Friday, May 1, 2015

The courts will not deliver smaller class sizes

Yesterday's BC Court of Appeal ruling against the BC Teachers' Federation was a disappointment to teachers and parents across the province. Many hoped that the court would uphold the trial judge's ruling that the actions of the BC government were bargaining in bad faith, and therefore unconstitutional, and therefore must be undone.

While the decision is a difficult pill to swallow, it should also be taken as a guide to strategy and tactics in how to protect and enhance our public services. While court rulings have sometimes prompted progressive change in how these services are administered, what they must provide, and how they are funded, they can just as easily defend and justify the actions of government. Ultimately, they are not the solution to a political problem. And the lessons of the thirteen year legal battle over class sizes in British Columbia should teach us that relying on the courts is not a winning strategy. After a decade of court battles, classes are as large as ever, funding on the decrease, and the teachers' strike fund depleted from legal costs.

Even if the Supreme Court of Canada agrees to hear an appeal (and this is not at all certain, given last year's statistic of only ten percent of cases granted leave to appeal), and even if the Supreme Court of Canada were to overturn the BC Court of Appeal decision, teachers would still be left to try and win back the stripped contract language through a new bargaining round. Given the disappointing results of the recent nine week strike, it is hard to picture teachers engaging in and winning a new strike with a still depleted strike fund and without much stronger, broader and more organized public support from parents, school trustees and the public.

The simple reality is that courts may give governments a slap on the wrist for failing to bargain in good faith, but they are not going to unilaterally remake government policy. And unions and the 99%, if we are to save and improve public services, have to stop looking to the court system as a saviour. Not only will the courts not deliver, but by putting our faith in the court system, we seriously undermine our own movement for change.

A take-away from this court decision is that if we want to win back class sizes, teachers will have to do it ourselves and with our natural allies - the parents and students and public who all benefit from a comprehensive, properly funded education system. Doing it ourselves means not expecting someone else to do it for us - not the courts, not the NDP. Governments and state institutions will play some role in the evolution of public services, but they do not initiate progressive change - they respond to the social movements and trade union movements that push them to do it.

The best thing about the recent teachers' strike was that it planted the seeds for building such a coordinated movement that involves teachers, parents and the community. The recent FACE rallies across BC over education funding were to some extent the organizational off spring of those seeds of solidarity. This is the trajectory we need to take to build a movement to win smaller classes, proper services for students with special needs, and a public school experience based on equity where every child gets educational opportunities as good as the best private school could offer.

Yet why weren't teachers out in the thousands for those education rallies? In part, because we have a mistaken belief that someone else is going to fix the problem for us. Our union has told us the courts will do it. The social democratic left tells workers to just get the right government elected, even though the NDP has never, in thirteen years, even promised to restore class sizes. Many in the classroom think the union can do it if we just elect the right leaders, hire the right bargaining team. But we need to look to ourselves.

Understandably teachers and many education activists feel disheartened and disappointed with the outcome of the last election, the outcome of the last strike, and now the outcome of this court decision. But the takeaway has to be that we must do more of grassroots, community based, teacher/parent/public social movement building. We must focus more on the tactics in the trade union movement that actually have the power to force change - the strike. And we must be sure that teachers and our union are so integrated with parents and community members that when we go on strike the combined pressure of teachers' withdrawal of services and massive public outrage at the degradation of public services pressures the government of whatever ideological stripe to reinvest in classrooms because it would be political suicide not to.

Let's not spend the next decade waiting for the courts to make smaller classes. They never will. Let's put our union dues in our strike fund, not the court system. Let's keep up the connections we've built with parents and the public and turn these into active, engaged, community based organizations. Let's build a new movement for smaller classes based on teachers, parents, student, school trustees and the public.

Pushing back neoliberal education reform is not going to be easy. But there are no shortcuts. It may seem daunting, tiring, and difficult, but the day to day work of grassroots, school and community based activism is what is necessary.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Solidarity key to protecting public education

Hundreds of parents, teachers and students will be protesting education cuts in BC on Sunday. Families Against Cuts to Education is hosting the protests in five BC communities after yet another round of budget cuts for school boards and increased costs surreptitiously delivered through increases to BC Hydro rates and Medical Services Premiums. This, when BC already provides $1000 less per student than the Canadian average for per pupil funding.

The parent initiated rallies are inspiring to see after so many years in which government has fostered divisions between parents and teachers. There is no question that if we are to push back and actually make improvements in our schools, we will need the solidarity of parents and teachers together. This has been undermined due to the "blame the teacher" narrative propagated by government and some sections of the media. But ironically, the latest education legislation of the BC Liberals targets three different sections of the education community. Bill 11 attacks student privacy rights, the independence of locally elected school boards, and the autonomy of teachers to identify and organize their professional development. Combined with a budget that required $29 million in "administrative" cuts - what Christy Clark called "low hanging fruit" - the stage is set for a united response against both the legislation and the budget cuts.

Interestingly, the three components of Bill 11 each, in their own way, demonstrate a different arm of the neoliberal monster.

The changes to student privacy comes in the wake of a fundamental shift in the treatment of student data in the province. The failure of the notorious BCeSIS - the first attempt at a province wide student data collection system - led only to an even larger and more pervasive system, about to be implemented this fall. MyEducationBC will centrally store student data and will collect significantly more information than previous student information systems. The shift to a centralized system, while not explicitly mandates, has been in practice when the BC government refused to accept an alternative proposed and developed by the Saanich school board. Thus every district in BC will be contributing to the "big data" collection of student information. MyEducationBC has more data fields, will be on more computers in more Districts, and will potentially allow massive student data collection by the government. Like other government data collection systems, it is unclear what this information will be used for. As critics point out, these systems violate the basic tenets of privacy protection - collect only what you need, identify your uses prior to collecting data, allow access only in proportion to a genuine need to have access. Student records are thus potentially becoming part of the mass surveillance structure of the 21st century. Bill 11 sets up the legal framework to enable it.

The second component of the Bill involves new mechanisms for government to directly interfere and control the actions of school boards. It is a direct attack on local democracy and is designed to instill caution in Trustees. While the government has always had the ability to remove an elected board (and indeed did so recently in Cowichan), the new powers permit them to mandate specific actions (selling school lands?) or to require a "special advisor" to interfere with and report on the functioning of the board.

This attack on local democracy is not surprising. Boards have become more and more vocal about the impacts of underfunding on the operations of schools. The Cowichan board had the courage to submit a deficit budget that demonstrated the actual needs of students. A number of boards have tacitly endorsed the BC Teacher Federation campaign to ask parents to opt out of the annual standardized tests (FSA) by sending information to parents and accepting without questions their opt out requests. When local democratic structures are actually used to push back on corporate education reform policies, the neoliberal BC Liberals feel the need to shut it down.

The final section of the Bill impacts the ability of teachers to choose and determine how and what type of professional development they engage in. New rules will require specific activities that have been approved by the Ministry. This feature of the Bill is one more in a string of policies that seek to narrow what teachers teach and how they teach it. Christy Clark has long advocated a streamed, vocational style of school system where the primary focus is basic literacy for those who struggle, vocational training for the mass of students in industry specific areas, and access to a university stream for the privileged few. The Ministry has already mandated that one professional development day per year focus on trades training. No doubt there will be a distinctive slant to the type of professional development deemed "acceptable" under the new legislation. As Sheldon Wolin describes: "Privatisation of education signifies not an abstract transfer of public to private but a takeover of the means to reshape the minds of coming generations". Teacher professional development is one small piece of the process of shaping coming generations.

Neither the recent budget cuts nor the new legislation come in a vacuum. BC's education system is being massively reformed. There have been more than a dozen Bills over the last decade that have fundamentally shifted how schools operate. We will need to see beyond the lack of funds and to the more fundamental questions being raised by these changes. Bill 11 is one more in a long line of legislative changes that seek to privatize not only the sources of revenue for schools, but the ways in which schools run and the type of schooling they do. It is one more in a long line of structural changes that undermine public control of schools, the role of public schools in providing equitable access to education, and indeed the very content of schooling. This is all the more reason we need parents and teachers and students and citizens out in the streets demanding change.