When the Supreme Court of Canada handed down its decision last week in Moore v. British Columbia, I had mixed feelings.
The Court resolved a 15-year dispute between North Vancouver School District and the family of Jeffrey Moore, who in the early 1990s had been diagnosed as dyslexic and in need of special education in the district's Diagnostic Centre. When the district then cut the centre to save money, the Moore family had to put Jeffrey in a private school at the family's expense. Jeffrey did well there, and is now a young man reported to be working as a plumber.
I rejoice for the Moore family, and I admire their determination in fighting their case all the way to the Supreme Court.
But as a former North Vancouver school trustee, I sympathize with the trustees who made the cut, and with their successors who now must pay the Moore family for the costs they incurred to get their son the help he needed.
I served on the North Vancouver board from 1980-82, just as the role of school boards began a momentous change. Until then, boards could tax both homeowners and businesses within their districts. If they raised taxes too much, voters could oust them at the next election. And if the programs funded by those taxes didn't serve the kids well, the voters could oust them for that also. Trustees therefore had real power, and real responsibility.
That changed when the Bill Bennett Socreds diverted our business and industrial tax revenue into the provincial share of the school budget. This measure gave poor districts a fairer share of funding. But it sharply limited school boards' ability to provide programs tailored to their communities' needs. Now we could raise taxes on homeowners only, if we dared.
Inflation and recession
Compounding the problem was the impact of rampant inflation. North Vancouver came to an agreement with its teachers in that era that put us right on the provincial average: a 15 per cent increase in salaries and benefits. But those were also the days of 20 per cent interest on mortgages, and that eventually ended the inflation -- by inflicting a serious recession on all of North America.
Running for re-election in the fall of 1982, I could see how the recession was scaring people. With the B.C. economy sinking and businesses laying off people or just shutting down, voters wanted to minimize taxes like any other expense. Criticizing the schools for supposedly poor performance made it easier to justify cutting education funding, and the B.C. right-wing did just that. All-candidates' meetings got scary, and as a supporter of school spending I was briskly turfed out. Less than a year later, the restraint era began (now we'd call it austerity); B.C. teetered on the edge of a general strike.
A year after that, the Socreds fired the Vancouver School Board for failing to submit an acceptable budget, and we were well into the Thirty Years' War between teachers and provincial governments.
Doing Victoria's dirty work
In the course of that war, boards have lost all taxation and bargaining powers. The ministry of education tells them what their budget will be, and they must make do with it. If it's not enough for everything they think their schools can or must do, then they have to decide which programs to cut and schools to close. In effect, they do Victoria's dirty work.
Something else was going on in those years. Up until the late 1960s or early 1970s, Canadians and Americans alike had regarded education as a kind of reality show in which not everyone would stay on the island. Schools were selecting for particular academic skills, and flunking those who lacked them -- or shunting them into "vocational" programs.
Everyone accepted that in education, as in professional athletics or in paratroop training, not all would make the cut, nor should they. Few noticed, and fewer cared, that those cut tended to be minorities, working class, and those with physical and learning disabilities.
Gradually that attitude changed. Here in B.C. we saw it as early as the 1940s, when communities began to agitate for easier access to post-secondary education. As one of the early teachers in our provincial community college system in the 1960s, I saw the demand and was happy to try to meet it.
Moreover, the higher the education level achieved, the better a student's chances of employment, even in fields with no real need for traditional academic credentials. So by the time of the latest version of the B.C. School Act in 1996, the Preamble explicitly stated:
"The purpose of the British Columbia school system is to enable all learners to become literate, to develop their individual potential and to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to contribute to a healthy, democratic and pluralistic society and a prosperous and sustainable economy."
The Supreme Court has rightly taken "all learners" to include Jeffrey Moore and students like him.
Punishing school districts
It was also in 1996 that Art Charbonneau, then the NDP minister of education, fired the North Vancouver School Board for failing to deal with a budget deficit. This carried on a tradition begun in 1986, when the Socreds had sacked the Vancouver board. Like the Socreds before them and the Liberals after, the NDP was underfunding the public system and punishing the districts that tried to maintain their programs.
Before that happened, the North Vancouver board already had years of experience in cuts and closings, including the 1994 shutdown of the Diagnostic Centre that Jeffrey Moore had needed. I can imagine the grim mood around the board table on the night that vote was taken.
The Supreme Court, second-guessing the board years later, said it should have considered cutting "discretionary" programs like North Vancouver's Outdoor School instead. But the Outdoor School has hung by a thread for most of the last 30 years, despite its demonstrated educational value to thousands of kids. Cutting it would have deprived all the district's children of a major learning experience.
This is not to say that Jeffrey Moore and kids like him should have been sacrificed for the greater good of their classmates. But neither should those classmates have been sacrificed.
A momentous change for Canadian schools
If I read the Court's decision (and the School Act) correctly, this and future provincial governments are now bound to provide funding that will ensure that all B.C. students, regardless of talents or disabilities, receive the kind of education set out in the School Act.
That would be a momentous change for schools across Canada as well -- perhaps comparable to Brown vs Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down racial segregation in the schools.
Many of our school-funding problems boil down to demographics: we built a system to serve the baby boomers that was too big for the baby bust of the 1970s and 1980s. Then the echo boomers arrived and put new stress on the system, followed more recently by immigrant kids. And precisely because we must increasingly depend on fewer working-age Canadians to support us all, every student should have the value of scarcity.
We have no disposable students; we need to give every possible kid both useful skills and a productive way to apply them in our economy. Jeffrey Moore is doing that, thanks to the investment his family made in him -- an investment the North Vancouver board should have been able to make 18 years ago. Instead the government of the day, like most B.C. governments, played for short-term political gain: Look how responsibly we control school boards' crazy spending!
Well, the long term has arrived. Governments and voters alike have to see that it's in their own interest to maintain the best possible education system for everyone. We failed to do that in the 1980s and thereafter, and now we are paying the price for it -- not just the North Van board, which must repay the Moores, but all of us.
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