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Do Parent Advocates Matter in Education Politics?

Their kids are priority one. Shifts in parent-led education activism see mixed results.

Katie Hyslop 17 Jul 2014Tyee Solutions Society

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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Eighth grader Julia Pante delivered a petition to Premier Christy Clark's constituency office Monday on behalf of parent-led advocacy group Protect Public Education Now. Photo via the petition.

On Monday July 14, eighth grader Julia Pante delivered a red apple and petition to Premier Christy Clark's Vancouver constituency office asking Clark to "negotiate with teachers to protect public education."

When Pante handed Clark's constituency employee a paper copy of the online petition on Monday morning it had 1,800 signatures. By the afternoon it surpassed 3,000, doubling to over 6,000 signatures by Wednesday.

"It's gone ballistic over the last couple of days," said Marlene Rodgers, spokesperson for Protect Public Education Now, the group of Vancouver parents concerned about education funding who started the petition. "Literally every time I refresh the [petition] page the number goes up."

Increased funding isn't a new cause for parents passionate about public education. It's the same issue that sparked rallies and petitions in 2002 when the then-new BC Liberal government cut $275 million from public education funding by stripping teachers' collective agreements on class size and composition formulas and specialist teacher-to-student ratios.

Many parents on the front lines 12 years ago have moved into -- and in some cases back out of -- politics, like Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus (formerly of Save Our Schools) or former Cowichan Valley trustee Duncan Brown, who chaired the district's Community Alliance for Public Education.

Have activists like Bacchus and Brown swayed BC Liberal decisions? On school closures, yes. But on funding, results are mixed. While the government maintains education funding is at its highest level ever, the teachers' union and school boards say it hasn't kept pace with inflation. Advocates point to successes and failures, but say holding ground is sometimes the best parents can hope for.

Political but not partisan

Rodgers' advocacy was sparked earlier this year when the Vancouver School Board contemplated cutting programs like band and orchestra and laying off 70 teachers to balance the 2014-15 budget. In the end the district found the money to keep music, and some teachers will be hired back on in the fall, but Rodgers and several other like-minded parents believe funding must go up to protect programs indefinitely.

"We basically came together spontaneously out of alarm at the chronic underfunding," Rodgers said of Protect Public Education Now's founding. "I think a lot of us have had kids in the school system for quite a few years now, and I've been watching and feeling discontent about what's going on and I think this year when budget time came around and then the labour dispute, it really seemed like the last straw."

While the movement is political, Rogers says it's less about partisanship than raising public awareness about education funding in the province.

"A couple of people who've signed said they've traditionally been Liberal supporters, but the handling of education has really dismayed them and they want to see government make a deal with the teachers," she said.

Other signers have even said they'd willingly accept higher taxes to improve education funding. "The support for teachers seems to be cutting across partisan lines."

Online groups take root

Protect Public Education Now isn't the only group throwing support behind the province's teachers. The Facebook group B.C. Voters Supporting B.C. Teachers and Public Education, created in the fall of 2011 by then-masters student Jonah Eckert, began as a forum to discuss public education issues during the stalemate in teacher contract negotiations.

Up until three months ago, the page had about 1,000 members; today over 5,500 people have joined.

"It's a place to organize events or campaigns," said Eckert, including the Protect Public Education Now petition, which was shared on the page.

"There's been rallies that have been planned, letter writing campaigns," he recalled, noting one effort to reach members of the B.C. Business Bureau, which is registered as a court intervenor in the government's B.C. Supreme Court appeal in October.

Eckert serves as the group's moderator to keep the focus on "positive change for public education," but adds it's not just a place to preach to the choir on supporting teachers. Eckert says only a third of participants are either teachers or related to teachers and there is healthy debate on the page about the union's contract demands.

"When I created [the group] I didn't want it to be a group for teachers," he said. "The idea was to engage the public and to encourage people to take a position that they do support public education versus private [education], and that they want to engage in the conversation and to figure out how they feel about it."

'I was horrified': Bacchus

Like Rodgers, Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus became an education activist after a school meeting discussing budget cuts. In 2002 Vancouver was facing a $25.5 million shortfall because of teacher wage increases legislated but not funded by the provincial government. Bacchus recalls her children's principal outlining the possible cuts required to cover the cost.

"I was horrified," she said. "He actually said -- which was a bit revolutionary for a principal -- 'I have to implement these cuts, that's my job. But you're the citizens.'"

Moved to action, Bacchus joined Save Our Schools, a parent-led movement that gathered 14,000 form letters in two weeks for then-education minister Christy Clark asking her to fund teachers' salary increases.

It didn't work: Clark refused to meet with Save Our Schools and the cuts were never reversed despite two B.C. Supreme Court cases declaring them unconstitutional.

But Bacchus' advocacy continued, including membership in Families for School Seismic Safety, part of the successful student-led movement for provincial funding for seismic upgrading; Vancouver Parents for Successful Inclusion, concerning adequate services for kids with special needs; and the BC Society for Public Education, an education funding watchdog Bacchus co-founded with several Save Our Schools veterans.

Bacchus and her fellow parent advocates weren't successful in every campaign they took on. But she says the successes they did have were incremental. “Sometimes it's a matter of holding ground,” she said, citing successful campaigns in Vancouver to stop school closures. Despite being on the receiving side of education advocacy today, Bacchus is pleased when parents speak out.

“If parents aren't engaged, you're leaving it all to people in government and I think that would be a mistake.”

From fired-up parent to fired trustee

As school board chair since 2008, Bacchus is still an outspoken advocate for education funding, perhaps most notoriously in 2010 when the board submitted a needs-based budget in the face of a $17 million funding shortfall they blamed on government.

B.C. legislation requires boards to submit balanced budgets every year, with the possibility of dismissal if they refuse. It didn't come to that in 2010, but in 2012 the lone Cowichan Valley School District trustee was fired by then-education minister George Abbott and replaced with then-Surrey Supt. Mike McKay.

Duncan Brown was one of those trustees and a long-time education activist in the district. A father of three, one of whom has special needs, Brown got involved in education activism when his United Steelworkers local joined the teachers' and support workers' unions in a political action committee during trustee elections in 2002.

"The chronic underfunding in public education is what started it," Brown recalled, "and we became involved in electing progressive trustees that supported public education and were willing to stand up for public education."

That committee spawned the Community Alliance for Public Education, for which Brown served as chair for many years, helping to elect trustees who would fight for higher education funding.

The organization also held town hall meetings in the district and brought in speakers on public education issues like the controversial Foundation Skills Assessments, the commodification of public education, and whether school amalgamation actually saved districts money.

The alliance was against balancing board budgets if it meant cutting school programs. Despite successfully electing trustees onto the Cowichan Valley School Board, they didn't have enough supportive trustees to stop the cuts until 2011.

Brown believes the alliance was successful in drawing public attention to education funding issues. But after the board was fired, the momentum slowed down.

"It took probably 10 years of work to get to [there], that we could actually have a majority and push a budget that actually reflected the needs of our school district," he said. "But once fired [the issue] seemed to disappear."

Their last action was successfully lobbying the Union of B.C. Municipalities to pass a motion calling for a Cowichan Valley school board byelection. Then-education minister Don McRae promised a byelection in 2013, but current minister Peter Fassbender delayed it until this November when all B.C. boards are up for re-election.

In-person meets digital advocacy

Brown says current education activists should be prepared for a lot of hard work reaching both government and the public. With families to take care of and day jobs on top of their advocacy work -- Eckert is now a teacher and Rodgers a writer in the film industry -- it seems advocates today are just as willing to take on the extra duties advocacy requires.

But with recent shifts toward online advocacy, critics brand campaigns like Protect Public Education Now's petition "armchair activism." Eckert won't comment on whether in-person advocacy trumps digital action, but says the difference isn't black and white.

"I don't know whether a rally is more important than a petition," he told The Tyee Solutions Society. "You'd have to talk to Christy Clark: would you rather someone hand over the [6,000-signature] petition publicly in the media? Or have those people show up?"

Protect Public Education Now will likely keep the petition going until government and the union negotiates a deal, and Rodgers says the group plans to be active when the government's appeal over the Bill 22 ruling begins in October. But Rodgers isn't thinking about following in Brown or Bacchus' footsteps by running for the school board.

"I certainly am really passionate about education, but the advocacy is all very new to me," she said. "Right now I'm just operating as a concerned parent and citizen."  [Tyee]

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