by Tobey Steeves*

2014 has been a tumultuous year for public education in British Columbia, Canada. In early January class composition data was released: 16,163 classrooms in BC–a new record for the province–have four or more students with special needs. In late January BC’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of BC’s teachers’ union. Basically, the Court’s ruling was that government had acted unconstitutionally in revoking teachers’ rights, and the Court restored those rights. Shortly after, BC’s ruling government announced that it would be appealing the Supreme Court decision–on the basis that they disagree with the Judge’s “interpretation” of the Canadian Charter. And thus continues the long saga of a government’s war on public education.

Back in January of 2002 the BCLiberals passed Bill 28, which revoked classroom composition limits. At the time, Christy Clark, the new Premier, stated: “This bill ... marks a move toward a more flexible, more responsive, better-managed system that meets students’ needs, one where students’ needs win out over mathematical formulas, ... and one where meeting students’ needs is the absolute number one priority.”

Notwithstanding, in April of 2011 BC’s Supreme Court ruled Bill 28 unconstitutional, and the BCLiberals were given a year to make amends. It is notable that the BCLiberals, in the end, decided not to appeal this loss. Christy Clark conceded the “need to go back and make sure that we address the issues that the court raised and we absolutely will do that. You know, I think whenever you bring in legislation ten years later turns out not to have worked, you have to take responsibility for that absolutely. Every time, you want to get it right and that time, we didn’t get it right.”

The BCLiberals’ attempt to “get it right”–Bill 22–was passed in March of 2012. Euphemistically titled the Improving Education Act, Christy Clark said that the aim of Bill 22 was to “keep teachers in class by suspending job action, setting a cooling off period, appointing a mediator in an attempt to break new ground with the union.”

Still trying to “get it right”, in October 2012 the BCLiberals announced a plan for a 10 year contract with teachers. Christy Clark suggested that “It’s worth thinking about what could be achieved ... with a 10-year deal for teachers. Imagine a child in Grade two starting this year could go all the way to Grade 12 without any threat of labour disruption.” Apparently, for Christy Clark it is not worth thinking about passing laws in accord with the Canadian Charter, because in January of 2014 BC’s Supreme Court ruled Bill 22 unconstitutional.

For starters, the Court ruled that: “Contrary to the position of the government, the labour situation between teachers and their employers in 2001 cannot be attributed to unreasonable demands or inflexibility on the part of BCTF with respect to class size and composition or other related issues later addressed in the legislation.” That is, Christy Clark said the policy was in pursuit of “flexibility” and yet the Supreme Court says there was flexibility before the legislation–not after: “the government prohibited terms in a teachers collective agreement restricting or regulating a board’s power to establish class size and composition; assign as student to a class; determine staffing levels or staff ratios; or determining the number of students assigned to a teacher.”

The Court also “concluded that the government did not negotiate in good faith with the union after the Bill 28 Decision. One of the problems was that the government representatives were pre-occupied by another strategy. Their strategy was to put such pressure on the union that it would provoke a strike by the union. The government representatives thought this would give government the opportunity to gain political support for imposing legislation on the union.”

More specifically: “When a full strike did not materialize, so important was a strike to the government strategy that in September 2011, Mr. Straszak planned a government strategy of increasing the pressure on the union so as to provoke a strike.”

Since Bill 22 was implemented in 2012, the number of classes with four or more students with special needs has mushroomed. In k-3 it’s gone from 153 to 226 classrooms, and in grades 4-12 it’s jumped from 9,406 to 15,937 classrooms.

Since Bill 28 was implemented in 2002, upwards of 3,500 teachers have been cut– including 1,400 specialist teachers. For instance, from 2001 to 2013 BC has shed 29.9% of librarians, 12% of school counselors, and a whopping 32.4% of teachers for ELL (English Language Learners).

There have been 200+ school closures in BC since 2002. BC’s per-student funding is approximately $1,000 below the Canadian average. And according to Statistics Canada, BC is last among Canadian provinces on seven key measures of education funding.

It goes without question that these cuts have had impacts on BC’s students–less access to services and a race to the bottom do not add up to a ‘kids-first!’ agenda.

As a case in point, it’s worth highlighting Eric Munshaw, a tech ed teacher with 32 years’ experience. Citing safety concerns over “unmanageable” and “ballooning class sizes”, Munshaw believed it inevitable that “someone is going to get hurt,” and quit. If veteran teachers are fleeing classrooms over safety concerns and BC’s Supreme Court rules a government’s actions unconstitutional, whose interests are the BCLiberals hoping to serve with an appeal?

As of this writing, BCTF negotiators are waiting on government representatives, who– now that an appeal has been announced–need time to re-assess and re-organize. According to the BCLiberals, there is still a “possibility of a negotiated settlement”. Even

so, it is likely that the only way a negotiated settlement between teachers and the government will be reached at the table is if both sides bargain in good faith. But BC’s Supreme Court has found the BCLiberals to have been guilty of bargaining in bad faith– twice. So it might be a stretch to think that the government is well-practiced in good faith bargaining. Clearly, there is still a long way to go before the BCLiberals “get it right”. 

[*Tobey Steeves is an education policy analyst and a secondary teacher in British Columbia. His research focuses on the intersections of education policies and the lives and work of teachers.]