On Friday May 11, 2012 Vancouver’s The Province newspaper published an article about the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) by columnist Jon Ferry. The article entitled “Mean-spirited BCTF really hurting kids” caused me to raise an eyebrow.
Ferry begins his article with some assessment of the difficulties faced on both sides of the current labour dispute between BC teachers and the BC government. This first section seems to be his ‘I can see some wrongdoing on both sides of this issue’ bit, all the while he is winding up for his attack on teachers and the BCTF.
What’s the dispute between BC teachers and the BC government?
Throughout his article Ferry never mentions what I would argue is at the heart of this labour dispute, which is the current direction of BC’s public education system. In an article published in The Vancouver Sun and The Province in February 2012, Susan Lambert, president of the BCTF writes, “In 1991–92 the Ministry of Education’s budget was 26 per cent of the provincial budget. By 2009–10 it had shrunk to 15 per cent”. With inflation, the desire to integrate new technology in schools and the general rising cost of living in BC, how has the education system adapted to these cuts? We see more reliance on private funding and community fundraising, the lengthening the school day while cutting the number of days in the school year, and raising class sizes while removing previous guarantees about class composition.
All of these things are having a major impact on the ability of teachers to do their job and for their students to meet the learning outcomes. Many long-time teachers are fed up with this state of affairs and agree with the BCTF’s decision to fight against the BC governments “net-zero” mandate and to demand that class size and composition be put back on the negotiation table. So yes, pay is an issue, mainly keeping up with the rate of inflation and the pay of other teachers across Canada. However, it is not the main issue for most teachers. The future of BC’s public education system is really what teacher’s want a say in.
When the BC government decided that a negotiated settlement in 2012 was not likely, they decided to legislate teachers back to work. On March 15, 2012 the BC government passed Bill 22, which they call “The Education Improvement Act”. It states, “every employee must continue or resume his or her full duties and work schedules of employment with the employer”. Teachers and their union were angry and ready to resist this law, which does very little to improve the current situation in BC’s public schools and is an attempt to scare teachers into silence by imposing severe fines if teachers continue their job action.
Why Ferry believes the BCTF is mean-spirited…
In his article, Ferry lays out his argument by explaining, “What is really angering the public now is the union's own mean-spirited order to its members to withdraw from coaching sports and other extracurricular activities.” Here Ferry tries to make the union a separate entity from its membership. Ignoring that there was no “order to its members to withdraw “. In fact, on April 17-19, 2012 BCTF members took a democratic vote in which 73% voted in favour of withdrawing these voluntary services as one part of a nine point action plan to confront the BC government’s draconian “Education Improvement Act”.
Ferry uses anecdotal evidence to back up his claim of public anger. “Just ask Peter Froese of the B.C. Federation of Independent School Associations, who said the issue is causing a number of parents to consider taking their kids out of the public-school system. […] he recently had a call from a Victoria public schoolteacher who was so frustrated that he and his wife, also a public schoolteacher, wanted to enrol their own children in an independent school.” No evidence here that the teacher was considering an independent school for their children based on the withdrawal of extracurricular activities. BC public school teachers are protesting the government’s implementation of Bill 22, because they see a decline in BC’s public education system on a daily basis. Are those issues not a reason that some teachers might choose to send their children to an independent school? These mounting problems inside classrooms and the BC government’s chronic underfunding for public education seem like a more likely reason for these public schoolteachers to want to send their children to an independent school, than a few months without extracurricular activities.
Ferry then proclaims, “Certainly, I have to agree with Premier Christy Clark that it was "wrong for the union to try to bully its members into withdrawing those services." I am not sure how much more ludicrous Ferry can be. Yes the BCTF is a big “bully”, and 73% of BCTF members (or bully victims) voted in favour of their own “victimization”.
“They gotta be kiddin'”
Later, Ferry wonders aloud, “what impact all this adult unpleasantness will have on our children.” Later he answers his own ponderings with, “the BCTF keeps saying it's doing it for the kids. But if folks actually believe this after all this crass dispute has put the kids through, I say they gotta be kiddin'.” This type of rhetorical question is very popular in the media right now. It is meant to enrage readers against teachers and make teachers feel guilty. However, if we are honest and look beyond the immediate implications of a few months of public schools without teachers volunteering outside of class time, and consider the bigger issues that our public school system is facing, this question seems irrelevant and unfair.
I would like to quote my article in volume 7 issue 1 of Fire This Time: “Everyone is saying that with teacher’s committing to stop extracurricular participation, ‘Kids will pay the price.’ What does this mean? Yes, current students are paying a certain price for teacher job action, but ultimately the job action is to save the public education system. A public education system is supposed to provide each young person in BC with a world-class education equally without bias of where they grow up or their family income. Our public education system today is already underfunded and unequal across the province. Schools that are in wealthier areas are better off because of parent, student and teacher fundraising. Already we have gaps in what we have promised future generations and what is being delivered. The government of BC has its eyes shut and is happy to deepen the inequality.”
It seems to me that Ferry is also trying to close his eyes on what is happening in BC public schools. Through his article, he hopes to isolate the BCTF as the mean-spirited bully that is victimizing students, teachers and anyone else standing in its way. I would like to speculate that while it is true that many students, teachers and parents are unhappy with the current withdrawal of voluntary activities, most who care about the future of public education know that teachers have not been left with much choice.
“If you don't want to fight, it's impossible to win”
In recent weeks many BC newspapers have featured stories about teachers who are not standing with the union’s decision and are continuing their participation in extracurricular activities. Many editorials have held these teachers up as courageous heroes, and in fact, all of the articles I have read so far have featured male sports coaches. These articles have a particular macho mood and made me want to find some words of wisdom from a sports icon to summarize my views about the political battle between BC Teachers and the BC government, and how I could answer when someone accuses me of forcing kids to pay the price of our ‘adult’ battle.
I chose the words of Bud Wilkinson, who admittedly I know very little about, but was a football player, coach and ran for a seat in the US senate with the Republican party. He said, “If a team is to reach its potential, each player must be willing to subordinate his personal goals to the good of the team.” This view of a team, also applies here to solidarity - and if the ‘team’ in this case is public education - students, parents and teachers are going to have to grin and bear these temporary pains in the hopes of protecting public education in this province for future generations.
A healthy public education system is not a current priority for the BC government. Christy Clark made it clear on the first day of the three day teacher’s strike on March 5, 2012. Clark had planned to visit a private Christian school that day. Who cares about public schools or teachers anyways? These small actions speak volumes. Of course, the BC government’s spending priorities also paint the same bigger picture. So I bring yet another sports quote from Wilkinson: “Football, in its purest form, remains a physical fight. As in any fight, if you don't want to fight, it's impossible to win.” This labour dispute between BC teachers and the BC government is a fight. Most BC teachers understand “if you don't want to fight, it's impossible to win.” This government will continue to strip BC public schools if we give up now. As teachers we have a responsibility to tell the public about what is happening inside BC schools today and to fight to get our public education system back on track.
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