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A 'New Era' in BC Education, Explained

Today's history lesson: 12 years of BC Liberal legislation on the school file.

By Katie Hyslop, 1 May 2013, TheTyee.ca

Lockers with umbrellas

[Editor's note: With voting day just over two weeks away, we look back on big issues that have driven debate in our province during the last 12 years of BC Liberal governance. What did B.C.'s leaders and opposition parties say and do on these major files? What are they saying now? What are the facts? Humbly offered here, a cure for political amnesia among candidates and media alike. Today, a primer on the past decade-plus of education policy in B.C.]

Twelve years of education policies are a lot to sum up in a single article.

To keep it simple, The Tyee has compared education election promises made by the BC Liberals from the 2001 to 2009 provincial elections, to the realities that unfolded in classrooms, school board offices, and communities across the province.

Feel free to add in the comments section any government education accomplishments or missteps we may have overlooked.

The 2001 platform

"A New Era For British Columbia" promised to establish an "education system that's the envy of the world" and "a top-notch education system for all ages." This included promises to restore education as an essential service under the B.C. Labour Code; balance the budget without cutting education spending; maintain and increase education funding levels; give local school boards more autonomy when deciding where funding goes; guarantee parents of students can volunteer at their schools; and support more flexibility and choice in public schooling.

What they achieved

The Liberal government moved fast on many of their education promises. The ability of parents to volunteer at their children's schools was legislated through Bill 8, which passed on Aug. 9. Just one week later, Kindergarten to Grade 12 education was made an essential service with the passing of Bill 18.

Despite promising to increase education funding, a funding freeze was announced in October 2001 that lasted until 2004.

In January 2002, the government legislated teachers' contract with Bill 27, and ensured school board funding "flexibility" with Bill 28, removing class size and composition from teacher bargaining, and lifting funding allocation restrictions on the operational funds given to school boards. Class size limits were removed for classes in Grade 4 and above, and operational funds were no longer designated for libraries, special needs, and English as a Second Language Instruction. At that time, funding arrived in a lump sum, with the exception of designated funding for aboriginal students.

To this day, the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) contends Bills 27 and 28 succeeded in cutting $275 million per year ($348.5 million in today's dollars) from education funding.

In May, then education minister Christy Clark introduced Bill 34, the School Amendment Act, providing parents with more education input by establishing school planning councils and district parent advisory councils.

The price tag for teacher salary increases for 2002/03 and 2003/04 was handed to school districts without additional funding to cover the new cost. As a result, school boards complained of massive funding shortfalls, as high as $25.5 million for the Vancouver School Board in 2002/03.

In 2003 government introduced Bill 51: Teaching Professions Amendment Act, taking on the BC College of Teachers (BCCT). Accusing the regulatory body's council of being in the BCTF's pocket, minister Clark used the bill to replace the majority BCTF-endorsed council with a council of 12 government-appointed and eight elected members.

The union asked members to withhold their $90 BCCT fees. Despite threatening any teacher who did not pay with dismissal, Clark was forced to relent when more than half of B.C.'s teachers refused to pay. A new council was created with 12 elected members (the majority of whom BCTF endorsed) and eight government-appointed members.

The 2005 platform

The Liberals' 2005 platform promised the "highest K-12 education funding in history," and "the single largest increase in B.C. public school funding in a decade."

Other promises included a "$1.5 billion plan to complete all required seismic (earthquake) upgrading of British Columbia's public schools" by 2020; an increase to education funding by $253 million over the next three years; a plan to make physical education mandatory for Kindergarten to Grade 9; a plan to hold an annual Teachers' Congress to discuss education improvement; and a plan to require annual reports on all public schools regarding their class sizes and teacher hiring, firing, professional development and disciplinary stats.

What they achieved

The 2005/06 budget announced an increase of $150 million, but just an additional $20 million annually for 2006/07 and 2007/08. This led many to conclude education funding was frozen. This didn't make ongoing teacher contract negotiations, which began in 2004, any easier. Government again legislated teachers back to work in 2005, followed by an illegal two-week teachers' strike shortly after. The next year, however, it was time to bargain again, and the BCTF and government reached the first negotiated teacher contract since 1993.

Government's mantra of "the highest education funding ever" was true: 2005 to 2008 funding increased by $451 million, higher than the promised $253 million increase. However, a large chunk of that change was attributed to teacher and support staff salary increases, and nearly a quarter billion in signing bonuses.

Government also changed the holdback funding formula in 2006/07, removing $22 million from the originally $45 million budgeted for holdback funds.

Plans to turn schools into "community hubs" began with the creation of the School Community Connections program created in 2005 with $10 million one-time funding from government. It became the Neighbourhood Learning Centres program in 2010. Nevertheless, due to funding constraints and a falling student population, the province's 60 school districts closed a combined total of 176 schools between 2002 and 2010.

Reports on school and district statistics, including class size, Foundational Skills Assessment results, and teacher age, experience, and average salary became available online. The first Teachers' Congress was held November 2006 and every year thereafter until 2009 when it was cancelled due to the economic downturn.

The 2009 platform

Election promises made in 2009 include all-day kindergarten for every public school, with voluntary preschool opportunities for four-year-olds introduced "as the economy starts to grow again"; increased education funding by 35 per cent over 2001/02 levels by 2011/12; closed achievement gaps between First Nations and non-First Nations; and the launching of a major education review, including a comprehensive curriculum review.

What they achieved

Full-day kindergarten was phased in over two years beginning in 2010. StrongStart BC programs continued to be established in communities across the province, but pre-school education for four-year-olds has yet to be established.

Total funding in 2011/12 fell $217 million short of being 35 per cent above 2001/02 funds. In 2012 government froze education funding again until 2014/15, with the exception of the $165 million Learning Improvement fund, distributed over three years.

The Ministry of Education launched the BC Education Plan, an education strategy for the province that has yet to be fully explained, in 2011, and a curriculum review process began in 2012. Aboriginal graduation rates steadily increased 10 per cent in four years: up to 57 per cent in 2011/12 from 47 per cent in 2007/08.

The BC College of Teachers' was at issue again when elected council members complained of BCTF influence. The Ministry of Education appointed an independent fact finder to evaluate the BCCT in 2010, and agreed the union has too much power. The BCCT was disbanded and replaced by the Teachers' Regulation Branch in 2012.

The B.C. Supreme Court declared Bills 27/28 unconstitutional almost a decade after they were implemented. Teachers took it as a victory, yet government refused to negotiate class size and composition, citing lack of funds to meet teacher demands.

Teacher contract negotiations dragged on for 16 months in 2011/12, and included teachers refusing to do extra-curricular activities, legislated bargaining and the appointment of a mediator. But for the third time in 19 years, teachers and government negotiated a contract in 2012.

However, the teachers found government's redress for Bills 27/28, and Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act, wanting. In April 2013, the union promised it would see B.C.'s new government in court again this fall over its class size and composition bargaining rights.  [Tyee]

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