Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tentative agreement - Yes or No?

Despite what I know was a herculean effort on the part of our bargaining team, I very much hope that BC teachers will vote no to the tentative agreement. After five weeks of strike, and twelve years of legal battles, this is not the deal that will restore sanity to public education and it is not a fair deal for teachers and students. Just as teachers in Saskatchewan rejected a deal to ensure a better outcome, I hope BC teachers will consider a no vote to let our team know we have to go back to the bargaining table.

Class size, composition

The agreement provided a modified LIF fund starting at $75 million per year and increasing to $85 by the last year. It is for teachers only, which will mean a slight improvement in Districts where sizeable portions were spent on Education Assistants or senior District staff rather than teachers. However, in an average size District like Victoria (20,000 students, 1,000 teachers), this will translate into about 5-10 more teachers. That is one for every five schools. To put it in comparison, Justice Griffin's judgement estimated the lost funding due to lost class size language at about $330 million in current dollars.

I heard so many teachers speak up about the need to ensure that we do not return to over-crowded classes when the strike ends. This agreement does very little to alleviate what is the most pressing issue.

Throwing away the court victory

The agreement provides a "reopener" in the event we win on appeal our class size language. What this means is that the language returns, but is not implemented until new language is negotiated. Without the actual implementation of the returned language, there will be very little incentive for the government to bargain it back. We would essentially be back in the very same position we are in today, with government trying to bargain it out and us trying to bargain it back in. In my opinion, even if we were legislated back to work we would be in a superior position. If we won the appeal the government would then be forced to implement the language. We are thus throwing away our historic court victory and the bargaining pressure it potentially creates.

The reopener is really only mildly less offensive than E80. In both cases, we have to bargain back what was illegally taken from our contract and the government will probably never have to restore it. In fact, the "reopener" creates the perfect opportunity for government to lock us out to try and force us to agree to something far inferior.

Throwing away the remedy for the last twelve years

The agreement provides $105 million to compensate for grievances over-sized classes for the last twelve years. Using Justice Griffin's estimates, our loss is roughly $300 million times 12 = over $3 billion. I cannot fathom how $105 million is a fair compromise. The BCTF's original proposal to put this money back into the system was a more fair and productive approach. This agreement means we can no longer go to the courts for a fair remedy.


The agreement is very close to government's original offer. While I would be willing to accept this if the class size language was returned, teachers should not be taking such a significant monetary loss without the commensurate gain in working conditions. We have lost roughly 12% of our annual salary. We will not make that back in the term of the contract. With inflation now running at 2% per annum, this salary agreement is a pay cut.

Minimal improvements

There are very minimal improvements in preparation time for elementary teachers (10 minutes per week), and TTOC daily rate. The TTOC daily rate change may depend on your grid placement. It could actually be a wage loss for long term TTOCs who are above category 5 and step 7. There is also $11 million in health and dental benefits. At 40,000 members, this is $275 each. Hardly worth consideration in the context of the rest of the agreement.

What next?

There are a variety of options if we vote no. We can continue the strike. We can choose to return to work and continue bargaining. We do not, and should not, accept an agreement that doesn't meet our needs and doesn't meet the needs of students and public education. When Saskatchewan teachers rejected the first deal which had 5.5% wage increases over four years, the second deal had 7.3% increases over four years. They have said this still isn't good enough.

For us, our main issue is classroom conditions. We need to say this isn't good enough. The way to do that is to vote no.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Class composition: a human rights perspective

Christy Clark enraged teachers and surprised many when she tweeted that class composition was one of her primary concerns. Those of us working in schools who have for twelve long years been trying to bring this issue into the public discourse thought: well, it's about time.

It was over twenty years ago that Charter rights guaranteed students with disabilities an education in mainstream classrooms. No longer would students be relegated to special schools or special classrooms. They were legally entitled to be in class with all other students and to experience the equivalent educational opportunities.

The integration of students with special needs and the subsequent increase of these students within the student population is at the heart of the "class composition" issue. In the 1990's, teachers in British Columbia negotiated limits to how many students with special needs would be in any one classroom. They also negotiated smaller classes for those with students with special needs.

The purpose was twofold. First, placing limits on any individual class ensures that the overall distribution of students is even across classrooms. This creates diverse classes in every school. It also ensures that any individual teacher has adequate time to prepare individualized lessons for each of those students.

When Bill 28 eliminated these provisions, and with additional legislation in 2002 that removed targeting funds towards individual students, school Districts responded with a practice of "clustering". It works like this. If the per student funding provides some money, and a student with a funded designation provides a little bit more money, then pool that money together, hire a single Educational Assistant, and place all the students with special needs into that class to have access to the Educational Assistant. The result is that in a school with two or three classes at one grade level, one class will have high numbers of students with special needs and an Educational Assistant while the other classes will have relatively few students with special needs and no Educational Assistant. Thus the effect of removing limits for individual classrooms is to create a system of partial segregation. There are the classes with high numbers of students with special needs and those with significantly lower numbers. Specialty programs like Academies and French Immersion can further exacerbate this distribution.

The Liberal government cynically adopted an argument put forward by the Victoria Confederacy of Parent Advisory Councils that the practice of limiting students with special needs in one class is discriminatory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does removing limits encourage clustering, it also impacts educations opportunities for those students in a system that is chronically underfunded.

Charter rights require that students with special needs have equivalent educational opportunities to all other students. This means that more funding and resources must be directed towards those students if required to provide an equivalent opportunity for those children. But without class composition limits, one teacher could have to prepare upwards of a dozen individual programs for a single class of students. Given the ninety minutes of preparation time per week, this simply isn't possible. Moreover, the sharing of limited resources among students and the use of Educational Assistants rather than Special Education teachers means students with individual education plans receive little if any targeted instruction beyond what the classroom teacher can provide. It is not uncommon for a student with a learning disability to have about 15 minutes per week with a special education teacher. I have met a Grade 2 teacher who prepared 18 different reading programs for her class. If a single classroom teacher has many students with individual plans, the time available for each plan and each student  becomes increasingly limited.

Diverse and equitable classrooms are created when each classroom has a similar diversity within it, not when students with special needs are clustered together because of funding limitations. This is what per class limits facilitate. This is what teachers want restored to our contract. Without these limits and with chronic underfunding we are providing the exact opposite. Children with special needs who require more are receiving less: - less teacher time, less specialist time and less genuine integration.

All of this is to explain why government proposal E80 is so problematic in the current bargaining context. It eliminates limits in favour of a small pot of money with no accountability for how that money is spent. We know from experience this leads to inequities and clustering. And we know that limits for individual classrooms leads to diversity and integration.