Education Minister Rob Fleming has only had one week on the job. But as the New Democratic Party’s opposition education critic for nearly four years, the MLA for Victoria—Swan Lake is very familiar with the ministry file.
That’s good news for Fleming, because after 16 years of BC Liberal rule there are plenty of parents, educators, trustees, and even the Supreme Court of Canada demanding changes to how B.C. runs its public education system.
Facing multi-million and billion-dollar decisions such as the immediate restoration of teachers’ contract language on class size, composition, and specialist-teacher-to-student ratios, as well as the need to finish seismic upgrading, school repair and new construction, Fleming doesn’t have the luxury of time.
With children’s education — and even their safety — on the line, there’s not a lot of room for ministry mistakes in the eyes of voters, either.
Last week Fleming took a break from a marathon cabinet meeting to talk to The Tyee about his major priorities and first steps for the ministry, and how government has changed its tune about public education.
The Tyee: what makes you think you can do a better job as education minister than your predecessors?
Fleming: I think our government just has a completely different and fresh attitude towards public education. John Horgan made it clear his priority as premier is to make sustained investments in the school system, because it pays enormous social and economic dividends.
It needs to be a key part of sustaining prosperity, and having an innovative, high-functioning economy where we also get other benefits like reducing social inequality, and better outcomes for people’s health and well being.
You’re inheriting an underfunded system with competing and expensive priorities. How are you deciding what to tackle first?
What we have to tackle first is cleaning up the mess that is the Supreme Court [of Canada] decision. It’s an obligation now for the incoming government to restore class size and composition language. But it’s also obligating us to do things we would likely do anyway, [like] make sure we have specialist teachers.
That’s the first priority, to see how districts are coping with that. Hiring back 3,000 teachers that the previous government fired over a number of years is not an easy task.
During the election, your party said they would finish seismic upgrading, build new schools, and take care of deferred maintenance. Where is the money going to come from?
It’s a good time to build infrastructure like this, because for one it’s desperately needed, but it’s also at interest rates that are at record lows still and it would be borrowed the same way that any capital procurement is borrowed. [It’s] amortized assets.
We’ve got a great capital management program. What we didn’t have was a government that was willing to approve school district capital plans. And that’s going to change.
A lot of funding was cut over the past 16 years. How big should people’s expectations be for the next four years?
Some of it is happening because Christy Clark, her approach [to education], was a spectacular failure. Not only in the eyes of kids and parents but also in the eyes of the court, and it was eventually overturned. So that money that she cut all those years ago is to be returned.
But we also want some enhanced and targeted funding in other areas. Learning assistants are incredibly valued as part of the education team — that’s not touched by the Supreme Court ruling. We want to reduce the time it takes a child to get a learning assessment, and that requires that we train and hire more specialist teachers, psychologists, and others.
We will be trying to alleviate the funding burden that’s been shifted onto parents, in part, by downloading education costs. I’ve always found it absurd that parents have to spend a huge amount of time fundraising for things like playground equipment, and we’ve made a commitment that’s not going to happen anymore. And we think that basic supplies, too, should be part of the education [funding] the ministry provides to the school district.
School boards have had a lot of unfunded costs downloaded onto them. Can they now expect fully funded district budgets?
We made a commitment in the election that the downloading has to stop, that there has to be respect between the ministry and the school district. We’ve also committed to have a comprehensive funding formula review so that we get to a stable and sustainable model for the [Kindergarten to Grade 12] education system.
Will that happen before the next budgets are due?
We are working on that right now, in terms of how it’s structured, what the terms of reference might look like, and how long it would have to engage the public and stakeholders around the province.
I don’t think it will be completed in time for the spring budget, so we’ll be looking to make a budget that addresses all of the commitments we made to school leaders and to parents, in advance of the new funding model we hope to have in place for future budgets.
Will this review also look at whether balancing districts’ budgets should be mandatory?
I think its purview would be able to receive submissions and consult on all of the budget making processes currently, and the relationship between the ministry and school districts.
Indigenous students’ outcomes are improving, but students are still below the provincial graduation rate. There are also issues like racism in schools, and there could be more Indigenous content in curriculum. What can Indigenous people expect from your ministry?
I think we have some very recent instruction from the Truth and Reconciliation action items that relate to the K-12 ministry, that will help drive success of Aboriginal and First Nations’ learners.
My sense is that there’s a lot that needs to be scaled up, that’s working quite well in certain parts of B.C., helping Aboriginal students get not just higher graduation rates but parity with non-Aboriginal learners.
That’s what the goal should be: we should be looking at erasing any distinction between the graduation and other outcomes between First Nations and non-Aboriginal students, and aiming for a 100 per cent completion rate in our school system. Eighty per cent is not good enough.
I’ve heard repeatedly that we could fix the public education system if government stopped funding private schools. But your government has said that’s not going to happen. What do you say to people who don’t understand why?
I think what people found egregious was government underfunding public education at the same time that it looked like funding was increasing for those partially subsidized private schools in our province. I think that what they really want is a government that is focused on the well being of public education, a system that continues to serve nearly nine-in-10 kids in our province.
A lot of districts rely on international students’ money to balance their budgets. With more government funding, will districts focus less on international recruiting?
I expect it will be complementary. We have to be careful that B.C.’s education brand remains strong internationally. There’s lots of great things that flow to B.C. from having high school students from abroad study here: it establishes cultural and economic ties, increases the familiarity and appreciation of Canada and British Columbia to a number of key countries that are our trading partners. Also it enhances the learning environment of B.C. kids to meet people from different cultures and language groups.
There have been a lot of controversies with offshore school program. What will you be doing differently?
We’re in the midst of an audit to see what has gone wrong and why the response was so slow. I do appreciate that people who have B.C. teaching certificates, Canadians who worked abroad, were not well served by B.C. and the slow response in that situation. But I don’t have the benefit of full understanding of why that happened the way it did at this point in time.
I have an information note that suggests [the audit] will be done by July. I have not been advised of any delays.
Will you change special needs categories and their funding levels?
It will be part of the terms of reference of the funding review. In terms of immediate budget making, we’re going to be hearing from people, different school districts, around what stable funding looks like. I’m entirely sympathetic to those concerns.
How will you approach teacher bargaining differently than your predecessors?
I’m hoping that respect is going to go a long way with teachers, because quite frankly the teaching profession has not had a government that respects the vitally important and difficult job that they do.
In terms of how it might be structurally different, I don’t have any fixed views on that. There’s a lot of shared interests, not just with teachers but with shared stakeholders and the public at large in having a government that demonstrates its commitment to public education through its budgets, through its policy changes. We want to work through that agenda, and I think that will set the table very nicely for public sector bargaining with all of the employee groups in the education system.
The Vancouver School Board just closed another adult education centre. Is this a sign that adult basic education is moving out of your ministry?
No, it’s a sign of poor choices the previous government made to de-fund adult basic education, and we’ll have more to say about that in the coming weeks. We think that this is a very smart investment to make that helps people move out of poverty and into skilled work. And to put up educational barriers to people, many of whom are new Canadians or just folks that need to gain admission into a trade or vocational program is a really bad decision. It makes no sense from a workforce development perspective.
Speaking of new Canadians, some immigrant and refugee youth have been advocating for high school credit for English language learning courses. Where do you stand?
I’ve not had a chance to directly engage the groups of students that advocate for that. That’s maybe a question for down the road, but I have not had a chance to be briefed on what the response to that has been to date.