Underfunding was the theme of my 40-year teaching career. In the early years of Capilano College, the English department had to beg for its own typewriter so we could produce our dittographed course outlines and handouts. I retired just as then premier Gordon Campbell declared us Capilano University, without mentioning that our funding would remain unchanged despite the greater costs of university status.
Meanwhile every part of British Columbia education struggled with less provincial money than it needed — or said it needed. And every provincial government insisted that it was spending more on education than ever before, while also bragging about our excellent public schools and post-secondaries.
Admittedly, it’s hard to describe our public schools as victims of financial malnutrition when they’re doing so well on international standard tests. BC Liberal leader Christy Clark loves to argue that point every time she’s challenged on underfunding education in the province. The Supreme Court of Canada, in ordering her government to fund it properly, disagreed.
From B.C. teachers’ point of view, the problem is not how well we’re doing, but how much better we could do with proper support. Yes, it’s great that our kids are whipping almost every other country on PISA. Why aren’t they whipping the world, including Korea, Singapore, and Finland?
After all, we achieve our high test scores despite the less successful performance of many special-needs kids, immigrants and refugees, and Indigenous kids. If they had the right resources, they could improve our overall performance still more.
It’s Time for a Change, a document published on the BCTF website, argues the case for more provincial funding. It estimates that B.C. parents spend $132 million yearly in subsidies to public education. The average B.C. student who graduates with a bachelor’s degree owes $32,300. And Victoria has raked in 400 per cent more from post-secondary tuition than it did in 2001.
The document also shows that while the B.C. government put 20 per cent of its total spending into education in 2000-01, it now spends just 11.8 per cent. A total of almost 1,700 specialist teachers — librarians, counsellors, English language learning, special education and Aboriginal education — have been cut since 2001-02, when Christy Clark as education minister tore up teachers’ contracts.
Feeding the rich, starving the poor
At the same time, private schools this year are receiving $358 million in taxpayer funding, a near doubling of support since 2005-06. This while four out of five of teachers surveyed report students in their classes who start the day hungry and have no food for lunch or snacks.
Even a Lamborghini can’t run without fuel, and it’s the same for a hungry kid. If we simply fed nutritious meals to the 163,000 kids in our schools who are growing up in poverty, they would learn more and faster.
While the Supreme Court of Canada was right to rebuke Clark and order her to restore the funding she took from hundreds of thousands of B.C. students, that money is now just part of what’s needed.
So we’ve lost over 350 teacher-librarians? They don’t grow on trees, and those Clark sacked have gone on other careers or retirement. So training programs for new teacher-librarians need to be built at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. (We might headhunt them in other provinces, but could they afford our housing?)
English language learning has been studiously neglected, so Syrian refugee families are arriving just as we’re unable to teach them and their children the language skills they need to succeed. As special-needs students have grown in numbers, special ed teachers have dwindled. Again, we’ll need new programs to train new people in such fields.
In a way, I can almost sympathize with Clark’s government. The Liberals know that any bureaucracy (like the schools) always tries to increase its workforce. Education bureaucrats are good at finding new issues to address by hiring still more staff. Once new staff are hired, they’re hard to fire.
But the education bureaucrats are usually right: they do have new issues. Immigrants, special-needs, transgender kids — these are real young people, deserving sustained support. After all, they will either be successful income earners and taxpayers, or competing with the rest of us for tax-funded social services.
Syrian refugees don’t need just English teachers; they need psychologists to help them and their families get over the traumas they’ve suffered. They need counsellors and social workers familiar with their culture and fluent in Arabic.
Call in the stagehands
One of the standard gimmicks of Liberal education ministers has been to say they’re focused on delivering resources to the classroom. That’s like saying a play doesn’t need a director, a crew of stagehands and lighting technicians, or a props manager. Without those unseen helpers, the best actors in the world can do very little.
Providing real resources to the classroom, therefore, means a long-term commitment to “stagehands” — highly skilled support staff. Developing that staff means recruiting and retaining expert university professors to develop training programs in (for example) library school, social work, and education technology. Try to do without them, and your classroom dollars are wasted.
To push the theater analogy a little more, stagehands and prop managers have to know how to adapt to new productions. Training support staff means also training them to provide support under rapidly changing circumstances, over a term of decades. To most politicians, who can think no farther into the future than the next election, long-term spending commitments are unattractive.
So teachers at all levels of education also need to teach public and politicians alike that school is literally lifelong learning, demanding lifelong dedication from everyone involved. If they can’t teach that simple lesson, then they and their students will be underfunded forever.