Comment: Politicians — don’t use schools as a wedge issue

In the wake of the Supreme Court of Canada decision restoring 2001 B.C. teacher staffing levels, there is concern about the future, as well as a sense of possibility regarding B.C.’s schools.

Will the associated costs of improved staffing — such as classrooms and operating budgets — be provided in good faith beyond this election year, or is the new Vancouver School Board budget a sign of things to come? Will there be a consensus vision of the schools that B.C. wants to have?

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George Abbott, former minister of education, in recent comments to parent advocates, said: “The SCC decision — and just as importantly broad agreement between the parties on the compensatory package — offers an important opportunity to build a better relationship between government and the BCTF, regardless of which party wins the pending election.

“Government and the BCTF are two of the key partners, reluctantly or otherwise, in public education. … There is much to discuss and they should regularly get together, regardless of how well issues are unfolding. In this relationship, gaps in understanding are invariably filled by the worst assumptions of what is happening.”

Through good-faith communication, all parties should seek agreement about B.C.’s public-school policy in order to protect the welfare of children and families. As Abbott suggests, labour and legal conflict is for the time suspended and “both [government and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation] can build on the constructive and collaborative district-level discussions of the B.C. Education Plan, particularly in the context of relative labour peace into 2019.”

We have an opportunity to advocate post-partisanship with respect to our children’s education. It is our choice to discourage our politicians from using B.C.’s schools as a wedge issue.

Humane, intelligent public schools help create our desired future. Such schools model keen analytic abilities, sound values, esthetic sensitivity and respect for our health. In classrooms, there is attention to the whole student and all the students, particularly those with learning challenges. Achieving this kind of quality in classrooms requires significant teacher staffing — and it now appears B.C. will have those needed teachers.

Through our schools and other institutions, we are working to give all young people the opportunity to compete in the marketplace as well as to fulfil themselves spiritually.

If we are successful, prosperity and social tranquillity result. Some of our northern European neighbours see education this way. They have measurable outcomes in happiness, longevity and wealth equality that demonstrate the value of their strategic planning.

As suggested in the influential book The Spirit Level, wealth inequality in particular might be the statistic to monitor, because it predicts “11 other health and social problems [and] outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.” Although B.C.’s market economy distributes income at about the Canadian average, after the government intervenes with taxes and benefits, B.C. becomes worst or second worst among the provinces in wealth inequality.

In order to give young people an opportunity to reverse this trend and maintain our quality of life, no strategy exceeds having high-quality, comprehensive public schools.

In order to create and maintain those schools, we need to work together and we need shared investment. While other provinces have regularly increased their school funding since 2000, the Supreme Court decision restores B.C. to 2001 levels of staffing. But as the legal battle was being fought from 2001 to 2016, K-12 funding dropped in B.C. as a share of GDP by 25 per cent. This amounts to $2 billion per year.

Even with the resources mandated by the Supreme Court decision, B.C. will remain below the Canadian average in dollars invested per public-school student. This is a moment to discuss and decide whether we wish to make a definitive commitment to education as a way to our shared future.

Along with new bridges, dams, trains and ports, will British Columbia have the people who can carry the province to greatness?


Paul Shaker, PhD, professor emeritus and former dean of education at Simon Fraser University, directs the project

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