Patti Bacchus: Make the most of the darn election

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      I was planning to devote this week’s column to making the case for scrapping this year’s controversial Foundation Skills Assessments (FSA) for grades four and seven students, but then John Horgan decided to call an election. Darn him.

      I was going to rail about how FSAs are the equivalent of an imaginary medical test doctors found worthless, a waste of time to administer, and stressful for patients, and how ridiculous it would be for government to force doctors to administer them anyway, and particularly after kids have already lost months of class time. But that argument will have to wait for another column. Or an election campaign.

      Like it or not, we’re going to the polls, or the mailbox. It’s sort of like a pandemic. It’s here and we have to live with it and make the best of it. For a while, anyway. At least the election has an end date.

      Much like some folks find silver linings in the dark clouds that COVID 19 has cast over our lives, the election is an opportunity for those of us who care about public education and believe it needs better support from government.

      It’s a chance to push the parties and candidates to commit to doing better for public schools. Public education is the cornerstone of democracy, and education is the solution to many of the most challenging problems we face. We have an excellent system, but it’s chronically undersupported, and those who work on the frontlines warn us they can’t do their best work and get the best outcomes in overcrowded classrooms without enough support and staffing in poorly maintained buildings.

      The NDP has been underwhelming on the education file

      Like many, I’ve been underwhelmed and disappointed with the NDP government’s performance on the education file since it took power in the summer of 2017. They’re not as bad as the B.C. Liberals, but also not a heck of a lot better.

      My kids were in school while the B.C. Liberals were waging war with teachers and forcing harmful cuts to school-district budgets, and I went head to head with several B.C. Liberal education ministers while I chaired the Vancouver School Board from 2008 to 2014. Those were hard days for the education system, and I thought things would get a lot better with an NDP government.

      They have, somewhat, but not nearly enough.

      The opportunity

      The election is an opportunity to push the parties and candidates on what they’ll do for our public education system and hold them accountable for what they haven’t done. And after more than three years in government, the education system seems much the same as it did when the B.C. Liberals governed.

      There’s still a backlog of major school seismic-upgrade or replacement projects waiting for funding; kids are still coerced into writing the FSAs, even though teachers say they have little value and actually cause some harms; B.C. still lags behind most other provinces when it comes to per-student funding; and increases haven’t kept up with inflation.

      Premier John Horgan

      B.C. teachers’ salaries are still lower than many of their Canadian counterparts; Surrey still has more portables than it did when John Horgan became premier; and Vancouver families in many parts of the city have to enter lotteries to get their kids into their neighbourhood schools—if, unlike those who live in the Olympic Village, their community actually has a school. And as we’ve seen over and over, when seismic upgrades or replacements finally get funded, the money is not adequate and the schools end up too small.

      Support for students with special needs is uneven, and kids still get sent home and miss school due to a lack of support. Proposed changes to how B.C. funds special education are still in the works, although they haven’t been implemented and have parents and teachers alarmed that things may get even worse if B.C. moves forward with a “prevalence” model instead of funding based on actual numbers of students with special-needs designations.

      The fear is that if districts are funded based on the general prevalence of needs, there will be even less accountability for ensuring that students who need extra specialized support will get it.

      Despite the NDP’s promises in the last election, parents still fundraise for basics and teachers still buy resources for their classrooms with their own money.

      Private and faith-based schools are getting more funding than they ever have from the provincial treasury, including elite private schools that charge more than $25,000 a year in tuition.

      On the positive side, the Horgan government kept its promise to restore funding for classes for adults who’ve graduated from high school but need to upgrade courses, after the B.C. Liberals cut that funding in 2014.

      Schools and COVID-19

      It’s been interesting watching the NDP in Alberta and Ontario criticizing their governments for shoddy back-to-school plans after the COVID-19 school closures last spring, given that B.C.’s COVID-19 schools plan is arguably as flawed as Alberta’s and Ontario’s.

      The Alberta NDP is calling for a cap of 15 students per class and funding to “hire the staff necessary to accomplish this”. They also want more staff to be hired to cover paid sick leave and time off for employees who need to care for sick dependents.  They want more custodians, mandatory masks in all school common areas, and mandatory physical distancing in classrooms.

      The Ontario NDP is demanding its government provide school districts with funding for more teachers, support workers, and alternative classrooms, and to make classes smaller and safer.

      Those seem like reasonable and prudent asks, given the increase in COVID-19 cases and “exposures” in B.C. schools. I don’t know how B.C.’s NDP can defend its schools plan while its counterparts in Alberta and Ontario are calling out their governments for plans that are so similar to B.C.’s.

      Education Minister Rob Fleming

      The B.C. NDP’s schools plan has been the Horgan government’s weakest link in its COVID-19 response, and Education Minister Rob Fleming hasn’t exactly been one of Horgan’s top performers, in comparison to strong cabinet bright lights like Adrian Dix, David Eby and Carole James. I expect the NDP will try to focus on other issues instead of education. Don’t let them get away with it.

      They’re going to have a tough campaign if they don’t acknowledge how badly Fleming fumbled the school plan, with its tissue-thin “layers of protection” and inadequate, hastily put together remote-learning options for those who don’t feel safe returning to class. You can bet the NDP team has its fingers and toes crossed that we don’t see more exposures, clusters, outbreaks, or whatever they’re calling them in the weeks between now and the election.

      What I’ll be asking the parties and candidates

      It’s time to let parties and candidates know what you want to see if they want your vote, your donation, or your volunteer time. Heck, if they want to put a sign in your window or on your lawn, demand to know what they’re committing to for public education.

      I’ll be letting my candidates know that having among the lowest per-student funding in Canada doesn’t cut it. I’ll want assurance that funding for students with special needs will be protected and that there won’t be a move to a prevalence-funding model without ironclad protections in place to ensure students who need support actually get it.

      I’ll ask them if they’ll scrap the FSAs and stop taking up precious classroom time on tests that teachers don’t find useful—or move to a random-sample model that prevents the results from being misused to create misleading and harmful school rankings.

      I’ll want to know when they’re going to complete all outstanding school seismic upgrades, and when they’ll fund a long-overdue school for the Olympic Village. I'll also ask them if they’re going to improve the “area standards” for seismic rebuilds and new schools, which are the formulas the B.C. Liberals adopted that don’t allow schools to be built large enough or with adequate facilities.

      I’ll be telling them I want B.C.’s teachers to be paid competitively instead of giving them increases that barely keep pace with inflation. Ditto for education assistants. They’re among the lowest-paid employees in the school system, which makes it hard to attract and retain qualified workers, leading to chronic shortages and turnover, which is terrible for students.

      Make education an issue

      Public education has gotten short shrift from both the B.C. Liberals and the NDP. They do it because they believe they can get away with it. I have no illusions that students would be any better off under the Liberals, because I’ve seen that movie and don’t want a sequel. What I’d like to see is enough pressure on all the parties to spur them to commit to doing better.

      You know what to do, folks: fire up your keyboard or phone and tell the parties and candidates what they need to do in order to get your vote, money, or volunteer time. This darn election is annoying, but let’s make the best of it.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.