summer’s fresh food coupon program announced by former B.C. Health Minister Mike de Jong had limited distribution and reached only a small portion of the targeted low-income families, according to the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition’s Trish Garner. Similarly, an earlier announcement of seven poverty pilots in municipalities across B.C. by former minister of children and family development Mary McNeil is long on promises and short on delivery. It will not fully kick in until 2014! Contrast this piecemeal approach with the fact that seven Canadian provinces have official poverty-reduction plans, either in place or in development. The B.C. government should assume the task of funding breakfast programs as a core responsibility. As well, the province’s per pupil allotment should cover all instructional needs, including supplementary funding for playground equipment and upkeep. Schools should not have to resort either to fundraising frenzies or to individual and corporate donors to function.
Charity is admirable but it is no way to fund a public-school system over the long term. In a province as prosperous as B.C. and a country as affluent as Canada, all children and youth should have every opportunity to lead healthy and productive lives.
Noel Herron is a former school principal and COPE school trustee, and the author of “Every Kid Counts”, a history of inner-city schools in Vancouver. Marcy Toms is a former secondary-school teacher and community activist. They are both members of the Justice, Not Charity conference organizing committee.