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VIEW: Why not treat education like health care?

The ongoing conflict between the BC Teachers' Federation and the ruling BC Liberals has gone on too long with no resolution in sight. Now our schools are closed. Public opinion in the province is sympathetic to preserving excellence in public education. Opinion also reflects a reservoir of trust in the public school teachers so many grew up with and know. On the other hand, the K-12 education issue has not been enough to sway elections to the NDP over these many years of Campbell-Clark government. As a result we find ourselves in continuous stalemate: the government inclined to treat public education as a waning priority, while the public trends against each premier on this issue. Add to this mix an unusually determined and unified BCTF and the result is deep and enduring conflict.

A superintendent related to me a conversation with a high government official. The gist was that stakeholders in our public schools needed to understand they were no longer "the favoured child" in provincial allocations. This analysis has the air of truth: the values of the BC Liberals tend toward construction and development at the expense of human services, with the notable exception of Medicare (more on this later). With little concern about cost over-runs, we have acquired some of the best infrastructure in North America: SkyTrain, convention centre, stadium, the Port Mann Bridge. Then there was construction for the Olympics. All the results are first-class. We generously build new schools and university buildings. But when it comes to addressing human services like childhood poverty, special education, or class size and composition, we plead austerity and settle for underfunding and a "good enough" attitude.

Can we have the widest bridge in the world, the smartest meters, and the best schools? So far Premier Clark indicates we cannot.

There really is a data-driven case to be made that Canada's schools are the highest ranking in the world for those countries with a multicultural population. And B.C.'s schools, serving this country's most challenging demographics, are a leader in Canada. Were it not for 12 years of fighting over the last five per cent in school funding and the neoliberal choices that former deputy minister Emery Dosdall oversaw, the world would be coming to Vancouver, not Helsinki, to learn from public schools. We have more to share than bridges, density, dams, and scenery. We have wasted over a decade squabbling about a funding gap of less than $8 per month per B.C. resident.

Why is there no similar outcry over Medicare? The MSP subsidizes about 12 per cent of the health care budget, providing the margin of excellence the people of B.C. want. The tax is cumbersome and regressive, but politically it establishes an earmarking of funding for a popular priority and it's working. The BC Liberals don't count the MSP in calculating the province's tax burden, so it skates around their low-tax agenda along with rake-offs from ICBC and rising hydro rates. (As if anyone moving to B.C. comes here for our low cost-of-living!)

So what does this have to say about school funding? Let the voters of B.C. express themselves on this issue. In my view they would pay the marginal costs to end the battle of the five per cent and set our sights on our schools being the envy of the developed world for their service to all our children. Channel the new funding through the MSP structure because it is an established method and there is a legitimate health aspect to special education as well as serious societal liabilities for children who are not educated to their capacity. The health costs of illiteracy, for example, moved the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. to include reading disorders in its mission and funded research.

Our politics need to reflect our most heartfelt values. K-12 education, like health care, is not simply another activity of government. These endeavours address basic human rights. To their credit the people of the province are sympathetic to these priorities. There can be political solutions that allow our noblest values to prevail in British Columbia.

Paul Shaker, PhD, is professor emeritus and former dean of education at Simon Fraser University. Visit his website here.

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