Patti Bacchus: Is B.C.’s education-funding review headed for trouble?

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      Few terms sound duller than “education funding review”, but hang on to your hats, folks: the one that’s underway at B.C.’s Ministry of Education may get interesting and heated over coming months.

      In its 2017 election platform, the B.C. NDP promised to review how schools are funded. Shortly after the election, Premier John Horgan tasked his education minister, Rob Fleming, with developing a “stable and sustainable” way to fund the kindergarten-to-Grade 12 education system. Good idea, and to the government’s credit, it's working on it. That’s the good news.

      Here’s the other kind of news. From the outset, unfortunately, the review process has appeared to have serious flaws. For starters, Fleming appointed a review panel of senior bureaucrats to conduct a funding-formula review but didn’t include any representation from the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), the B.C. School Trustees Association, or parent groups on the panel.  Although senior bureaucrats have vast knowledge and experience, they tend to get to where they are by not rocking any boats or telling those in power things they don’t want to hear.

      Secondly, the process has been anything but transparent, leading to frustration from those who want to make sure the government fully understands how policy shifts will affect teaching and learning conditions before this whole exercise is a done deal.

      Thirdly, the review ignored the biggest issue of all: there isn’t enough money to go around. Full stop. Spending months trying to figure out how to reslice a too-small pie will only create winners and losers. Instead, they should have done a review to determine what it would actually cost to provide optimal learning conditions and opportunities for all students. 

      The review so far

      Last May, Fleming’s review panel released a paper summarizing what it had heard from school districts. It didn’t contain anything that those who follow education politics aren’t already well aware of, although it did include an interesting nugget: “A number of districts suggested moving to a prevalence model based on the incidence of special needs in the population as an alternative to the current assessment and reporting-driven funding model… all agreed that this approach would reduce the administrative burden and provide districts with more time and resources to deliver services to students.”

      The term prevalence model didn’t get much attention at the time, but it’s starting to now, and it has a lot of teachers and parents worried. As it should.

      The prevalence model

      It sounds simple enough. Instead of requiring school districts, parents, and kids to jump through a bunch of diagnostic and administrative hoops for special education designations that qualify for supplemental special-education funding grants, just give school districts funding based on the general prevalence of special needs in the school-aged population.

      After all, government types will tell you that about eight percent of the special-education funding is spent on the “administrivia” required to determine who generates what funding. It makes sense, in theory, to redirect that money to providing services to students.

      What’s not to like about cutting red tape?

      Well, perhaps quite a lot. As is generally the case, the devil may be in the details of the new funding plan.

      History lessons

      You only need to look back to see what happened when the B.C. Liberal government did something similar when it announced targeted funding grants for gifted students would be rolled into general funding grants to school districts, and school boards could figure out the best way to use that money.

      What followed was a huge drop in students being assessed and identified as gifted, and subsequent cuts to gifted programs. Those psycho-educational assessments that are used to identify and designate kids also provide detailed information about how individual students learn and can provide the key to why they may be struggling. Assessments help educators design programs and plans to help students succeed. Without that information, students and their teachers can flounder and end up with poor outcomes.

      What I’ve also watched happen over the past decade-and-a-half in Vancouver is that parents who have the means to get their kids privately assessed for giftedness or learning disabilities are able to use that information to advocate for their kids and get them increased support and accommodations at school. That’s great for them but not for those who can’t afford to shell out the $3,000 dollars or so it can cost to get a private psycho-educational assessment. That’s a major equity issue, and I fear a shift to a prevalence model could make that a whole lot worse, leaving lower-income kids at an increased disadvantage if schools no longer see the benefit of getting struggling kids assessed by an educational psychologist.

      Too often kids who haven’t been properly assessed, particularly low-income kids, are treated as primarily having behaviour problems when what they really have is some form of a learning disability. They get frustrated in class and end up acting out. Instead of figuring out why they’re frustrated and what kind of help they need, the focus is on their behaviour.

      As we learned with the gifted experience, school districts are less inclined to get kids assessed if they don’t think doing so will get the district any more funding, so that problem could become a lot worse than it already is under a prevalence model without some strong safeguards in place.

      While government will tell you school districts must provide appropriate supports and services for all students, regardless of their designations, those with kids with unfunded designations are often told there isn’t any money to give their kids extra support.

      And we all know what happened when the B.C. Liberal government decided to strip the teachers’ contract and take out class-size and composition provisions. Well, folks, we may be in for a an awful kind of déjà vu in the education sector.

      Funding changes on a collision course with BCTF contracts

      When the B.C. Liberals famously tore up the teachers’ contract and tried to take away their right to bargain class size and composition, hundreds of teaching jobs were lost, class sizes increased, and class compositions became more complex and hard to manage. When the 2016 Supreme Court of Canada decision essentially restored the teacher’s contract language, government had to add hundreds of millions to the education budget to hire thousands more teachers to comply with contract provisions.

      B.C. teachers demonstrated at the provincial legislature in 2012 after the B.C. Liberal government tore up their collective-bargaining agreement.

      If my fear—that a move to a prevalence model will lead to far fewer students getting properly assessed or designated—comes true, many districts’ restored contract language will be effectively meaningless, as it relies on student designations to determine class composition and supports.

      I heard from several teachers over the past few weeks who are alarmed at rumours about the prevalence model, especially since bargaining for their next contract is expected to start early in the new year, which coincides with when government is expected to release its plans for the funding-model changes.

      Fleming has already appointed an implementation advisory committee—comprising two retired superintendents, a retired secretary treasurer, and the executive director of the B.C. First Nations Education Steering Committee—to help implement the funding-model changes. One of the committee’s roles, according to ministry documents I’ve obtained, is to “ensure success with any change management challenges” resulting from the funding changes, which are expected to go into effect next year.

      That puts the funding review on a collision course with what already promises to be a contentious bargaining round with the BCTF. How will anyone ensure there are measures in place to manage class size and composition effectively if fewer kids end up being designated?

      Remember what I said earlier about details and devils?

      Secrecy, B.C. Liberals style

      When I chaired the Vancouver School Board for six long years under the former government, it drove me nuts the way they cooked up major education-policy changes in secret and then dropped them on school boards with little to no meaningful consultation or collaboration on the details.

      We were supposed to be working in a mutually respectful cogovernance relationship, but it was anything but. If I thought that anything significant would change under an NDP government, I thought this would be it. I expected a real culture change in the relationship between the Ministry of Education and school boards and other partner groups. It’s definitely better than it was under the B.C. Liberals, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. I’m still seeing a lot of the same faces in the ministry and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association from the bad old days under the B.C. Liberals and I worry they may be advising the minister and that not enough has changed.

      The secrecy around the review panel’s recommendations is the kind of thing that would have had Fleming calling out the government in the legislature when he was education critic. Fleming has had the review panel’s report and recommendations in hand since last summer, but there’s still no word on when he’ll share it publicly. He tweeted last week: “Once we have carefully considered all of the recommendations and implications, we will release the report.” Ticktock minister, ticktock.

      Beware of the possibility of a spring election

      If a shift to a prevalence funding model isn’t worrisome enough, consider what the B.C. Liberals could do with a model like that. And, yes, they may be back in government, sooner rather than later.

      Think about it. If the electoral-reform-referendum results come back with the majority wanting to stick with first past the post, Green party leader Andrew Weaver may decide to stop propping up the Horgan government. We could find ourselves heading back to the polls, and who knows how that may turn out. And then there’s that pesky Nanaimo by-election coming up, which will likely turn out fine for the NDP, but this is B.C., and anything can happen in a by-election.

      How to get this review done right

      If the Horgan government wants to make sure the cure for what ails the education system doesn’t make it sicker instead of better, it needs a culture shift to one that brings people from the frontlines to the table instead of continuing to call on the same cast of retired senior managers to advise them.

      It needs to set aside those who are still following the B.C. Liberals’ playbook and start sharing information so that teachers, parents, students, and the public can see what’s being recommended in order to provide informed feedback well in advance of implementation. It needs to build respectful, collaborative, and trusting relationships. It means including people in an open and transparent process, from start to finish, and dropping the carefully crafted ministry message boxes that tell us next to nothing of substance.

      By withholding the report and recommendations for months—while quietly appointing a committee to advise on the plan’s 2019 implementation—government may end up hamstringing the BCTF in its upcoming negotiations over class size and composition, rendering its court victory essentially moot. If that comes to pass, students could once again end up being the biggest losers, as they were after the B.C. Liberals stripped the teachers’ contract in 2002.

      Government also needs to get serious about increasing education funding beyond what is has to as a result of the BCTF court win. It’s not enough to provide just enough money to comply with restored contract language. They system is still underfunded, and addressing that should be the  review’s primary focus.

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