The public didn’t bring up education

Is government secretly trying to undermine public education and favouring the private?

This girl is want; this boy is ignorance. Beware them both, but mostly beware this boy

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol


The NDP promise $265 million to improve learning conditions in B.C. schools over three years – new teachers, librarians, counsellors – to reduce the want and ignorance of children in a deteriorating public education system.

“It would take $3.3 billion to bring conditions in schools back to where we were in 2001,” says BCTF outgoing president Susan Lambert.

The dollar figure “was reported by the provincial organization representing the province’s secretary treasurers,” she says.

“We’ve lost 1,500 learning assistants, special education and ESL teachers. I’ve heard of many classes with 12 and even more students with special education designations … the system is unable to meet the needs of these students.”

An apathetic public has watched this decline with disinterest since 2001, a fact that explains why educational support was rarely mentioned after the NDP’s announcement, April 18. None of the leaders broached it during the televised debate.

Last Friday, on CBC Radio, Education Minister Don McRae offered an explanation.

“The public didn’t bring it up,” he said.

It’s teachers who do that. You can’t be apathetic when you struggle to help kids with learning difficulties keep up in your classroom. Reasonable class size and composition, fully supported, are essential. The Liberals have dismissed that argument. In 2002, they stripped learning conditions from collective bargaining.

“With the contractual agreement gone,” says Lambert, “government has been able to cut education budgets by $275 every year since.”

For that, they get an F on my report.

What about the NDP? At the moment, an ‘I’ for incomplete.

The promise of on-going funding is encouraging, but the NDP’s commitment historically makes it suspect. In 1994, under the NDP’s watch, North Vancouver School District closed its learning centre, blaming lack of ministry funding. It was the only place with specially trained staff and programs that could help Jeffery Moore, a Grade 3 student with a learning disability.

North Van and the government both acted incorrectly, said the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal in 2005. It upheld Jeffery’s right – under the School Act – to learn to his own potential. Furthermore, said Tribunal chair Heather McNaughton, the problem was systemic – occurring in all districts.

A stitch in time saves nine. The province could have funded equal educational opportunity from then on. Instead, it appealed to a higher court to evade its responsibility. That forced school districts to cut programs that would help public school kids enjoy the learning opportunities offered those at private schools.

Since 1994, school boards throughout B.C. have dutifully balanced budgets at the expense of support staff, music, counselling.

In Maple Ridge this year, cuts affected support services, helping teachers, and librarians. The latter delight kids in story circles, and inspire them to read good literature. This should infuriate parents of school-age kids, but most chairs set out for the public at the board’s budget meeting were empty.

Apathy grows when the news worsens. Protesters who attended budget cuts in 2011 left frustrated. The board had axed a popular band program.

Secretary Treasurer, Wayne Jefferson said: “We have to get the education plan to fit the financial envelope.” (The News, May, 2011). It’s the line all school boards have used since 1994. Children deserve more.

Lambert thinks the government wants public education to be unattractive. “In our view,” says Lambert, “the trends we see in education policy are designed to undermine the public system in favor of encouraging private alternatives.”

Where would that leave kids who can’t afford them? In 2010, youth rioted in England because they’d lost hope that a weak public system could provide skills and knowledge needed to get a job. After the fires died down, it was discovered two-thirds of the rioters had learning difficulties. Charles Dickens was right. A society that lets kids grow up wanting and ignorant will face their fury.

Monday, local candidates at Thomas Haney secondary shared plans for public education. Some think the system isn’t really “deteriorating.”

Greens and Conservatives said it needs help, though.

There was talk of subsidized daycare, tax relief, or RESPs.

Liberal Doug Bing said the system is the best in the world and criticism is “unwarranted.”

NDP candidates noted the disappointing turn out – 70 people, a lot of  school trustees, PAC members, teachers.

That’s more than attended the school board’s budget meeting.

Following the vote, the board set off for the B.C. School Trustee Association’s annual general meeting at the Delta Grand Okanagan Resort in Kelowna, for a workshop was called “What does it take to organize and facilitate effective community engagement?”

That’s simple. It takes schools that support the learning needs of all students, and enrich their lives with programs for drama, music, and athletics.

That would put an end to public apathy.

Don’t forget to vote.

Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.

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