All three major provincial parties have now published their election platforms. All three pay a lot of attention to education, but all three are disappointingly conservative about it. This does not bode well for the next four years.
In the case of the Liberals, we have not just their platform but their 16 years in power, which I consider a much more reliable guide to their future behaviour. Christy Clark would treat a return to power as a vindication of her actions all the way back to her stint as education minister back in the first Campbell government.
While the Supreme Court of Canada repudiated her 2002 contract-breaking, the Liberal platform actually brags that it’s investing $300 million in new teachers — the money Clark was ordered to restore to the system.
Returned to power, Clark would likely carry on the 16-year Liberal war against the BC Teachers’ Federation. With no real reason to change the current funding formula, she could carry on imposing more external costs on the public schools’ fixed budgets — higher heating and fuel costs, for example. Foreseeable extra costs like English classes for refugee and migrant children could be met only by sacrificing other programs.
The end of school boards?
Like the Socreds before them, the Liberals enjoy surprise attacks on education (like Clark’s original removal of class size and learning conditions from teachers’ contracts). So we might expect further indirect attacks. For example, school boards could be further merged into large, Victoria-appointed regional district boards, along the line of health districts: Greater Vancouver Schools, Fraser Valley Schools, and so on. Community involvement in local schools would matter less and less. The superintendents of such districts would be highly paid CEOs, quite capable of keeping a lid on local problems and carrying out Victoria’s orders.
As today’s teachers retire, a Liberal government could try to undercut the BCTF by lowering the standards for certification. This would make it easier to replace retiring and resigning professionals with half-qualified young people. The BCTF would of course resist such a step, and the government would frame the BCTF as an elitist union ignoring the needs of children.
The government could then offer a generous compromise: admit the half-trained teachers as “probationary,” on a lower pay scale, with opportunities to take summer courses (at their own expense) to improve their qualifications.
‘Choice’ in education
In the meantime, student performance would predictably decline, offering opportunities for both the government and the Fraser Institute to lament the poor quality of public education compared to “independent” and charter schools. The BCTF would be welcome to spend millions fighting the government in court; any pro-teacher court decision could be fought for years, certainly past the next election in 2021. Public protests and teacher strikes could be spun as vested interests resisting “choice” in education.
Look at the Liberals’ platform and of course you won’t find anything like this scenario. Instead they promise to maintain “our world-leading K-12 system,” which will involve “reviewing” the funding formula, adding “significant” money for enrolment growth, and paying rural teachers a little extra to stay on their job.
Post-secondary, meanwhile, can look forward to “redirecting investments to focus on skills better aligned with in-demand programs” — in other words, cutting liberal arts and sciences while subsidizing career-oriented programs that could be obsolete in five years. This has already been going on for years.
The New Democrats’ platform says they will spend $30 million yearly to cover costs of school supplies, and provide a $1,000 “completion grant” to new graduates to help them pay down their debt. But it’s unclear how reliable their estimates are. What if removing tuition fees from adult basic education and English as a second language courses results in a stampede into such programs? And while interest-free student loans are a good idea, how much burden will students continue to bear?
Similarly, it’s nice to think that the NDP would create more jobs by building new schools (out of B.C. wood!), but what would such capital spending cost the taxpayers?
Andrew Weaver’s Green Party platform has more numbers than the NDP: raising public schools’ funding over four years from $250 million to $1.5 billion; putting $35 million into “learning-readiness initiatives such as meal programs;” and spending $140 million over three years to train teachers to deliver a new K-12 curriculum.
For post-secondary students, the Greens would implement “needs-based grants;” offer tax forgiveness of up to $2,000 a year for up to five years, to enable graduates to repay their tuition loans; and spend $65 million over four years to support co-op and work-experience programs for students.
Laudable goals, though unlikely to be achieved.
Too willing to accept the status quo
All three parties are entirely too willing to accept the status quo, which has been shaped by the Liberals and the Socreds before them. The premises of the status quo are that education is a private benefit, not a public good, and private benefits should, as far as possible, be funded by the private person. Hence parents and teachers must buy school supplies, and post-secondary students must mortgage their futures. Neither New Democrats nor Greens really take issue with this, and the Liberals would make things worse.
I would be more impressed with a political party willing to make a dramatic break with the status quo. For example, free daycare could be declared a human right, and made part of the public education system along with pre-school. School breakfast and lunch programs, free or very low-cost, could be defined as just another learning condition, like light and heat.
The public schools are long overdue for a new education commission. And teacher training in general could be sharply improved, with a master’s as a basic requirement. None of the parties say a word about these needs.
As for colleges and universities, no party ever mentions Canada’s forgotten 1976 promise to work toward tuition-free post-secondary. And all parties are silent about our shameful use of international students to help pay for post-secondary costs.
Whoever wins the election, then, B.C.’s education system will drag itself through the next four years. Whether the next government spends a little or a lot on education, much of it will be wasted and students and parents will pay far more than they should.
And just as technology, the economy, and society are changing faster than ever, our schools will be changing slower than ever.