Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Is education the key to a middle class life?

It is repeated so often in the media, you would think it is true: education is the key to social a good job with decent pay and benefits, and all that goes with it.

If only it were so.

Education has never been a guarantee of social mobility. Yes, there have been periods of time when large numbers of workers were needed in new industries, some requiring new education and training. But it is the jobs that come first, and the education systems plays catch up. Mass industrialization and the move from the farm into industry, services and office jobs necessitated high levels of literacy to provide a viable workforce. Hence the "compulsory" nature of common schools in the latter 19th and early 20th century. When the US and other western nations sought to win the space race and scientific advancement in the post-war period,  the education system was expanded to include mandatory, free secondary level schooling along with highly subsidized university programs.

To suggest that more education, in and of itself, leads to better employment is just a logical falsity. Today's deeply indebted graduates are tragically the living proof. The cliche of the PHD grad serving coffee rings true for a reason - it is. Statistics Canada has confirmed this - more than a quarter of all newly created jobs in 2011 and 2012 were in accommodations and food.

That education systems actually reinforce class stratification has been extensively studied. Bowles & Gintis (link) produced a landmark analysis in the 1970's of the US education system confirming this.

So why is this myth perpetuated, and what should we do about it?

Belief in social mobility is one of the key tenets of capitalist liberal democracy. If an individual has the opportunity to work hard, become educated, and thereby improve their lot in life, then the system treats people fairly, so the argument goes. If a particular person doesn't, it is their own fault, not the fault of the system. This reasoning creates an "escape valve" for the anger and frustration of those living in poverty. Just pull up your boots, work harder and get more educated, and life will get better. It also acts to create a scapegoat for others to rationalize why inequality is ok - those people at the bottom don't work hard enough or don't have the skills/knowledge to be valuable contributors.

On a more day to day level, for-profit education service providers benefit from more clients. This includes for-profit post-secondary institutions, but also the legion of private sector services like tutoring companies. Banks benefit from the interest paid from massive student loans. Governments can justify the redirection of education resources to those areas of the education system deemed "necessary" for certain jobs (think: skills training), and away from others. Think about all the humanities departments disappearing from universities.

Those of us working in an underfunded, increasingly privatized education system can often fall into repeating this myth. It is all too easy and I know I'm guilty myself. But as the necessity of questioning the mass inequality in society increases, we need to be careful that we promote education for the right reasons, rather than perpetuate myths that serve other interests.

Education is of tremendous value and everyone who wants to study and learn should be able to. But not because it gets you a good job, but because it enriches us as individuals and as a society.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Women's rights under attack from School District policy

In 2011, the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association filed a grievance because five women who had contracts with the School Board were denied their maternity benefits. We went to an arbitration hearing, and we were successful.

In response, the School Board decided to change their policy. Since they had to pay benefits, they would find a way to not give work to these teachers. They informed teachers, via their union, that they planned to refuse temporary contract work to any teacher who could not be “available” for at least half the length of the contract.

Let’s unpack this a bit. Who applies for these temporary contracts? All temporary work is awarded to qualified teachers already employed by the District on the basis of their aggregate length of service – the number of years they have worked for the District already. So although these contracts are temporary – lasting one year or less – the teachers applying for them are anything but temporary. In fact, they must have sufficient service records to be awarded the jobs. Typically these are District employees with three to five years of service with the District already.

Let’s compare what would happen with several different teachers, applying for a job.

Teacher one is not pregnant, and not a parent. They apply and get the job.

Teacher two is a male teacher whose wife is pregnant. He has five years service with the District. He plans on taking ten weeks of parental leave. If he applies for a contract of twenty weeks or more, he would get the job.Otherwise, he would not.

Teacher three is a female teacher who is pregnant. She has worked four consecutive temporary contracts in a row and has five years of service with the District. She is due October 15th and is denied the position due to her “unavailability”. She loses income, top-up benefits, seniority accrual, pay step accrual and extended dental and health benefits, and pension benefits.

Is this fair? Clearly not. Each of these teachers has the same level of service with the District. They are equally committed to their profession and their employer and the children they teach. But they are treated differently on the basis of family status and on the basis of sex. This is the definition of discrimination in the Charter of Rights and the BC Human Rights Code, which reads:

Discrimination in employment

13  (1) A person must not

(a) refuse to employ or refuse to continue to employ a person, or

(b) discriminate against a person regarding employment or any term or condition of employment

because of the race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation or age of that person or because that person has been convicted of a criminal or summary conviction offence that is unrelated to the employment or to the intended employment of that person.

If this policy is implemented, the ONLY teachers who will be ineligle for work (who the District will "refuse to employ") are parents (family status) and pregnant women (sex).

The District claims the policy is meant to address “classroom disruption”. Is this really their rationale? First, most classroom disruption comes from sources other than pregnancy & parental leaves. Overcrowded classrooms, teachers on stress leave, educational assistants who are not replaced when ill, staffing classrooms in September – these are all causes of considerable disruption to the learning environment.

However, for the rare occasion where a classroom has already had several teachers due to illnesses and/or pregnancy leaves (the only leaves allowed mid-year) and a pregnant teacher applies, there is an easy solution. Give the teacher the job, but place her in a different setting until the time of her leave. This prevents disruption AND respects women's and parents rights to take pregnancy and parental leaves.

This is called a “workplace accommodation” and is the required method for employers to deal with situations where there is genuine (not simply perceived or anticipated) impact on service provision.

Unfortunately, the District did not choose this approach. Their choice reveals another motive. They don’t want to pay the benefits.

While every School District is under stress from underfunding, it is simply wrong to suggest that one group should bear the brunt and that the group should be identified by family status or sex. In fact, when maternity leave was first instituted, many employers cried foul upset at the costs to hire and train replacements. Yes, there is a cost to being fair and non-discriminatory. This is the choice we have made as a society to ensure equal rights for everyone. Why should female teachers and parents who work for School District 61 not be afforded this same protection? Do they not deserve the same equal treatment as other women workers?

The underlying sexism of this policy and some of the reasoning behind it has come through in some of the comments made by administrators and even by the Editor of the Times Colonist.

Lori Burley, Principal, stated “that most parents understand if someone gets sick, but when their son or daughter is repeatedly getting a new teacher throughout the year, they begin to lose patience, particularly if the child is struggling.” So it is understandable to be ill, but not understandable to be pregnant? Is she saying that a struggling child who experiences teacher turnover due to a stress leave is OK, but due to a pregnancy is not OK? Is this the position of the Principals and Vice Principals Association?

Dave Obee, the editor of the Times Colonist stated: “But it’s not a question of the district denying a woman a position because she is pregnant; it’s asking a teacher to think beyond her own interests by not applying for a job she knows she can’t complete.”

Hmm. A woman in any other profession is entitled to leaves, but women who are teachers should refrain from either having children or working? You can have children OR work, but not both? Or does he mean ALL women should not apply for jobs if they plan on having children? Women who have children don’t belong in the workplace?

A wealth of literature indicates how women remain disadvantaged in the workplace: fewer women in high paid positions, lower wages (still only about 80 cents on the dollar), the wage gap due to pregnancy/parental leaves, fewer promotions.  School District 61 should not be contributing to these statistics by deliberately instituting policies that will have a direct impact on female employees who have children.

If a female teacher in School District 61 had three children and lost full year temporary positions for each one of them she would not only lose the benefits for those three years, but she would take three years longer to reach the top of the salary grid and she would lose three years of pensionable time – that is 8% of her pension.

Who are these women and fathers who will be impacted? Known in some circles as “generation squeeze” they are the twenty and thirty somethings who are facing every other financial hardship of this generation – high debt load, shrinking job opportunities, caring for elderly parents, low interest rates, shrinking pensions and zero wage increases. The last thing they should have to face is attacks on their maternity benefits. They are about 20% of the teaching force in Victoria. They are committed and hardworking teachers. They care about children, including their own.

When the only teachers "unavailable" are the pregnant moms and the parents taking leave, you have a policy that discriminates based on sex and family status.

This policy is simply old fashioned no-nonsense sexism – a woman’s place is in the home. Parents, don't expect to work as well as care for your children.

Is this really the state of affairs for schools in the 21st century?

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