Patti Bacchus: A look at B.C. parties’ underwhelming education platforms

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      B.C.’s public schools suffered years of budget cuts under the B.C. Liberals. They lost teacher-librarians, counsellors, special-education teachers, janitors, music programs, and junior kindergarten for the most at-risk kids.

      Hundreds of schools were closed.

      The Liberals crowed “more funding than ever!”, failing to acknowledge that funding didn’t keep pace with inflation or even the costs of provincially negotiated employee salary and benefit increases.

      School boards were stuck with the unenviable task of figuring out how to balance district budgets from year to year, which usually meant cuts to jobs and programs, putting off building maintenance, or lowering the heat on cold days to save a few bucks.

      Little to none of that has been restored since John Horgan formed a government in 2017. Education funding increased, however, when school districts had to hire more teachers after the Supreme Court of Canada decided in 2016 that the B.C. Liberal government had violated teachers’ constitutional rights to bargain class size and composition, effectively restoring class-size contract language that existed prior to 2002.

      Horgan responded to the 2016 court decision by saying that “public education is now the number-one issue for me in the [2017] election”. How times have changed, and not for the better.

      Here we are, almost four years since the court ruling, and aside from teachers who had to be hired due to the BCTF’s court victory, and some progress on the backlog of seismic upgrades and replacements, not enough has changed in B.C.’s public schools, despite audacious claims to the contrary from the NDP camp.

      What the NDP is promising voters this time

      It took a bit of looking on the NDP’s website for find their education platform. It’s under the “Commitments” tab, which features eight key areas: COVID-19, health care, affordability, security, community, jobs, the economy, and energy. Apparently, education isn’t Horgan’s number-one issue any more. Heck, it’s not even in his top eight.

      If you scroll down and look hard enough, you’ll come to a section called “affordability and security in your home and community”. That’s where you’ll find the “better learning for your child” section. It’s mixed in with a miscellaneous collection of promises on everything from the recovery benefit, housing programs, public transit, banning single-use plastics, electric-vehicle incentives, the gender pay gap, and self-determination for Indigenous people.

      The K-12 section opens with a debatable claim: “Under our approach, schools—and the people who work and learn in them—are now getting the support they need.”

      Are they?

      I, and many teachers, parents, and students, beg to differ.

      The reality is school counsellors still have massive caseloads, while rates of anxiety and other mental-health issues are on the increase in children and youth. Many schools lack a full-time librarian, this when learning to discern credible information from fake and misleading stuff is more critical than ever (see the USA, for example, to know how important and urgent this is). Kids with special needs are still getting sent home due to a lack of support and are given sporadic support for their learning programs.

      B.C. premier John Horgan.

      When teachers are absent, there often isn’t a substitute to cover for them, as many retired teachers who used to sub from time to time are steering clear due to COVID-19, as may others who don’t feel safe going into schools during the pandemic. This is exacerbating the preexisting teacher shortage, yet I don’t hear anything from any of the parties about a plan to do something about it or to make teachers’ wages more competitive with those in other provinces.

      When they can’t get substitutes, schools often pull “non-enrolling” staff like special-education resource teachers to cover for absent classroom teachers. That means the students who need that specialized support go without, which puts them even further behind. Or teachers are asked to forgo their badly needed preparation time to cover classes, leading to burnout. This has been going on for a few years now, and it’s worse now with COVID-19.

      Teachers still pay out of their own pockets for classroom supplies, and parents fundraise for basics that used to be covered out of school flex budgets. In the middle of a pandemic, teachers tell me they’re buying hand sanitizer for their classrooms because districts are rationing it. Good grief.

      When I was elected to the Vancouver School Board in 2008, the district had an early kindergarten program for kids identified most at risk of not being ready to succeed in kindergarten. It had an award-winning elementary band-and-strings program in dozens of elementary schools. It had high school transition programs that enabled struggling grades eight and nine students to stay in small groupings to help them move successfully from elementary to secondary school, instead of falling through the cracks.

      Vancouver School Board.
      Martin Dunphy

      All those programs are gone, along with much more. They didn’t come back under the Horgan government, and after looking at what’s on offer in the NDP platform this time, they won’t be coming back at all.

      This time, the NDP is promising to “continue” (did they ever start?) to make classrooms safer during the pandemic through the installation of new ventilation systems, plexiglass barriers in “key” areas, comprehensive cleaning stations, and more hours of cleaning. It’s not clear if they’re using B.C.’s $242-million share of the $2 billion in federal funding set aside to help schools operate safely during the pandemic for this, but I suspect they are, making it a reannouncement of sorts.

      While school counsellors continue to have overwhelming caseloads and students can wait weeks for an appointment, the NDP is promising to “build on its investment into mental health supports for students and staff”, along with “better support for children and youth with special needs”. I’ve heard this before, and I’d like to hear details about how they’re going to do that.

      An NDP government will invest in more computers and tablets, according to the platform, and provide more training for teachers and support staff and new ways to improve “social e-learning that promotes group interactions between students and teachers”.

      They’ll continue the “largest modernization of schools in B.C.’s history” instead of promising to get rid of portables in Surrey (they promised that last time but there are more of those now than there were when Horgan became premier in 2017). The platform doesn’t include last weekend’s announcement that an NDP government will fund the construction of the long-overdue elementary school at Olympic Village, which could swing that riding from the B.C. Liberals’ Sam Sullivan to new NDP candidate Brenda Bailey.

      Olympic Village and False Creek.
      Wikimedia Commons

      There’s a promise about food programs that sounds similar to what already exists in many districts, and once again a promise to take “the fundraising burden off parents” by funding more playgrounds. That’s good, but parents will still be fundraising for many other school necessities. They’re pledging to “deliver targeted investments” in school supplies so parents and teachers don’t have to cover those. They promised that last time but didn’t deliver. I will believe it when I see it, and I will celebrate it.

      That’s some pretty weak sauce overall, but not as weak as the B.C. Liberals’ nothingburger of a K-12 education platform.

      The B.C. Liberals’ education plan, such as it is

      It’s hard to get excited about a “province-wide framework for hybrid and online learning options, and promoting distance-learning options” when parents have been asking for local hybrid options that keep their kids enrolled in their local schools and connected to school staff and classmates.

      The B.C. Liberals are also promising to restore public funding to private online-learning schools, which is a terrible idea. Public funds belong in public schools, period, whether they’re bricks and mortar or online. If you want to get me excited about your platform, tell me you’re going to stop funding elite private schools.

      B.C. Liberal Party leader Andrew Wilkinson.

      Buried in the 47-page Liberal platform document is a pledge to “provide school instruction that meets the diverse learning needs of students”. How that would differ from anything that’s being done now remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t advise holding your breath on that, nor the promise to build new schools and “upgrade K-12 facilities and ensure they are properly equipped”.

      I choked on that gem, given that the B.C. Liberals brought in the miserly “area standards”, otherwise known as the formula for building new schools that results in too-small buildings with no auditoriums that everyone complains about.

      And let’s not forget that this is the party that pledged to have all at-risk schools seismically upgraded by 2020 and later pushed that date back to 2030, leaving thousands of students and their teachers at risk of injury or death should a serious earthquake strike in the next decade.

      The B.C. Green Party’s plan for K-12

      I have some reservations about the Green party, particularly based on my own experience on the Vancouver School Board, when a Green trustee held the balance of power between four Vision Vancouver trustees and four Non-Partisan Association (NPA) trustees. On several occasions, the Green trustee voted with the NPA on decisions I would call decidedly not progressive, including unnecessary cuts to adult-education programs.

      It confirmed what others had warned me about: The Green party is different from other parties and not necessarily progressive, despite often taking progressive positions. It’s a little bit like Forrest Gump’s mom’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.

      If all the Greens could sound more like new leader Sonia Furstenau, however, I’d be giving them some serious consideration. Their K-12 election promises aren’t too bad, but also not great.

      In their platform released yesterday (October 14), the Greens gives public education top billing, showing it’s a high priority for the party. Full marks for that.  They pledge to fund all school districts based on last year’s enrollment, to ensure districts don’t lose funding for students not enrolled this year due to COVID-19. They say they would ensure that all districts have resources to develop “credible and robust remote learning and hybrid learning options” and they would add $24 million for more school counsellors. I like that.

      B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau.

      The Greens are also promising a $25-million nutrition fund to support districts in developing food programs. I presume this would complement the funding that several districts already get through the province’s existing $52 million CommunityLINK funding that partly goes to food programs.

      A Green government would also look at wage and class-size-and-composition disparity among school districts and increased access to speech-language pathologists and school psychologists, as well as develop new resources for students with special needs and a new funding formula.

      Why can’t our schools have nice things?

      B.C. is regarded as having one of the best public-education systems in the world, despite decades of inadequate funding. Thousands of families around the world spend $15,000 year in tuition, plus the costs of homestays and travel, to enroll their kids in international-student programs in B.C.’s public-school districts. A diploma from B.C. public schools is respected and recognized at universities worldwide.

      If you had a winning hockey team, would you push it to find cost savings and “efficiencies” and to do more with less? Or would you celebrate its success and invest in it? Why do we treat our education system like it’s a failed project when it so clearly isn’t?

      Why do we treat things like classroom projectors, glue sticks, tablets, sports equipment, library books, and music programs like luxuries students don’t deserve? Why are we so cheap when it comes to hiring enough counsellors, librarians, and education assistants? Why don’t we see these as worthy investments that demonstrate our commitment to being an educated province where each child is given ample and accessible opportunities to meet their full potential?

      I’m disheartened by what the parties have to offer our public schools, although I know an NDP government is still going to be much better for schools than a Liberal one would. It saddens me that that’s the best I can say, and I hope those in the NDP camp know it’s not nearly good enough.

      The Greens have some good ideas, and I’m impressed with how they prioritize public education. Unfortunately, they have no chance of forming a government this time. Maybe they’ll have another chance to have an outsized influence on one. That’s about the most we can hope for this election, sadly.

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