The threat to public education in BC? This time, it’s John Horgan

A strong and vibrant public education system is the foundation for all that British Columbia is, and aspires to be. Public education should provide the basis for economic self-sufficiency, and improve social well-being across our province. It should unify our diverse and multicultural population into caring and cooperative communities. We cannot realize the promises of reconciliation with Indigenous communities without it. Our democratic institutions of governance would not exist without an educated public. These are the values I expected the John Horgan government to act on, but they do not reflect the current policy directions.

John Horgan’s government, is not focused on protecting and improving our K-12 public education system. Instead, his goal is to ensure the most minimal spending possible, much like the government before his.

Horgan’s NDP has issued a two-pronged attack on K-12 education to reduce spending. Both prongs have the potential to unravel our public schools, and our province as we know them. The first is the Sustainable Services Negotiating Mandate, and the funding envelope being applied in the current round of negotiations with teachers. The second, is introducing a prevalence funding model, while at the same time failing to increase spending on education closer to the national average. Currently, BC spends almost $1900 less per student. The prevalence funding model will redistribute an already inadequate resource with less transparency and almost no rules. Changing the education funding model, without changing the amount of money to work with, is a futile prospect for improving public education in BC.

The Sustainable Services Negotiating mandate intends to prevent teacher salary increases from keeping up with inflation. Already amongst the lowest paid in the country, this seems to be a race to the very bottom. This is already creating a teacher shortage that means not every child has access to a certified teacher in their classroom. It is allowing school districts to hire adults on Letters of Permission, essentially replacement workers at a lower cost. Horgan has forgone one of the basic tenants in public education, equal access and opportunity. Certainly, every child deserves a teacher.

Certified teachers in BC are amongst the most qualified in the country. Almost half, have additional diplomas, and post-graduate degrees. This makes sense, since teaching is more complicated and demanding than it has ever been. Statistically, today’s students come in with more trauma, depression, and mental health issues than in the past. There is rise of autism and other forms neurodiversity. Families are more complicated, and the growing inequality of wealth distribution in BC means more students are coming to school hungry, tired, and with a lot more on their minds than learning. It seems it would be critical that we maintained high standards around teacher certification and hiring, but the exact opposite is occurring with the proliferation of Letters of Permission, and uncertified teachers entering our classrooms.

The second prong of the Horgan attack on public education comes in the form of the proposed prevalence funding model, expected to be part of February’s budget announcements. This is part of Horgan’s plan to roll back the Supreme Court win of BC teachers, and return to 2002, when the illegal stripping of the collective agreement removed $275 million per year, in education spending.

The prevalence model removes requirements that districts follow diagnostic and administrative accountability in applying special education funding to students. Instead, they will receive a general pot of money with few, to no restrictions on spending. They will be forced to rely on subjective and often biased information to make decisions. Districts will be required to assign worth and value to the potential of our students. Deciding who will receive services, and who will not, will become an ethical game of chance.

This does not fit with our general understanding around the purpose and place of public education in broader society. It certainly, does not fit with our values and beliefs around inclusion, where every child deserves to have their needs met.

The education funding model prior to 2002 adhered to the principle that funding was linked to actual costs in providing support and services to qualifying students. In practice, this meant that in some districts, parents knew exactly how many hours of daily support from an educational assistant (EA) their child was entitled to. This was not a perfect model, but it was structured in such a way, to be outwardly transparent. Districts were able to resist choosing between competing students for EA time.

In 2002, the same year the illegal stripping of the collective agreement took place, funding changes were introduced that started to erode specific links to actual student entitlements. Per pupil funding was placed into general spending accounts with vague expectations some of it would be used to provide special education services.

Soon after these changes, we saw services start to disappear from students. Parents once knew the exact amount of EA support their child was entitled to. Now they were told their children were not necessarily entitled to any. At best, they would receive shared support. Then, the hours allocated to EA’s started to diminish.

With the freedom to use the general pot of money as they wished, districts were able to cut support positions to meet tight budgets during years of austerity. EA’s commonly found themselves on budget chopping blocks. Today, some classrooms have no EA support at all, despite having students who have been designated in them.

The prevalence funding model will exacerbate these problems. It will up the ante in terms of determining who the haves, and have nots will be in our system. The lack of transparency for parents will mean their advocacy will often be limited, and in the dark. The dependence on advocacy will exclude many from vulnerable populations such as low income, refugee, and Indigenous families. This is not an inclusive model.

Links to funding and services through identification and designations are far more transparent than pots of money with no rules for spending. Protecting these links through collective agreement language protects them from poorly motivated policy decisions in the future. Both of these are crucial to prioritizing the aspiration of meeting every child’s needs. For this to happen, Horgan needs to increase the education budget, ensure highly qualified teachers for every child in our province, and come up with a funding model that is fair, just, and transparent.

Parents should be deeply concerned about the direction John Horgan’s government is taking public education in BC. Every child deserves a teacher, and every child with needs should have them met. The future of our province depends on it.