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Time For a Lesson in BC's Education Feuds

Tension between teachers and government isn't new: it took a half-century for all to learn their roles. First of two.

Crawford Kilian 6 Oct

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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How is Depression-era Premier Simon Fraser Tolmie mixed up in today's provincial education spats? Just study the history.

Like some Sicilian vendetta, the conflict between B.C. educators and Victoria has been handed down over many generations. Now we simply take it for granted, and don't even ask why teachers and politicians are always at one another's throats.

To remind myself of how we got into this mess, I revisited my 1985 book School Wars and other historical analyses. I learned (again) that the dysfunctional culture of B.C. educators and governments has evolved over at least 80 years.

According to historian Ian D. Parker, in 1931 the Tory government of Simon Fraser Tolmie got an ultimatum from the Vancouver business community: set up a business-named committee to find ways to improve the province's finances in the face of the Depression. Tolmie agreed, and Vancouver accountant George Kidd chaired the committee. Like the Very Serious Persons in today's recession, Kidd thought sharp cuts in government spending were the key to renewed prosperity: 25 per cent across the board, with special attention to education.

Kidd wanted to cut teacher salaries by 25 per cent, and abolish B.C. school boards (all 800 of them). He thought most students should leave school after Grade 6 and find jobs. Students aged 14 to 16 should pay half the costs of their education. Those over 16 could pay for it all.

Likewise for teachers, who would have to pay the whole cost of their training. Kidd also wanted to shut UBC down altogether, with scholarships for bright students at schools "elsewhere in the Dominion."

This was in part a reaction to the Depression, but also to the "progressive" ideas that schools had adopted in the 1920s -- ideas like vocational training. Progressives wanted more kids to have more education and a better chance for social mobility. Conservatives like Kidd regarded education as a way to identify a few bright kids who could go on to professional careers. The rest could go straight into the labour pool.

Horrified, the Tories distanced themselves from the politically toxic Kidd report. But Kidd had evidently expressed the views of the business culture that dominated B.C. politics.

The provincial election of 1933 destroyed Tolmie's Tories. The winning Liberals ignored Kidd. They cared more about further centralizing a system that had -- according to education historian Thomas Fleming -- been run by ministry bureaucrats since the 1870s.

The baby-boomer tsunami

After World War II, a Liberal-Conservative coalition ruled B.C. until 1952, when ex-Tory W.A.C. Bennett brought in the long reign of Social Credit. The first wave of baby boomers was sweeping into the public schools, but Bennett was in no hurry to meet their needs; he was very much in the business culture. When he did build new schools, they were designed to hold 35 to 40 pupils per classroom; even then, many schools operated on split shifts.

The Chant Commission report of 1960 forced the Socreds into reluctant action. It called for a cap of 30 to 35 pupils per class in elementary and 25 to 30 in high school. Chant criticized the government for false economics and the public for being tightfisted.

Still, it was a slow process. In the mid-1960s over 3,000 classes still had over 35 students. In 1967, Bill 86 froze school spending indefinitely. A year later, the Socreds diverted teachers' pension funds into BC Hydro bonds to help pay for the new dams on the Columbia and Peace rivers.

By then, teachers and Socreds were sworn enemies. Half of B.C. teachers had no more than six years' experience, and they were fresh from campuses seething with radical new ideas.

The BCTF waged a "non-partisan" media campaign for education in the 1969 provincial election. The Socreds correctly took that as a political attack from a professional group that should have been apolitical. In 1971, 97 per cent of teachers went on a one-day strike over pension benefits -- the first such stoppage since New Westminster teachers walked out in 1921.

Trying to subvert the teachers

In 1972, Victoria tried to weaken the BCTF by making membership voluntary; the teachers signed everyone up anyway. They went on to play a part in the defeat of the Socreds and the election of the first NDP government. The Socreds and their Liberal successors would neither forget nor forgive.

Thomas Fleming argues persuasively that the "colonial, Imperial" education ministry had imposed centralized control on B.C. schools for a century. But when the Barrett New Democrats took power in 1972, they explicitly wanted a decentralized school system focused on "teacher, parent and child." The ministry of education was just one faction in this decentralized new system. Other groups included the BCTF, parents, employers and unions.

The BCTF and other groups didn't get everything they wanted from the NDP, but they gained confidence and experience. Many of the NDP's education experiments backfired, however, giving their enemies more reason to oppose them.

The return of the Socreds under W.A.C.'s son Bill Bennett re-polarized education politics. The old premier had explicitly refused to put tax dollars into private schools; his son made a point of it. This had the effect of drawing more students into the "independent" system, meaning less money for the public schools.

Bill Bennett, egalitarian

To his credit, Bill Bennett began mainstreaming children with disabilities into regular classrooms. He also deprived school boards of the power to tax local business and industry; that revenue was now part of provincial funding. This was actually a bold egalitarian measure: all school districts, rich or poor, urban or rural, would be funded more equally.

But it had the effect of marginalizing school trustees. They would have to ask their homeowners for extra money to support local programs; good luck with that. Trustees would now follow Victoria's orders, and do Victoria's dirty work. If provincial funding wasn't enough, trustees would cut the programs and lay off the teachers.

And funding was never enough. By the early 1980s, inflation was driving collective agreements that now seem absurd: In 1982, B.C. teachers received an average salary increase of 17 per cent over 1981. Private-sector agreements were similar, but the public perception was that teachers were grossly overpaid -- especially in a time of recession. (In fact, the Consumer Price Index between 1977 and 1983 rose by 86.3 per cent, while teachers' salaries rose by 83.2 per cent.)

Interest rates, meanwhile, were even worse: in Sept. 1981, interest on a typical residential mortgage was 21.25 per cent. Unemployment was then around 7.2 per cent, but a year later it was 12.8 per cent.

In a 1985 article in Education Canada (not available online), Thomas Fleming noted that B.C. had spent $900 million on education in 1976; in 1981, with 32,000 fewer students, spending was close to $1.6 billion. (And this was on the Socreds' watch.) A real-estate bubble had boosted the value of -- and taxes on -- many homes, while homeowners' income had stagnated or even fallen.

Scared out of their wits, many taxpayers were delighted when the Socreds brought in their "restraint" program in 1982. Among other things, this gave Victoria the power to set a cap on school-board budgets, shortened the school year by six days, and cut teachers' salaries by three per cent.

Shock and awe against educators

Bill Bennett had meanwhile stunned educators by appointing Bill Vander Zalm as minister of education in 1981. With a deserved reputation as the most right-wing Socred of them all, Vander Zalm further polarized education politics. The stage was set for the solidarity movement, and the general strike that didn't quite happen.

In the 50 years between the Kidd Report in 1932 and the restraint program in 1982, B.C. had created two hostile solitudes in education: a business-oriented culture with little respect for education and still less for "left-wing" educators, and a teaching culture that saw education as its best chance for students to climb a few rungs on the ladder into a better society.

Each culture would pass along its experience to its successors. Old teachers taught young teachers that only relentless militancy would improve their working conditions and their students' educations. Business evidently decided that only relentless attacks on teachers would help keep the NDP out of power.

Both sides learned to skirt the embarrassing fact that B.C. schools -- whether you believed they were underfunded by ignoramus right-wing governments, or that they were dominated by incompetent left-wing teachers -- were producing some of the best-educated kids on the planet.  

By the mid-1980s, both cultures were locked into their roles. In the second and concluding article in this series, I'll look at the last quarter-century of conflict between educators and the B.C. government, and try to identify its underlying causes.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Education

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