In a stunning abdication of any responsibility for public education or for the 500,000 kids and their parents who depend on public schools, Finance Minister Mike de Jong has stated that his government has no plans to ensure schools open in September.
As if it has nothing to do with him, de Jong said that “in those circumstances there will be ongoing disruption. And I know who feels the pain then — it’s the families of students.”
He might as well have said: “The families of students — not me.” It would hardly have made his statement more offensive to the parents who rely on the school system to provide the foundation for their kids’ hopes and futures.
Unencumbered by the notion that there is any kind of social contract between government and the people who vote for his government, de Jong simply washed his hands of any responsibility for providing leadership in a difficult situation.
Both New Democrat and Liberal governments have found dealing with the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation has never been easy, but no government before this has simply turned its back on the problem.
The BCTF, unlike the vast majority of its teacher members, has shown itself time and again willing to hold the system to ransom. More than once, the BCTF has embarrassed its own members by tabling demands that clearly are not just “throwaways,” but constitute a serious impediment to negotiation.
No surprise there, but never, to my recollection, has a government been willing to be complicit in this kind of irresponsibility regarding the conduct of public education.
Government has made serious mistakes in its attempts to legislate an end to contract impasses. According to two recent court decisions, government has even ignored its responsibilities to respect the rule of law.
Even so, government has, until now, fulfilled its responsibility to exercise the legislative muscle granted to it by the voters to make sure the schools were open and kids in class, especially when it appeared there was no hope, according to a lineup of celebrity mediators, of a negotiated settlement.
Governments in the past have understood that kids should be protected from the inability of the adults to act in their interests.
Since 1994, when an NDP government created a single teachers’ bargaining unit and deemed BCTF as the bargaining agent for public-school teachers, there have been five examples of legislated settlements to BCTF/government negotiations with various iterations of the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association acting on behalf of government.
Only once under this centralized bargaining structure, in 2006, have BCTF and government reached a voluntarily negotiated collective agreement. Every other round of negotiations was concluded with direct government — either NDP or Liberal — intervention.
Given all this precedent, it is not unreasonable to expect that government would be preparing legislative action to ensure that the kids get to school in September.
What differentiates this negotiation is that BCPSEA, which was previously a representative of trustees and others, is now solely populated by government appointees. BCPSEA is government this time around.
Legislated settlements, in a strange way, work for everybody; the BCTF can claim it did not back down and once again died on the barricades defending its position, and government can appear to be at least governmental.
Best of all, the kids go back to school, leaving the interminable games of political one-upmanship to the adults for whom the game seems a reason for existence.
Nobody is denying that public education is a major cost to government. Nobody is denying that government must satisfy an endless series of fiscal demands on its resources. But nobody can deny that the obligation to devise a solution that will see the schools open on time in September belongs to government.
But those seemingly contradictory quotes from Premier Christy Clark: “We need to get this agreement done before fall … and end this uncertainty,’’ and from de Jong: “It would be a mistake … to impose an agreement,” leave 500,000 kids and their parents wondering who, if anybody, will take responsibility for looking after their interests.
Not the BCTF and now, according to a representative of government, not our elected government.
Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.