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General · 16th October 2011
Anne Davis
Are the teachers on strike, or aren’t they? What are the issues? And what does it mean for kids in B.C.? And what does Christy Clark have against teachers, anyway?

In 1998, B.C. teachers voted to approve a collective agreement with a zero salary increase while many other public sector employees were getting wage increases. The reason? They wanted the funding to go to better staffing for learning specialist teachers through staffing formulas built into the collective agreement, as well as guarantees of class size and class composition standards. In other words, teachers sacrificed wage and benefit improvements in order to improve students’ learning conditions. This in turn improved teachers’ working conditions, thus increasing their effectiveness in the classroom.

Was this generous compromise on the part of the teachers appreciated? Apparently not. In 2002, Christy Clark, as Education Minister, changed the law, stripping the teachers’ collective agreement of class size and student support provisions. Furthermore, changes to the law meant that these items could never be negotiated in the future. Why did the government remove those provisions? The answer is simple; if they left them in, they would have had to adequately fund them.

The B.C. Teachers Federation, representing B.C.’s public school teachers, took the B.C. government to court.

It turned out the government was in the wrong. The reason? Collective bargaining rights are guaranteed to Canadians through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Madame Justice Susan Griffin quoted a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada that states: “recognition of the right to collectively bargain as part of the freedom to associate ‘reaffirms the values of dignity, personal autonomy, equality and democracy that are inherent in the Charter.’”

Furthermore, Madame Justice Griffin said, “The legislation undoubtedly was seen by teachers as evidence that the government did not respect them to be valued contributors to the education system, having excluded them from any freedom to associate to influence their working conditions. This was a seriously deleterious effect of the legislation, one adversely disproportionate to any salutary effects revealed by the evidence.”

Since 2002, conditions for B.C. students, particularly those with special needs, have deteriorated to a point that the teachers say is untenable. Already dealing with serious workload issues, teachers experience the further stress of seeing children fall through the cracks because class sizes are too large to effectively accommodate those with special needs and there aren’t enough specialists for those children. There is also a serious shortage of English-as-a-second-language teachers and teacher-librarians.

The teachers say that K – 12 education funding is in free fall. Not so, says Christy Clark as she repeats the mantra of “highest funding ever” for public schools. While she is technically correct, this is a misleading statement.

While dollar amounts have gone up, they have not kept pace with the increases in inflation and the costs downloaded onto school districts. K – 12 funding as a percentage of the provincial budget has dropped from 19.67% in 2001-02 to 15.34% in 2009-10.

But, you may ask, isn’t enrollment declining? Yes, that is true in every province except Alberta, but every other province has used the opportunity to improve education conditions. B.C., however, dramatically decreased the number of educators and widened the already existing gap in the student/educator ratio. Only in B.C. was the decline in enrollment used as an excuse to make it less likely that students with special needs would have success at school. Meanwhile, public taxes are being used to increase funding to private schools.

In the most recent school year, 3,627 classes in B.C. were over the maximum size set out in the School Act. Over 12,000 classrooms had four or more students with special needs, again over the maximum set out in the School Act.

Why should we care about overcrowded classrooms? Because overcrowded classrooms mean increasing numbers of B.C. kids who don’t have the opportunity to reach their potential and are at risk for marginalization in any number of ways.

Presently, over on the west coast, Vancouver Island West School District 84 has one teacher-counsellor whose part- time assignment limits his work to the high school students in one school, leaving the other four schools in the district without any teacher-counsellor support.

In that same school district, over the last 5 years, the number of students with identified learning disabilities has increased from 3.7 % of the student population to 9.4% last year while the number of other special needs students has increased from 1.8% to 2.6% of the population.

To quote Dave Wills of the Vancouver Island West Teachers Union, “Now that the corporations have closed their mills and folded their logging camps, the remote west-coast communities and their citizens seem to be throw-aways and has-been resource-based income sources for the Government. The Ministry of Education and the Liberal government owe the parents and children of the west coast a realistic education funding formula which fully addresses the diversity of educational needs in the small communities.”

The situation on the west coast is echoed all over the province as teachers and children struggle to make do with inadequate resources.

As the parent of (now adult) children with special needs, I am deeply appreciative of the teachers who made a difference for my kids and I’m angry that conditions have deteriorated so badly for today’s kids. The teachers are angry, too.

All provinces are dealing with the effects of the global economic crisis, yet only the B.C. government is imposing a freeze on teachers’ salaries. A long-time teacher in Vancouver earns $11,876 less than a teacher in Ottawa and $16,860 less than a teacher in Edmonton.

Following a 90% strike vote, the teachers have begun job action. They are still teaching, assessing and evaluating progress, helping students who need assistance and making themselves available in case of emergencies. They aren’t doing administrative tasks and, if there has been no progress when the time comes, they won’t be issuing report cards.

Hopefully this column has answered the first three question posed in the opening paragraph. As to Christy Clark’s grudge against teachers – who knows? Perhaps MLA Don McRae could shed some light on this. After all, he is a teacher too and must surely understand the damage that is being done by Christy Clark and the government of which he is a part.


ED's note: Anne is a long-time resident of the Comox Valley, and for the last 19 years has worked for a local non-profit providing services to women and children.

She is on the Board of Directors of the Health Sciences Association of B.C., where she represents members on Vancouver Island, north of the Malahat. She is also President of the Campbell River, Courtenay and District Labour Council, which represents about 4000 workers belonging to many different unions.

She writes the labour column because she enjoys writing and finds that labour's perspective is rarely covered by mainstream media. This column will appear here monthly, and also appears in the Island Word and elsewhere. Thank you for sharing with us now, Anne.