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Whatever Happened to These Education Plans for BC?

Government rolled out four initiatives with fanfare, so where did they go?

By Katie Hyslop, 6 May 2013, TheTyee.ca

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Premier Christy Clark hosting student town hall in Vancouver on Feb. 14: Next big things failed to pan out. Photo source: BC government.

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Whether you agree with their policies or not, the BC Liberal government has quite a legacy in this province's public education system. They began reshaping the province's public education system in their first year in office with dramatic reforms to the way teachers collectively bargain -- changes later ruled unconstitutional by B.C.'s highest court -- and to school districts' funding formulas.

They didn't slow down: signing two out of three bargained collective agreements with the province's teachers, opening more Strong Start Centres, signing 53 Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreements, and adopting all-day kindergarten province-wide. Whoever forms the next government will control a distinctively Liberal public education system.

But not all of government's initiatives have stuck. Some programs and policies, heralded as the next big thing in public education, came in like lions but out like lambs -- or simply disappeared altogether.

We've picked four examples of government initiatives that have either disappeared or been labeled failures: school district business companies; BC Education Leadership Council; BC Enterprise Student Information System (BCeSIS); and Learning Roundtables. Millions of dollars were spent on them, committees were formed, and countless hours were lost to meetings. But in the end all we are left with is a question: Was it time and money well spent?

Schools are opened for business

In 2002 then-education minister Christy Clark introduced the School Amendment Act, which, among other things, allowed school districts to open their own private, for-profit businesses to bring in additional revenue. Known as School District Business Companies, at least 14 school districts started their own businesses to sell educational materials, manage their international student programs, or partner with offshore schools.

According to the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF), the ministry said districts had been asking for business companies for a long time: "Boards will now be permitted to create entities through which they can provide consulting services, educational or administrative expertise or international education. Other amendments ease financial restrictions that have tied the hands of school boards, and will allow them to share administrative services with other boards, municipalities or corporate entities," reads a quote from a 2002 ministry press release.

But by 2010, 14 school district companies had dwindled to six, and today only three business companies remain: New Westminster, Delta and Abbotsford.

A 2006 review of school district business companies noted how difficult it was for the companies to find capital since the districts were not allowed to spend district operating funds on their businesses. That was the main reason the Surrey School District dissolved their business company in 2010 after six years.

"It turned out that there was a lot of hoops and hurdles to get through for some things, if I remember them in the discussion," said Shawn Wilson, chairperson of the Surrey School Board who was a trustee when the business company started in 2004.

One of those hoops was any money made from attracting international students went to the district, not the business company.

"There was quite a few school district competing for the same thing; when the provincial government opened that door, a lot of school districts saw it as an opportunity to generate new funds, so let's get it on it. It was almost like it was all competing for the same clientele," he said.

The ministry declined to comment on business companies, citing the ongoing provincial election campaign.

Following the leaders

In 2004/05 the ministry of education gave $5 million to The K to 12 Society for School Leadership. Faced with a declining number of principals and district administrators blamed mostly on the looming retirement of boomers, government wanted to exiting education leaders would be replaced.

In 2006 the The K to 12 Society for School Leadership became the B.C. Education Leadership Council (BCELC). Run by Dr. Lee Southern, former head of the B.C. School Trustees Association, the BCELC's board was composed of ministry representatives, administrators, principals, parents and trustees, but no teachers.

From 2004 to 2011, the government funded the BCELC to the tune of $14.2 million. But what the BCELC produced and what happened to it is a matter of some debate.

The B.C. Society for Public Education keeps a close eye on ministry spending, and founding member Helesia Luke says the BCELC's creation came at a time when many ministries were trying to cut down staff hours. By setting up not-for-profit organizations to carry out responsibilities typically left to government, they could move hours and operations money off government books.

"(Government) would move off things that historically would be part of the ministry's work like curriculum writing. This leadership group was set up to deal with profession planning," said Luke, adding it also meant BCELC was exempt from Freedom of Information requests.

"It meant that (the BCELC) would carry its own staff members that are outside of what is counted by government (budgets). They would just count the grants (to BCELC)."

Michelle Stack, co-ordinator of the University of British Columbia's Educational Administration and Leadership program, wrote about education leadership programs in North America in a 2006 report funded by the BCELC.

The report, Fostering Tomorrow's Educational Leaders, ended up being critical of the BCELC model, finding fault with the council's assertions that the dwindling number of education leaders was due to mass boomer retirements.

"There is not a crisis of leadership in schools. B.C. schools have impressive educational leaders," Stack told The Tyee via email. Instead the real crisis is in the "antagonism" in the province's public education system.

"We need to focus on supporting education in an ongoing way rather than by short-lived pilot projects that make for great announcements but provide little in the way of sustainable support for education."

Neither Stack nor Luke are sure what BCELC did with its $14.2 million.

"My sense is a lot of -- and from people I've spoken with, fairly senior in the system -- money was given out and there was no outcomes or reports on how that money was spent, or if it improved the quality of education for B.C. students," said Stack.

In an emailed statement to The Tyee, a ministry spokesperson said the BCELC wound down in January 2010. In its short five years, the ministry says the council developed a 12-day seminar series providing leadership training for 400 principals and vice-principals; a series of webcasts on learning assessment; three "interactive innovations" conferences; management competency training, which was delivered to hundreds of school leaders in B.C.; and co-managed, with the federal government, an Aboriginal network of schools.

The Tyee attempted to contact previous members of the BCELC board but did not hear back by press time. The BCELC still has a website. It was last updated in 2011, but its domain was renewed in 2012.

Learning at the Round Table

The ramifications of changes made to teachers' collective bargaining rights under education minister Christy Clark in 2002 were still being felt in 2005. The BCTF, in direct contravention of a B.C. Labour Board ruling, conducted an illegal strike for two weeks that fall, largely in protest of government's refusal to return class size and composition to the bargaining table.

Government ordered the teachers back to work and legislated their contract. But the deal included establishing Learning Roundtables, composed of representatives from government, BCTF, school trustees, principals and vice principals, and parent associations, to discuss class size and composition levels.

At the same time, Vince Ready, a professional arbitrator appointed to review the teacher bargaining process, released his report recommending, among other things, legislation to settle class size and composition once and for all.

"The first thing the Learning Roundtable did was a consultation around what that legislation should look like," Irene Lanzinger, former BCTF president, told The Tyee.

Legislation was introduced the following May in the form of Bill 33, but Lanzinger said the resources needed to apply the class size caps never materialized. The Learning Roundtable continued to meet a few times a year after that, but the BCTF felt government was losing interest because then-premier Gordon Campbell had attended the first few meetings, but the education minister represented government at all meetings from 2007-10.

"The fact is after that legislation came in in May, not a lot else came out of the Learning Roundtable," said Lanzinger, who was BCTF's first vice president when the Learning Roundtables were introduced in 2005, and president when the union left the Roundtable in 2009.

"We, after 2006, made no gains at all in terms of the Learning Roundtable as a means of getting more services to kids in the classroom. So after three years of going and not seeing any progress, we decided that it wasn't worth going, and that it was not a useful vehicle in terms of helping improve the situation in the classroom."

The ast meeting of the Learning Roundtable was held in 2010.

Data failure

Until 2005, student information such as grades, timetables, and attendance, medical and discipline records was recorded using a data programs that varied from district to district, with cost estimates of $50 to $140 per student annually. Government thought a universal system would make it easier for data to follow students when they changed schools, to use data to plan curriculum or teaching changes, and would save them money.

In 2005 government introduced the B.C. Enterprise Student Information System (BCeSIS), the student information system that government managed to get most districts to adopt -- 56 out of 60 -- plus 130 independent and 20 First Nations schools.

Centralized to a single server, teachers had to enter information such as students' attendance and grades into the system on a daily basis. Student information and work was supposed to be easily available to parents online, and the information collected could also be used for tailoring education decisions to respond to student data trends.

But what was originally supposed to cost the government $16 million has ballooned into a $97 million expense, plagued by glitches, slow service, and total shut downs.

In 2011 the ministry set up a committee to review teachers' BCeSIS complaints, and commissioned Gartner, Inc., an information technology research and advisory company, to review BCeSIS' ability to track student data for the long term. Gartner's assessment determined BCeSIS "is not well positioned to meet BC's strategic and evolving system needs." It recommended replacing the system in one to three years. That same month the ministry confirmed BCeSIS would be replaced with a new system by 2014.

Last December the ministry issued a Request for Proposals for a new information system. In an emailed statement to The Tyee, a ministry spokesperson wrote: "The Ministry has received a number of responses to the RFP from pre-qualified vendors and these responses are currently being reviewed in detail. Work is still on track to select a lead proponent in early June."  [Tyee]

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