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BC Politics

Enough, BC Libs! Quit Making Up the School Rules

The law's the law, and our education system is not a game of Calvinball.

Crawford Kilian 5 Feb

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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By appealing a recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling that found government dealings with teachers unconstitutional, Clark's gang keeps up its game of political Calvinball.

Last week, when Justice Susan Griffin handed down her second ruling over the festering dispute between British Columbia's teachers and the Liberal government, it looked as if education was finally, after 12 long years, being fairly dealt with.

Instead, Education Minister Peter Fassbender declared that this was a game of Calvinball and he could change the rules whenever he liked. Yesterday, he announced the B.C. government will appeal Griffin's ruling, which found that the decade-old legislation to restrict teacher bargaining was unconstitutional. Griffin awarded the teachers' union $2 million in damages, a sum Fassbender called "completely unaffordable for taxpayers."

Of course, Fassbender was acting at the behest of his boss, Christy Clark, who initiated the present marathon Calvinball series by introducing Bills 27 and 28 when she was education minister back in 2002.

Having inflicted a decade of darkness on B.C. schools, Clark eventually found herself premier. She and her cabinet must have felt entitled to run the province any way they pleased. But now, Justice Griffin has told them they're bad-faith negotiators, trying to provoke teachers into a strike, and that they have to roll back all of their achievements to 2002 -- and pay for their unconstitutional laws.

Instead of respecting that, Fassbender said: "Government has a different interpretation of prior Supreme Court decisions related to freedom of association than was outlined in the judgment."

Well, different interpretations are why we have courts to render final judgments. Fassbender is a new MLA but an old municipal politician who should know the B.C. Supreme Court is not to be mocked. Lawmakers above all should respect the law, and Fassbender knows perfectly well that "judgment" is not spelled "interpretation."

With that one word, Fassbender made himself the Peyton Manning of political Calvinball.

Drunk with power, now the hangover

Let's go back to the beginning: we had a provincial Liberal government in 2002 with no limits to its power when it brought in Bills 27 and 28, stripping the contracts of both teachers and healthcare workers. The Liberals had 77 MLAs, the NDP just two. The legislation was thrashed out in court over a period of years before Justice Griffin ruled that then-education minister Christy Clark's bill had been unconstitutional and therefore invalid.

Rather than accept the judgment, the Liberals simply rewrote the overthrown laws as Bill 22 -- and again had to go to court. Once more, on Jan. 27 this year, Justice Griffin ruled against them. Griffin noted that the government had been bargaining in bad faith with the teachers and deliberately trying to provoke them into striking. She awarded the teachers' legal costs. Considering that Bill 22 amounted to a personal insult, her new decision was notably temperate.

Fassbender, having treated a Supreme Court judgment as an "interpretation," went on to whine about the financial implications of going back to the terms of the last legitimate collective agreement: "The judgment is completely unaffordable for taxpayers. It would create huge disruptions in our schools and, most importantly, it will prevent districts from providing the right mix of supports our students actually need."

That is actually a concise description of the impact of Bills 27 and 28, which was completely unaffordable for a generation of students and their parents. The Liberals created huge disruptions in the schools and did indeed prevent districts from providing the right mix of supports -- depriving them of the money needed to hire learning assistants, teacher librarians and special-needs experts.

'We can't affoooord it!'

Now Fassbender and Clark, like defeated military aggressors, are saying they can't afford to pay reparations for the damage they've done. That argument worked for Mike Duffy with Nigel Wright and the PMO, but it shouldn't work here.

As the original author of laws judged unconstitutional, Clark should have resigned after the first Supreme Court decision. She and Fassbender should certainly resign now. If her caucus had any sense of Grade 8 civics, it would demand they quit -- or, failing that, themselves resign to force an election. That is what "responsible government" means: you are personally responsible for your actions, and when you act stupidly and illegally, you suffer the consequences.

Under Calvinball rules, however, none of that is necessary. Court judgments are "interpretations," and the government can blithely ignore interpretations it doesn't like.

What about the cost of the judgment? Pleading poverty is like throwing more troops into a lost battle. The Liberals squandered a generation of students, and now they want to continue the same regime of cutbacks indefinitely.

A toxic reputation

The real question now is how quickly we can reduce the harm done. Given the Liberals' now-toxic reputation as bad-faith bargainers, it's hard to see how they could come to a reasonable agreement with the teachers. Just as they've appointed trustees to run school districts whose boards they've fired, they might name a ministerial trustee to bargain for them -- while promising to fund whatever collective agreement the trustee reaches with the teachers.

Rebuilding the public schools would take several years of careful improvements, recruiting new teachers and support staff gradually instead of flooding the system with more cash than it can handle. A new collective agreement should include measurable yearly improvements, with consequences for failing to achieve them.

After five or 10 years of such improvement, and an election or two, the government might regain enough trust to work with teachers to develop a plan for B.C.'s mid-century education needs. They'd better; those needs will make the Liberals' present financial embarrassment look trivial.

Supporting Christy at 71 and Fassbender at 90

According to BC Stats, our population in 2036 will be 6,057,948. Of those, a quarter-million will be four or younger; those between ages five and 24 will total 1,183,013. Christy Clark at 71, and Peter Fassbender at 90, will be among the 1,494,239 British Columbians aged 65 and older.

To support these 2.9 million young people and seniors, we will have just 3,122,935 adults of working age (including those graduating this year after a dozen years of unconstitutional education cuts). To support a child or senior, every one of those workers will need to be highly educated and extremely productive, able to change careers and to thrive in industries not even imagined yet. Every child will have the value of scarcity, and we won't be able to waste a single student.

By 2036, no government will dare play Calvinball with education.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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