Sunday, August 31, 2014

Protecting public education: Hold the line for as long as it takes...

Holding the line for as long as it takes. This should be the disposition of not just teachers, but also parents, students and citizens who care about public education.

With the latest failed talks between the BCTF and government, it is clearer than ever that the government objective during this round of bargaining is to eliminate class size language for ever and ever. And with the loss of class size language comes the permanent underfunding of public education, constant downward pressure on teacher wages, and an open door to more private schools and worsening conditions in public schools.

Let me explain.

The intransigence of government at the bargaining table is not about money. Christy Clark might say it is about affordability, but a confluence of factors have made the stakes this round especially high. Because of the Bill 28 court case, in which the courts told government that stripping class size language out of our collective agreement was illegal, the government was forced, in Bill 22, to reinstate teachers' ability to negotiate class size. Although they took actual class sizes out, Bill 22 did reinstate the right to bargain class size as of 2013. So this round it is legal for the first time. And so this round the government is intent on bargaining class sizes out. That is what proposals E80 and E81 are about - removing class size via the bargaining process regardless of the outcome of government appeals of the court ruling reinstating old class size language. These proposals allow government to nullify any contract after the final results of the court case are finalized through appeal. If the teachers win, and class sizes are back, government simply uses these clauses to negate that win. When Fassbender says let the courts decide, he is just not being honest so long as either of these articles remain on the table, and so far E80 remains on the table. (See the Tyee for more on What's Jamming Teacher Bargaining...).

Class size is the most important bargaining issue for teachers, parents, students and all working people. And not just because smaller classes are essential for quality teaching and learning (which they absolutely are). Class sizes have profound implication on the rest of the system. They are the greatest determiner of funding levels (small class sizes force higher funding). They are the biggest influence on teacher workload, which in turn impacts teacher turnover. Heavy workload and high turnover are in turn substantial impediments to quality teaching. With large class sizes and higher teacher turnover also comes a glut of teachers on the market. This puts downward pressure on wages as there are more teachers available than jobs to fill. It also leads to a scarcity of work for newly graduating teachers. Both these factors in turn lower the status of the teaching profession, which discourages new entrants into the profession. All of this opens the door to increased privatization as those who can afford better look to the private system.

One need only look to the US to see these factors at work. Class sizes in the US go up above 40 in some jurisdictions. In many schools, teachers stay an average of one year. Teachers are demoralized. Wages are so low in some states one wonders why anyone would accept the responsibility or stress for such a low level of pay. Schools are over crowded, and children with special needs receive inadequate services. Parents with money increasingly send their children to private school.

This is precisely the outcome the Liberal government has been hoping for in BC, and after twelve years, it is starting to work. Parents with money are indeed leaving the public system.

A recent article in the Tyee explained well why teachers should not return to school before we have a fair deal. We also need to prepare ourselves to stay out as long as it takes for a deal that not only treats us fairly, but protects and reinstates class sizes.

This is the key to protecting public education. And we will need parents, students and workers supporting us in this goal to make it happen. But history has shown that when we are united together, we can be successful. I have no doubt that if we hold the line, we can be successful this time too.