Patti Bacchus: Parents give schools good marks but have concerns

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      B.C. parents gave K-12 schools good grades in a recent poll, with 83 percent saying their child’s school experience has been very positive or moderately positive, but they also have concerns.

      Depending how you assign marks, that could be considered a B+, and the responses to the Research Co. online poll conducted in late May say parents are mostly satisfied —or very satisfied—with the quality of instruction their kids are getting.

      Although the poll confirms that B.C.’s education system is performing well, in most parents’ opinions, issues like class size, the teacher shortage, and student safety and bullying are still concerns, according to a significant number of parents who responded.

      I hope Education Minister Rob Fleming and all B.C. school trustees take time to review the poll results, because they show an interesting and notable variation in responses, depending on where families live. This may be particularly relevant to the ongoing negotiations between the government and school boards and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) to come up with a renewed teachers’ contract.

      Those talks have hit a snag over class-size and composition provisions. Since the BCTF’s 2016 landmark victory at the Supreme Court of Canada, school districts have had to follow the restored pre-2002 contract, which varies from district to district. Now government is proposing that class-size and composition language be standardized across the province, which could result in increased class sizes in some districts (including Vancouver) but smaller classes for others that don’t have clear limits in their district’s restored contracts.

      One of the challenges at the table is that restored contracts were bargained locally, district by district, and vary considerably. Contract “cost” items are now bargained provincially, between the B.C. Public School Employer’s Association (BCPSEA, which represents the provincial government and public school boards) and the BCTF. The BCPSEA side is constrained by a bargaining mandate set by the provincial government. This year, the mandate is set at increases of two percent a year over three-year contracts.

      It makes sense to have consistent language in all districts. BCPSEA’s side of the table is looking for something to level out class sizes across B.C., but the BCTF side doesn’t want districts that now have strong, clear limits on class size and composition to lose the limits they had restored following the court win, which could result in larger class sizes for Vancouver students.

      Many Northern B.C. districts have little to no contract limits regarding class composition (the number of students with special needs that can be in a classroom, or what kind of support must be provided for them), and a few, like Prince George, have no class size limits. Standardized language could result in smaller classes for some northern districts, but larger ones in districts that now have stronger contact language limiting class sizes and composition.

      Parents outside Lower Mainland have “humongous” concerns about class size

      Research Co. president Mario Canseco told me by phone that parents’ concerns about large classes were “humongous” outside the Lower Mainland, while parents in districts like Vancouver were more concerned about student safety and bullying.

      That’s something Fleming and school trustees should take note of, especially if those bargaining on their behalf are pushing for contract language that would increase class sizes in Lower Mainland school districts. It’s bad enough that the Horgan government already has B.C. teachers riled up over contract negotiations and BCPSEA’s proposals at the table.

      If the new contract doesn’t keep class sizes where they are now in most Metro Vancouver districts, it could get parents in those ridings as upset about class sizes as they are now in northern ones, where Canseco says large class sizes are “an enormous anxiety” for parents.

      With 16 percent of parents responding that the teacher shortage is the most pressing concern in the education system, Fleming should also be thinking about what contract provisions would attract more teachers. B.C. teachers are among the lowest paid in Canada but face high costs of living. Without some salary improvements beyond the two, two, and two on the table—which doesn’t even keep up with inflation—the teacher shortage could get worse, as older teachers get fed up and retire.

      The issues of bullying and safety are also in the news these days, with disturbing videos and stories circulating showing students violently assaulting classmates. School boards need to do a better job of responding to these incidents and communicating with the public about how they’re addressing the problem.

      Public-school parents more satisfied than private-school parents

      I’ve written a few columns about why government should stop funding private schools, especially expensive and exclusive ones and those that don’t comply with the Human Rights Code. I found it noteworthy that Canseco’s Research Co. found that parents with kids in public school responded with higher levels (85 percent) of satisfaction regarding their child’s experience at school than those who kids go to private school (79 percent).

      It was also interesting to see that more private school parents (11 percent) than public school parents (eight per cent) identified bureaucracy and poor management as the biggest problem facing B.C. education system and that equal numbers (15 percent) of private- and public-school parents said lack of safety and bullying were the biggest problems.

      Overall, large class sizes were identified as the number-one problem by 21 percent of all parents surveyed, with the shortage of teachers coming second, at 16 percent, and safety/bullying coming close behind at 15 percent.

      I asked Canseco what stood out for him and what’s changed since the B.C. Liberals were in government and he said the numbers (11 percent) identifying labour disputes between government and the BCTF were much lower than they used to be under the Liberals. He said it’s a positive sign that parents expect things to go more smoothly between the NDP government and the BCTF, and let’s hope they’re right.

      Canseco says the regional variations present a challenge for Fleming in terms of having no clear issue to address, but despite responses being somewhat of a “mixed bag”, the poll indicated a high level of satisfaction with the quality of teaching in B.C. schools and indicate that the school system is working well. 

      If things don’t get resolved at the bargaining table by the end of this month, however, and if we head into any kind of job action, lockout, or strike in the fall, parents’ generally positive moods regarding education may shift. They’ll want to see the dispute resolved with limits on class sizes in all districts to ensure the best learning conditions for their kids, and with a salary increase that’s good enough to attract teachers to B.C. schools.

      The Research Co. results are based on an online study conducted from May 20 to May 28, 2019, among 700 B.C. residents who have a child enrolled in the K-12 school system.


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