Patti Bacchus: Meet B.C.’s new education minister, Jennifer Whiteside

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      Where’s Whiteside?

      As B.C.’s public schools reopened last week, in the midst of the deadly pandemic, while schools in other provinces stayed closed, many nervous education workers and parents were asking where B.C.’s new education minister was and what she was doing to keep students and staff safe.

      It was a fair question. We’d heard next to nothing from Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside since she was sworn in to cabinet in November 2020.

      I was surprised that Premier John Horgan had picked a new and mostly unknown MLA to take on the notoriously difficult job of education minister. Whiteside—who was elected MLA for New Westminster in the October provincial election—had a long and successful career in the organized-labour side of the health-care sector but is a newcomer to elected office, taking over the seat previously held by Judy Darcy.

      When her appointment as education minister was announced in late November, I asked her ministry staff to let her know I’d like to interview her. Several weeks went by, and I finally got a chance to talk to her by phone last Friday (January 8).

      I had a lot of questions, and although we spoke for almost an hour, I didn’t get to all of them, but I enjoyed the conversation and it left me feeling cautiously optimistic.

      Unlike several of her predecessors, I found Whiteside forthright and engaging, and I was impressed with her enthusiasm for accepting the formidable post. One of my first questions was whether she’d had any second thoughts on accepting the job, and she didn’t skip a beat in assuring me she had none.

      “It’s an honour to be asked to do this,” she told me, noting education’s many parallels to the health-care system in which she worked for many years.

      Who is Jennifer Whiteside?

      Whiteside was born and raised in New Westminster, where she attended Herbert Spencer elementary and New Westminster secondary before graduating from Burnaby South. Now “north of 50”, she says she was a musical child and has fond memories of her high-school band teacher, Mr. Shaefer.

      When I pressed her on whether there were other teachers who had a significant impact on her, she recalled her Grade 3 (or 4?) teacher, Mrs. Kenny, and Mr. Bailey, who taught English literature at Burnaby South.

      She also told me about Mr. Lepkin, a high school teacher who “did an entire lecture on swearing without ever actually swearing”. I hope Mr. Lepkin, along with the others I’ve mentioned here, know they made a lasting impression on B.C.’s education minister.

      After high school, Whiteside went to Simon Fraser University, where she majored in history and earned a bachelor of arts. She considered becoming a history teacher, she told me, noting that if we all understood history better, we wouldn’t be so doomed to repeat it. That rang truer than ever last week, given what happened at the U.S. Capitol. Let’s hope she applies that sentiment to her new post as well and takes her ministry in a new and more positive direction.

      Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside

      Although she went in a different direction with her career, Whiteside sees her new job as coming full circle back to her university days, and she spoke about her desire to be part of building a better world, saying that  “education is key to nourishing democracy”. Indeed.

      On the issues

      The pandemic has dominated the rookie minister’s early days in office, along with getting up to speed about what’s happening in B.C. schools. Most B.C. schools are back full-time this school year, while a few large districts, including Surrey and Vancouver, have a hybrid model in secondary schools that has students attend for part of the day and learn remotely for the rest.

      While over 67,000 people signed a petition calling for school opening to be delayed following winter break, Whiteside told me B.C. is different from other jurisdictions, and she credited frontline workers in schools for their “heroic efforts” to connect students and families to services and supports they need.

      “I’m deeply impressed by the commitment across the education sector to keeping kids safe,” she said during our conversation, adding that in-class learning is her ministry’s goal. She didn’t mention the B.C. Teachers’ Federation’s (BCTF) repeated calls for increased safety measures.

      She said school plans have to be dynamic and adapt and that public health officials set the standard in a province with a government that has made a commitment to be led by science.

      When pressed on whether current safety protocols and classroom sizes are good enough, she said the provincial steering committee on COVID-19 and schools, which comprises representatives from education partner groups, meets weekly (virtually) and reviews issues that are difficult to resolve on the ground.

      Minister of Health Adrian Dix and the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry
      Government of B.C.

      I pushed her on whether she’s considering directing that masks be worn in class, but she was noncommittal, saying mandatory masks are “an interesting and complex public health measure” and that decisions on making them mandatory would be made by public health officials.

      Masks seem pretty straightforward to me, and, like the rest of us, kids have adapted to wearing them in public places such as stores, in buses and on ferries, and in classrooms in other jurisdictions, but I didn’t get the impression the new minister has plans to use her authority (and, yes, she has that authority) to do what many teachers and parents have been pleading for, which is disappointing.

      Likewise, on the issue of clear, consistent, and transparent communication regarding COVID-19 exposures, clusters, outbreaks, or whatever you want to call them in school: no commitment to specific changes but an acknowledgement that the sector needs to “double down on every front”, whatever that means.

      I was hoping to hear what she planned to do to improve communications from school districts, but Whiteside deferred to public health authorities again instead of the sector she now oversees and has the power to direct.

      Acwsalcta School in Bella Coola, B.C., recorded COVID-19 exposures from November 24 to 26.

      Asked about parents of students with special needs who say their kids’ needs are being neglected during the pandemic (even more than they were prepandemic), Whiteside expressed sympathy and noted districts have been told to prioritize students who need more support and that for those who choose to stay home, they should have opportunity for remote-learning opportunities. (Those opportunities are actually almost nonexistent in many districts, placing more of a burden on parents, who are often trying to work from home themselves.)

      On nonpandemic issues, Whiteside talked about her larger and laudable vision of closing gaps in the education system to build one that is more equitable and leads to better outcomes for Indigenous students, and for schools that are truly welcoming for all students and where the principles of inclusion are well communicated.

      A lot of work has been done by school districts on that front during the past decade, and she didn’t give specifics to explain what her plans are to accomplish any of that, but these are early days, and I’m hoping she’ll provide more clarity sooner rather than later.

      No changes to FSAs planned

      I thought a long-time labour leader would be sympathetic and responsive to calls from the BCTF to scrap the controversial Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) tests that are scheduled to be administered to grades four and seven students in February and March.

      Teachers and many parents detest the FSAs and say they don’t provide any useful information that helps students or schools and only reinforce that students from affluent families with educated parents and plenty of privilege tend to do better in school that do disadvantaged students. They’re not wrong.

      They’re also right that the tests take up a lot of valuable classroom time and cause a lot of unnecessary stress for some students, and given how much class time kids lost last year and how stressful the pandemic is—in so many ways—the argument is more convincing than ever.

      As the chair of the Vancouver School Board (VSB), I saw the harmful effects of the tests and, in particular, their misuse by the Fraser Institute, which uses them to publish school rankings. Those rankings contributed to enrollment declines in schools in lower-income communities (as parents opted to send their kids to schools in more affluent communities), and schools with lower enrollment get bumped down the seismic-upgrade list and find their way on to potential closure lists. It’s a terrible cycle that harms communities that rely on the services and supports at their local schools, literally putting those schools’ futures in jeopardy and eroding their staffing levels as their enrollments decline.

      Vancouver School Board
      Martin Dunphy

      Yet Whiteside told me the tests will be going ahead this year, which, although disappointing, is not completely surprising. Disappointing because of Whiteside’s labour background and commitment to social justice, but not completely surprising because the deputy minister she inherited, Scott MacDonald, is pro-FSA and pressures district superintendents to increase student-participation rates, making it more difficult for parents to have their kids opt out of the tests.

      She rattled off familiar ministry talking points regarding the tests: it’s important to evaluate and benchmark the system; some groups, including Indigenous education groups, rely on the tests for data.

      She did say, however, that she was open to discussing alternatives once we’re though the pandemic, which seems like a reasonable approach, although it won’t satisfy many who don’t want them administered during this stressful year. It’s also not a great first impression. Cancelling them this year would have made a splash.

      Fixing what the B.C. Liberals broke

      It was interesting that Whiteside talked about music teachers and being a musical student, when so many B.C. school-district music programs, particularly at the elementary level, were decimated by budget cuts during the Liberal era.

      Wikimedia Commons/Stilfehler

      This is personal for me, as one of the reasons I voted not to pass the VSB’s 2016-17 budget, risking firing (and eventually getting fired for it), was because it cut the district’s award-winning, and much loved, elementary band-and-strings program. What, I asked, is the minister’s plan for supporting and restoring music and other fine-arts programming in B.C. schools?

      Whiteside’s response was on the vague side, saying the Horgan government “has a lot to build back from” after all the years of district cuts under the Liberals.

      She said education suffered greatly under the Liberals (it did) and the NDP has started to build back (I’m not so sure about that) with investments in capital and operating funds (that barely keep pace with inflation, unfortunately).

      “Fine arts are really critical to building whole people,” the minister told me. “It’s something we need to look at.”

      The minister’s challenges

      We need to do more than looking at things or considering talking about them later, or saying the right things. Kids are in school now, and many are missing out on opportunities enjoyed by previous generations. B.C. has been waiting a long time for an education minister with a vision and a plan for supporting and improving B.C. schools. Too many of Whiteside’s predecessors were focused more on keeping a lid on spending than making sure each child got the opportunities and support they needed to succeed.

      I don’t doubt Whiteside wants to improve schools and make them better places to learn and to work. I’m sure she wants to make the world a better place for her grand-nieces and all kids. Will she be able to make any real changes? We’ll see.

      Whiteside inherits a ministry that has changed little since the dreadful days of the B.C. Liberal government, which seemed more focused on stripping teachers’ bargaining rights and pressuring school districts to sell public land (in some cases, to Liberal donors at below-market value) than improving education opportunities and outcomes for students.

      And with the ministry comes its staff, including the FSA-pushing deputy minister and an assistant deputy minister who once worked for the Fraser Institute and wrote reports and articles opposing increases to B.C.'s minimum wage. How this will sit with a minister who has dedicated her career to improving wages and working conditions for workers is a question I wish I’d had time to ask.

      I suspect Whiteside’s staff have been advising the minister to keep the FSAs and resist pressure to direct stronger COVID-19 safety measures, and her staff won’t even be her biggest challenge.

      Premier John Horgan

      The Horgan government has been reluctant to compensate for some of the lowest teacher salaries in the country or to increase per-student operating grants much beyond the rate of inflation. Aside from providing money to restore teaching positions that had to be restored after the BCTF’s massive 2016 win at the Supreme Court of Canada, the Horgan government hasn’t rebuilt much of what was lost in B.C.’s chronically underfunded schools during the B.C. Liberal era.

      I don’t expect that will change, no matter how much Whiteside may want it to. The provincial treasury will be in a shambles once we get through this pandemic, and those who control it know education funding isn’t a ballot-box issue to be concerned about, much as I wish it was.

      Aside from a few key ministers like Adrian Dix, Selina Robinson, or David Eby, who wield clout at the cabinet table, ministers are expected to toe the government line, not advocate for their ministries. That may explain why Horgan didn’t select one of the former school board chairs who were elected as MLAs in October, who may have been more inclined to push for what schools really need to support all students’ needs.

      Perhaps Whiteside’s experience as a negotiator will come in handy at the cabinet table if she decides to make a real difference with the opportunity she’s been given.

      Our conversation left me optimistic that, at the very least, Whiteside will make an authentic effort to work collaboratively with education “partners” (school boards, administrators, teachers, support workers, parents, and students) and be accessible and engaged in a way we haven’t seen for far too long in B.C.

      She would be wise to be open and honest about the challenges and limitations of her role but stay open to suggestions for changes that she can make within the confines of her position.

      Will Whiteside be a minister who rolls up her sleeves and sets a clear direction for her ministry, like Dix and Eby, or will she take a passive role—like her predecessor, Rob Fleming—and let her bureaucrats left from the Liberal days continue to lead the way?

      That remains to be seen, and I’ll be watching closely.

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