B.C.’s Public Education Crisis is a Feminist Issue

by | August 24, 2014
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Politics

classroomB.C.’s 41,000 public school teachers have been off the job since June 17. That was the day that the government responded to the BC Teachers’ Federation’s partial strike action with a lock-out, closing schools for the summer two weeks early. But this long summer may be far from over.

The employer’s association, BCPSEA (representing school boards, whose hands are largely tied by the government’s funding levels), has set August 25 as the deadline for an agreement if school is to open on time in September.

The teachers are asking for two things:

Neither of these things can even begin to be addressed without more money on the table. B.C.’s base funding drags $1000.00 per year  (about 15%) behind the national average.

Ironically, while B.C. is at the bottom of the heap for per-student funding, it is at the top for children living in poverty (Statscan,  Income of Canadians, 2011). Our economy is strong, but nearly one in five children is poor. This is a big problem for schools, because poverty increases the numbers and the severity of special needs among children.

Child poverty and low school funding are also related to the status of women.

Children are poor because their parents – usually their mothers are poor. Mothers are poor partly because women still get lower wages than men, and are concentrated in lower-paid sectors of the economy.

The best sector for women’s wages is the public sector, where female-oriented public sector unions have worked hard to fight the gender pay gap.

But the BC Liberal Government has a 13-year history of bad faith in dealing with public sector unions like the BC Teachers’ Federation.

Before the Liberals’ forced contracting out of hospital jobs in the early 2000s, the Hospital Employees’ Union negotiated some of the most fair and forward-looking procedures anywhere for assessing the true value of work; pay equity procedures that gave gender-blind ratings for job value based on hours, physical exertion and risk, types and level of skills involved, training and responsibility.

Then the government stepped in and passed legislation (Bill 29) that allowed for health authorizes to contract out jobs to private companies. This forced the wages of hospital cleaning staff down by half, bringing them to “comparable” hotel staff standards of pay (and cleanliness). Families fell into poverty as mothers’ wages tanked.

For women, attacks on public sector unions are a double-whammy: they further erode women’s wages and, at the same time, lower the quality of services that children and families rely upon such as schools, health care, libraries and social work.

Just look at how the BC Liberals have gone after the BCTF. In 2002, the government  simply legislated away negotiated class size limits, even though the teachers had agreed to forego wage increases in 2001 in exchange for those limits.  In 2011 the B.C. Supreme Court told the government to put the class size limits back; they ignored the ruling. A second ruling this year again ordered the government to reinstate the limits, which had, by then, been routinely exceeded for over a decade. But the government continues to stall and appeal.

Education Minister Fassbender says that bringing back the 2001 limits would cost taxpayers “up to a billion dollars” a year extra (The BCTF says that this is an over-estimate), I keep wondering how the minister managed to suppress a classic “Bwa-haha!” evil laugh while admitting that his government, by ripping up negotiated contracts, short-changed the public education system a billion dollars a year for 12 years, has no intention of putting the money back, and is spending many more tax dollars on an appeal.

The government doesn’t want us to talk about class size; it wants to focus on salaries. The Ministry of Education reports almost twice as many certified teachers as there are teaching jobs in public schools. In traditional economics, a surplus of laborers, whether in hard hats with shovels or in sensible shoes with whiteboard markers, means workers have to accept less.

But while it may be possible to compute the ideal efficiency point for staffing a factory or mine, efficiency is a concept that is ill-fitted with the project of raising and schooling a child. In striving to create leaner schools in an already-lean family economy, we’ve crossed the line into just plain mean.

There is an alternative. We can lower class sizes, and hire some of those “surplus” teachers. Money spent on lower class sizes goes straight into wages, which are mainly spent on local economies, which in turn feed back into the tax system to keep on doing more of the same.

Kids get smarter, local businesses get healthier, and the future looks brighter.

There is another argument that goes, “Families (and this usually means “mostly mothers”) expect too much of schools. Let parents feed and take care of their own kids.”

This argument is based on a faulty view of history. The truth is that we have never asked so much from parents and helped them so little.

Don’t believe me?  Here is a little number-crunching exercise. Money Sense Magazine estimated the out-of-pocket expenses of raising a child to their 18th birthday to be $12, 825 per year, for a total of  $243,660.  This estimate did not even include any monetary value for parental time and labor, or for lost time in the paid workforce. It did not include day care, or any costs past the child’s 18th birthday although the average Canadian kid sticks around home, hopefully going to university rather than playing videogames in the basement, until she or he is 24.

For comparison, look at that base-funding formula for schools. If we bump it up by a couple of thousand per year to account for special needs funding, we get about $10,000 over 13 years as the public school contribution to the project of raising a human being.

Parents spend more than $20 out of pocket for every dollar that the public pitches in for the education of a child; and the 20:1 ratio of time and other forms of investment is about the same. Transpose this to any other time and place in history, and people would say, “That’s ridiculous. Why are we abandoning parents that way, when we all have a stake in raising good kids to handle the future?”

Ridiculous, indeed. It takes, as they say, a village.

A generation or two ago, the village was a literal one. Children went to church or temple, skipped down to the corner store, met neighbours on front porches and played in one another’s back yards. But those informal outside spaces are disappearing.  Now, parents fork out for sports and lessons and other activities outside of the house—if they can.

School is the main place left outside of home for many children to receive nurturance, wisdom, knowledge, physical activities, fun, and a reflection of themselves as belonging in the world. Given the state of school funding, too many kids are heading from impoverished homes to an impoverished village site—in the midst of a thriving economy that does not want to share.

There is a kind of back-up plan, however, when the taxpayer fails to support schools and other services for children: if a child is in need, somebody of tender heart won’t be able to walk away from that suffering, and so they will stoop to help, even if no one pays them or notices.  The Liberals are counting on the emotional ties that teachers have to their students to cover up the dirty aftermath of cost-cutting.

Sure enough, it is teachers who stock their classrooms with tissues and supplies, buy the fund-raising chocolates to support music and outdoor education trips, slip granola bars to hungry kids and stay at the school until 5:30 to teach them to play ball, then go home to mark assignments and review the next day’s plans.

Not everyone volunteers, but the most generous teachers keep my child’s high school open every day from before 8:00 a.m. until after 8:00 p.m., providing extra tutoring and activities that fill in the gaps of a threadbare “village” every week day for 10 months of the year.

The callous, bottom-line financial reasoning we’re seeing feels more appropriate to an industry like mining than it is to human services.  I’ve seen many teachers begin as fountains of generosity, then slowly acquire the look of a stripped-out resource, tired to the bone and weary from doing so much caring.

Care is not an extractable resource; it is a renewable one. It less like coal and more like water or soil—it needs time and protection. Push a piece of ground to produce beyond its ability to re-absorb nutrients and it will become a desert. Push teachers to do more and more with less and we will find them coming to work with old lesson plans, empty eyes  and throbbing headaches.

Put the money back into public education. Bring respect and good faith to the bargaining table. Hire more teachers, and also more librarians, school nurses, cooks and child care workers. This kind of infrastructure is every bit as important a priority as any bridge, road, pipeline, rail corridor or airport.

It’s all connected. Our teachers, our moms, our kids, our planet, our oceans, our food supply—we have to get it through our thick heads that nothing is really free to keep taking from forever.

Every school child is going to be an adult one day, ready, we hope, to restore the polar ice caps, or build a green house, or cure Alzheimer’s, or change my bedding in the nursing home, or even design a better video game. But that child needs help to get there, and it is our job to support the mothers and the teachers who make it happen.



Photo of desks at Fraser Valley Elementary School in B.C. by Labpluto123 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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