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Too Many Teachers?

One factor in BC's conflict may be educator 'overpopulation'.

Will McMartin 17 Oct
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Historians and sociologists postulate that one of the contributing factors to war and conflict is overpopulation. To cite one example, Scandinavia's burgeoning population in the 9th and 10th centuries may have triggered the Vikings' depredations across Western Europe and sent Leif Ericsson and others westward to Greenland and North America.

In contemporary British Columbia politics, we can postulate that overpopulation is the underlying cause of the near-continuous battles which have raged between successive provincial governments and the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) since the mid-1990s.

Here, the conflicts may be due to one simple fact: British Columbia's teacher community is overpopulated. We have too many teachers.

Roller coaster demographics

British Columbia's population has increased annually ever since we joined Confederation in 1871. This may be surprising to some readers, given that the BC Liberals, business interests, and some news media have repeatedly alleged that people and businesses were 'fleeing' the province during the 1990s when the New Democratic Party was in power. Consider the four most-recent census tabulations. In 1971, British Columbia's population was 2.2 million. By the 1981 census, that figure had surpassed 2.8 million, and a decade later was nearly 3.4 million. In 2001, B.C.'s population stood at nearly 4.1 million.

This year, as estimated by BC Stats, the province's population is 4,254,500.

Enrolment in BC's public schools, however, fluctuates considerably. Over the last several decades, the public-school population has been on a roller coaster. (This is due to the post-war 'baby boom' and its after-effects.)

In 1971, there were 518,000 students enrolled in public schools. The student population was on an upswing, and grew each year until it peaked at 549,000 in 1973-74. It then reversed course, and went on a 13-year slide. By 1986-87, enrollment had dropped to 486,000 - a loss of nearly 63,000 students.

At that point it reversed again, and began a sharp and steady rise. Eleven years later, in 1997-98, the student population in public schools had surged to nearly 614,000 - an increase of 128,000 from a decade earlier. But, once again, it began to fall. In 2004-05, the public system had 588,000 students, down almost 26,000 from its most-recent apex.

However, BC's population also has been ageing. That means there are relatively more old people, and relatively fewer young people. And that means that public-school enrollment as a proportion of British Columbia's total population has been falling steadily.

Thirty-five years ago, almost one in every four British Columbians (23.7%) attended a public school. A decade ago, that figure had plummeted to one in every six (15.7%). And still it falls. Currently, just one British Columbian in seven (13.8%) is enrolled in the public-school system.

Downs and ups for teachers

BC's teaching population also fluctuates, usually lagging by a few years the number of students. Let us begin by examining the number of full-time teachers, ignoring for the moment part-timers.

Using 1970-71 as our base year, B.C.'s public schools employed 21,575 full-time teachers. (Statistics Canada uses the term 'educators' to describe teaching and non-teaching academic staff, which includes principals and vice-principals. The generic term 'teacher' is used here for all 'educators'.)

Over the next decade, the number of full-time teachers rose steadily. In 1974-75, when the student population began to fall from its previous year's peak, the public system employed more than 25,000.

The population of full-time teachers continued to grow, even though the number of students was falling, until 1981-82, when it peaked at almost 27,000. At that point, the educator-student ratio, which had been 1 to 24 at the beginning of the 1970s, decreased to 1 to 18.6.

Then the number of teachers followed the student population and went into decline. In 1985-86, there were just 23,719 working full-time in the public school system - a drop of more than 3,200 - and the educator-student ratio had climbed to 1 to 20.5.

From then until the end of the century, the numbers of teachers and students rose in tandem, before both (first students, followed by teachers) again turned into decline. In 2004-05, BC's public schools employed 27,870 full-time educators, a decrease of 2,300 from the most-recent peak. The student-teacher ratio has remained fairly constant at about 1 to 20.

Part-time ranks

But what about part-time teachers?

In 1985-86, the first year they were first counted by Statistics Canada (and the number of full-time teachers had reached its nadir), BC had 3,599 part-time teachers. Thereafter, the numbers of students, of full-time educators, and of part-timers began to grow.

But the increase of part-time teachers (known as Teachers on Call, or TOCs), however, grew much faster. By 1998-99, when the student population reached its peak, the number of TOCs had doubled to 7,950. It subsequently surged past the 10,000 mark before falling to 8,641 in 2004-05.

Two decades ago, there was one part-timer for every 6.6 full-timers. A decade ago the ratio had fallen to 1 to 4.3. Today, at just 1 to 3.3, part-time teachers have half the opportunity of filling in for a sick colleague as their predecessors 20 years ago. The number of part-time teachers has exploded in recent years, and most want steady employment. According to a 2000 study by the BCTF, Teacher Supply and Demand in British Columbia, 'three-quarters' of TOCs would "prefer to have a full-time teaching position." A key reason: the average salary for a TOC was just one-fifth that of a full-time teacher.

A bind for BCTF

All of this means that the BCTF faces a two-pronged challenge. First, BC's population is ageing, which means relatively fewer young students, and the student population currently is in decline, which means a shrinking number of students for full-time teachers. The BCTF has to help full-time teachers make the transition to a reduced student population.

Second, the BCTF has to represent the interests of a massive pool of part-time TOCs who cannot get the full-time positions they desire.

In the late 1990s, the BCTF convinced the NDP government to fund an 'early retirement incentive plan' to induce older teachers to quit, making way for younger teachers. (Incredibly, a few years later the BCTF asked for a 34 percent salary increase over three years with the claim that the province faced "a growing shortage" of teachers.)

A better solution, from the teachers' perspective, is to increase the number of positions for full-time teachers. The way to do that is to reduce the size of classrooms.

It is not surprising that the BCTF wants to negotiate class-size with their employers. They did so, successfully, with the NDP, but Gordon Campbell's BC Liberal administration refused, and instead enshrined class limits in legislation - beyond the reach of contract negotiators.

BC first legislated class-size in 1914 (and clarified in 1922) when a standard of 40 students per teacher was established. Current legislation (the BC Liberals' Bill 28) restricts class-size for students in grades 1-3 to no more than 24; and for grades 4-12 set the 'average' class-size at 30. B.C. teachers may take some solace that the overall direction is in their favour.

One thing is clear. British Columbia has a large surplus of certified, capable teachers seeking full-time employment. Conflict between the BCTF and Victoria may be expected to continue until that 'overpopulation' is rectified.

Will McMartin is a regular contributor to The Tyee. Sources for this story were: BC Annual Population, 1931-2005, BC Stats; Education in Canada, Statistics Canada annual publication, catalogue no. 81-229-XPB, various years; and Student Enrolment Reports, 2000/01 - 2004/05 and Educator Report 2000/01 - 2004/05, Ministry of Education.  [Tyee]

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