Friday, November 14, 2014

School Trustees - The citizens' voice

Tomorrow is voting day for school Trustees in British Columbia. Please take the time to cast your ballot, and hopefully you've had a chance to look at some of the candidates. If you aren't familiar with Trustee candidates in your area, I strongly recommend you check out your local teachers' association, as they usually endorse candidates based on a thorough interview process. In the Victoria school District, the Greater Victoria Teachers' Association has endorsed six candidates: Edith Loring-Kuhanga, Deborah Nohr, Diane McNally, Rob Payntor, Jordan Watters and Anne Whiteaker. That's who I'll be voting for.

Voters should also consider "plumping" their vote. This means voting for ONLY those candidates you feel confident about. This increases those candidate's chances of winning. For example, if you want Candidate A to win, but you also vote for Candidate B, then Candidate B might beat Candidate A by a small number of votes and your extra vote helped make that difference. Often you get to vote for 7 or 9 Trustees, but it is really better to vote for the solid candidates you really want. Hopefully they win a majority on the Board.

Municipal elections typically have poor voter turnout, and especially for school Trustee. If you do just one more thing to help get public education advocates into Trustee positions - take five with you to the polls. Your parents, your co-workers, your siblings, your friends. Give them a ring a few hours before the polls close on Saturday to see if they've voted yet.

The teacher's strike this year highlighted the many shortcomings and dangers our public system faces. But without an active community voice and a sustained social movement we will not have the power to effect change. School Trustees who see their role as advocates, rather than mere managers, can be critical partners in such movements. The recent debate on corporate funding in schools and the response from Vancouver Trustees and Trustee candidates is one example. We need to build on this to create citizen based movements to advocate for smaller class, support for students with special needs, adequate funding, an increased schedule for seismic upgrades, proper playground equipment at all schools, new capital funding for growing communities. Tomorrow's vote is step one in this process.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reflections on the BC Teacher Strike

Teachers are reflective practitioners. And just as we reflect on a lesson to judge what worked and what did not, we ought also to reflect on our struggle to improve the public education system. The point is not to lay blame. It is to figure out how to do it better next time.

A starting point for reflection is to judge the outcome relative to our goals. From this point of view, there is much to be done. As we return to class this week, there are still no class size limits for Grades 4 - 12. There are still no rules whatsoever on the composition of a class. Our salaries will increase pretty much in accordance with the original government proposal. Elementary teachers will have ten more minutes of preparation time. This is a far cry from the proposals tabled over a year ago, and still far from the "bottom line" of the framework proposal made at the end of June.

Teachers will still act as the shock absorbers for a system under stress. We ourselves will be the ones on medical leave from the ten percent of classes that are truly not adequate learning environments. We will continue to see teachers leave the profession. We will continue to fill in the gaps with our own resources - be that money or time. And at the same time our salaries will continue to fall relative to inflation.

We will watch as the BCTF goes back to court over the imposition of Bills 28 and 22. While this is absolutely necessary, we will no longer have the opportunity of immediate reinstatement of our class size language. Even if the courts uphold Justice Griffin's decision and reject the government's appeal, we will be teaching in over crowded classrooms until something new is negotiated, and we know what that process is likely to look like.

So what have we learned for next time?

Some commentators have suggested this deal was better than a legislated end to the dispute. In the context of our court case, I'm not so sure. A legislated contract likely would have been two years, with the same wages, and with no re-opener on the court case. The possibility would be there of immediate reinstatement of our class size language with a final court decision. A two year agreement would have us bargaining again before an election, not after one. These are the reasons the government wanted this deal and didn't want to legislate.

Others have said we had no other choice - public support would disappear. I'm not so sure about that either. The public was with us because we were fighting for classroom conditions. If we were clear that this deal made few improvements, I believe many in the public would have stayed the course. Regardless, we have a lot of work to do to build stronger alliances in our communities. Public support was good, but not overwhelming. Our relationships need to deepen and broaden. We can't only ask parents to help us when we need it. We have to be there on parent issues such as seismic upgrading, school closures, child poverty, day care and affordable housing. And I don't mean just taking the right position. We have to be there on the streets, like parents were for us.

It should have been an option to return to work but reject the deal. Unfortunately, this option was not available to teachers. There is some irony that the timing of the vote came in part due to a motion from a BCTF AGM requiring a vote to end a job action. This motion was to prevent a "sell out" from leadership at the end of a strike by stopping job action without membership consent. But it was never meant to rush a ratification vote. Teachers should have had two separate choices - do we return to work? Do we accept this contract?

Teachers had about six hours to look at the contract language. They received conflicting information about the re-opener clause (which had been settled in bargaining at least three days earlier), and about the impact of the Education Fund. The BCTF claimed 850 new teachers would be hired, but failed to mention the layoffs this spring (such as 135 in Surrey alone), or that most of those hires had already happened with the Learning Improvement Fund. This year's new money for teachers is only the amount that had been spent on CUPE staff - probably about 15-30% of the fund. Teachers need adequate time to debate and consider an agreement and they have the right to see the actual language of the contract. These are basic democratic rights that any membership should insist from their union. We need to rethink how we ratify contracts.

The government strategy of starving us out was effective. If we choose to take strike action next time, we need to think a lot more carefully about how long we can stay out. Striking at the beginning of the school year was very effective at creating pressure - especially due to the impact on International programs. Striking in June was not effective, and only added extra financial pressure on teachers. We need a properly funded strike fund. And teachers need to learn a lesson from the private sector that you should have several months savings to help you weather a longer strike. If government perceives this bargaining round as a win, which I believe they do, they will use these strategies again next time - lock outs and long strikes.