Patti Bacchus: What the B.C. NDP’s win means for public education

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      While mail-in and absentee provincial-election ballots, including mine, have yet to be counted, I’ve been pondering what the B.C. NDP’s big win means for public education.

      As a cautious optimist, I’ll say the good news definitely outweighs the bad, but keep your expectations in check.

      First, the good news

      The B.C. Liberals took a shellacking and voters sent a decisive message that transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny are unacceptable and have no place in this province, and certainly not in our government. Thank goodness for that. That also bodes well for those of us who believe public schools must be safe and welcoming for all students, families, and employees.

      And while many in the education sector were frustrated by how little changed under the previous Horgan government from the bad old days under the B.C. Liberals, without a doubt a Liberal government would be far worse for schools than the NDP.

      Some new additions to the NDP caucus bring a deep understanding of the public education system and its challenges: Chilliwack school board chair Dan Coulter, who appears to have ousted Liberal incumbent John Martin; Langley school board chair Megan Dykeman, who came out fairly well ahead of Liberal Margaret Kunst (who caught campaign flak for voting against a rainbow crosswalk in her role as a Langley Township councillor) in Langley East; and Kelly Greene, a Richmond city councillor who is well known as a public-education advocate, and who picked up 50 percent of the votes counted thus far in Richmond-Steveston compared to Liberal candidate Matt Pitcairn, who got 46 percent.

      The B.C. Green party’s relatively strong showing, under its new leader Sonia Furstenau—including winning its first mainland seat with Jeremy Valeriote’s surprising (to me, at least) victory in the West Vancouver-Sea to Sky riding—is good news for schools as well.

      Furstenau, who was reelected in Cowichan, is a former high-school teacher who is well versed on what schools and students need to succeed. With the Liberals in meltdown mode and disarray, I’ll be looking to Furstenau to hold the Horgan government accountable, and indications are she’s up to the task.

      Another bright spot is Vancouver-False Creek, where new NDP candidate Brenda Bailey knocked off Liberal incumbent Sam Sullivan with a pledge to fund construction of a long-overdue elementary school for Vancouver’s Olympic Village.

      Defeated B.C. Liberal candidate Sam Sullivan in 2017.

      NDP education minister Rob Fleming played unfortunate political games last term,  refusing to fund the school (or, perhaps more accurately, the NDP’s Treasury Board refused to ante up the money). Fleming went so far as to offer the funding only if the Vancouver School Board (VSB) closed its French immersion Queen Elizabeth Annex and turn it over to the public Francophone school district. It was a nasty bit of business and a no-go for the VSB, which left Olympic Village families without a school.

      Olympic Village parents have been pleading for a school for years, as they’ve scrambled to find spaces in nearby schools, which are, for the most part, already overcapacity. I’ll be watching to see if the new government delivers on its promise sooner rather than later. If the will is there, although I doubt it is, a modular school could be in place and ready for the start of the next school year.

      The bad news

      Horgan’s resounding victory was likely due, in part, to the NDP’s centrist approach to governing and Carole James’s careful stewardship of the provincial treasury. Far from being an out-of-control, tax-and-spend government, the NDP kept a tight lid on spending, particularly in the public sector, protecting B.C.’s valuable “AAA” credit rating. Agree or disagree with that approach, voters liked it.

      Premier John Horgan

      Education got barely a mention in the election campaign, and I suspect that’s because it’s not generally a ballot-box issue for voters. Don’t expect any new big investments in education. It’s already an expensive file for government, and even small increases in per-student funding add up to big numbers.

      I suspect Fleming did exactly what Horgan and cabinet wanted him to do by keeping expectations in check and not committing to any big spends. The same goes for education-ministry bureaucrats from the Liberal era, who he kept around to the frustration of many, including me. Don’t count on that changing, much as I wish it would.

      Will there be a new Education Minister?

      Regular readers will know I was often disappointed in Fleming as an education minister. We were in frequent contact when the Liberals were in power and he was the education critic. He’d show up in Vancouver anytime parents were rallying and was a keen advocate for better funding for public schools.

      I know that governing is harder than opposing, but I expected Fleming to be an engaged minister who worked hard to achieve the things he advocated for as critic. Instead, B.C.’s per-student funding, which is well behind the national average, has barely kept pace with inflation. B.C. teachers’ salaries still lag behind other provinces, exacerbating the teacher shortage. His government’s 2017 promise to “do away” with Surrey portables was broken, and badly: Surrey now how more portables than it did four years ago.

      In 2013, the NDP said it would get rid of the controversial Foundation Skills Assessments (FSAs), which are written by students in grades four and seven each year, and form the basis of the Fraser Institute’s much-derided school rankings. For years, teachers have said that not only are the tests a waste of valuable class time and a source of stress for many students, the results that get misused don’t tell them anything useful.

      Education Minister Rob Fleming

      Yet Fleming’s deputy minister, Scott MacDonald, doubled down on the tests, pressuring school-district superintendents to increase participation rates, making it harder for parents to have their kids excused from writing them. With little to offer B.C.’s weary teachers—who took so much abuse from the B.C. Liberals and then got stuck with the NDP’s miserly public-sector-bargaining mandate—the least Fleming could have done was to order a move to a random sample or something more palatable than the FSAs.

      Fleming has never seemed comfortable in the role, and he often appeared disengaged and frustrated, with the air of someone who has somewhere else he’d much rather be. I’d hoped he would be more collaborative and open, but he disappointed me there as well.

      Horgan will have to make changes, given that seven members of his previous cabinet didn’t run for reelection. While he’s at it, I hope he appoints a new education minister, one who has enthusiasm for the job and a passion for public education. I hope he considers that B.C. has had five consecutive white men as education minister (Fleming, Mike Bernier, Peter Fassbender, Don McRae and George Abbott) and makes a change that is more reflective of our province’s demographics and those who work in the K-12 education sector. Ditto for the deputy minister.

      The challenges ahead

      Whoever the new minister is, they have work to do. School employees—from administrators to teachers, support workers, and custodians—are stressed and exhausted from this difficult year, and it’s only late October. The spring was tough enough when they had to suddenly pivot to teaching remotely. This year has been even harder, working in crowded schools with relatively lax rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

      As I write this column, two schools have closed temporarily due to COVID-19 and the daily list of school exposures has grown so lengthy I can no longer keep up with it. Many teachers and school support workers are fearful they’ll catch the virus and take it home to vulnerable family members, and I don’t blame them.

      Heritage Woods Secondary School in Port Moody had a COVID-19 exposure on October 15.

      We’re into our second wave of the pandemic and students still aren’t required to wear masks in their often crowded and poorly ventilated classrooms, when we’re learning more about how the virus transmits and being warned that even small indoor gatherings are risky.

      While it was the right call to reopen schools, much more could and should have been done to do so more safely. A new education minister needs to work with stakeholders—including teachers, support workers, parents, and students—to look for ways to make everyone safer in schools, and commit to funding it. They need to make school employees feel supported and valued instead of expecting them to work until they burn out, worsening the teacher shortage.

      The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated existing inequities. Parents of students with special needs and medical challenges have had to fight too hard for their kids to have equal access to education. It’s gotten worse with the pandemic. Research shows that, for example, children and youth with Down Syndrome are at much higher risk of being hospitalized or dying than everyone else if they contract COVID-19. That puts parents of kids with Down Syndrome in a terribly difficult position, given the lax safety protocols in schools.

      On August 11, Education MInister Rob Fleming and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced a phased reopening of B.C.'s schools for the 2020-2021 school year.

      I’ve heard from many parents of immunocompromised kids who are still keeping their kids home, with little to no educational programming or support from their schools, because their doctors are concerned the risk is too high for them to attend class. Remote-learning options can still be difficult to access, and many are heavily dependent on parents to provide and support instruction.

      That’s just not feasible for many families. They have to choose between their kids staying home and not learning enough—or much at all—or gambling with their health by sending them to school. That’s not good enough, and it’s not fair.

      The fact is, Fleming and the Horgan government could have directed and funded schools to take more stringent steps to ensure all kids could attend school more safely but chose not to. That’s discriminatory, and it’s a failure in my books.

      Despite years of attacks from the Liberals and more casual neglect from the NDP, we still have pretty darn good public schools that deserve better government support. A strong and accessible public education system is the cornerstone of democracy and the foundation of a healthy, equitable, and prosperous society. Let’s hope the new government and new minister feel the same way and act accordingly.

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