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      Public Education in British Columbia and Canada: Crisis After Crisis and Getting Worse

      By Tamara Hansen

      On August 30, 2016 British Columbia’s education minister Mike Bernier had an interview with the CBC's Rick Cluff on The Early Edition, a morning radio program. Minister Bernier was invited to defend his government’s education policies after the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released a scathing report titled, “What’s the real story behind BC’s education funding crisis?”

      Minister Bernier explained to the CBC, "When you look at the funding that we do have here in British Columbia, $5.1 billion, we have increased funding every single year in the province here in British Columbia." He continued, "We've increased our budget 32% since we've come into power and at the same time, aside from last year and this year, we've seen a decrease in about 70,000 students. It's completely false to say we haven't increased our funding."

      In a recorded statement for the interview, Alex Hemingway, the author of the CCPA report, explained that while technically Bernier’s claim of increased dollars in British Columbia’s (BC) education spending is true, at the same time it is a serious oversimplification. “If you look simply at raw dollars it is a higher number than before. […] But, you have to include inflation in there. And what often gets missed, you have to include a whole range of additional cost pressures. Often cost pressures controlled by the government that have been downloaded on to school districts: that includes the doubling of MSP premiums since 2001, 60% increase in BC Hydro since 2008, they add up. We've seen in freedom of information documents that these add up to about $200 million from the 2012-2015 school year. These serious costs pressures aren't being incorporated in those numbers."

      Added to this is the fact that the BC provincial funding per student is some of the lowest in the country. While Minister Bernier has tried to say we are 6th lowest (out of 10 provinces) in the country, Hemingway’s statistics demonstrate that we are 2nd lowest in the country, with only Prince Edward Island spending less per student than BC. Whether Hemingway or Bernier are correct, BC students are being short changed by the provincial government.

      But does money matter? Can’t you have a good education that costs less? Technically yes, however with the way public school systems are set up throughout North America, the answer is no… not really. A June 2016 report from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder titled, "Does Money Matter?" Conclusion? YES! One of the concluding points explains, "gains from investing in education are found in test scores, later earnings, and graduation rates."

      BC government’s love for private schools

      It is no secret that BC Premier Christy Clark and the BC Liberals love private education: They have increased funding to private schools with dollars from the public purse; in September 2014 (when public school teachers were on strike) Christy Clark prioritized visiting private schools instead of meeting with teachers and students from public schools; and as a bonus, Clark’s own son is enrolled in private school.

      In May 2016, the National Observer published an article titled, "Christy Clark gives record funding to private schools, pressures some Vancouver public schools to close". In this article, journalists Jenny Uechl and Elizabeth McSheffrey explain how "private and independent schools received $341 million in public funding this year, up from $311 million in public funding from 2014 to 2015. Clark sends her own son to the prestigious St. George's School, a private establishment in Vancouver, which charges upwards of $20,000 a year in tuition for residents and $30,860 for international students." Clark’s preference for privatization has been established throughout her career from healthcare to transportation; the rise of privatization has sharply increased under the BC Liberal party.

      However, it is not only about privatizing, the underfunding of public education has led to many problems. One of which is coming to a head right now between the provincial government, Vancouver School Board and the people of Vancouver. Due to chronic underfunding, lower student enrolment and the government criteria sheet for seismic upgrades, the Vancouver School Board is possibly going to be closing 11 public community schools in Vancouver (all happen to be on the less affluent eastside of the city). These school closures are not only being threatened in Vancouver though, school boards across the province are having to consider this as an option based on the catch-22 given to them by the provincial government.

      What we really have is a case of bad government priorities…

      Hemingway’s report for the CCPA begins with an abstract which concludes, “School closures, disjointed funding announcements and school board budget crises are not necessary or inevitable. In BC, the numbers show we can afford to invest strongly and stably in education. Underfunding is a political choice.” The notion that the BC government is creating the funding crisis in the public education system is not new. Since coming to power in 2001, the BC Liberal government has torn up teacher contracts; eliminated class size and composition language in order to stuff schools to the brim; taken the cap off university and college tuition; increased funding for private secondary schools; threats to hold back seismic upgrading funds if schools were not filled to 95% of their capacity; and the list goes on. Of course, many of the government’s own statements and decisions have so infuriated people living in British Columbia that the government has had to change their policies or plans – due to protests or upcoming elections. Recently right-wing journalist for the Vancouver Sun, Vaughn Palmer, nicknamed Minister Bernier "Backdown Bernier" due to all of the government flip-flopping on education.

      However throughout the ups and downs one thing has been clear. The BC government is guiding the public education system in this province down a path that can only lead to a sharpened crisis. As mentioned in Hemingway’s report, this is not a simple mistake or a ‘tightening of the belt’ in a time of economic desperation. This is a question of priorities and political preference.

      In the CCPA report Alex Hemingway looks at the numbers: "Arguably the best way to understand what we can afford to invest in public education is to look at BC’s overall economic pie to see how much of it we invest in the education system. When we do that, we see a significant drop in the share of our total economic resources dedicated to public education. K–12 funding has fallen steadily from 3.3% of our province’s Gross Domestic Product in 2001 to a projected 2.5% in Budget 2016 — which is a 25% decline."

      Hemingway further explains, "These numbers are not small potatoes. A 0.9% decline in the share of GDP dedicated to education funding represents about $2 billion per year. (Yes, that’s ‘billion’ with a ‘b’.)" So where is the rest of the money going? This is a good question that we will have to delve into in future articles.

      Education in Cuba

      So what are our options in BC? How do we avoid this deepening crisis? An interesting example for education is that of socialist Cuba. Since the Cuban revolution in 1959, the Cuban government has made education a firm priority for all people regardless of gender, race, age, class or community.

      Before the revolution in 1953, 90% of people in Cuba were illiterate or semi-literate, without even a 6th grade education level. Today, Cuba has officially eradicated illiteracy. However, illiteracy was rooted out, not this year, but only two years after the triumph of the revolution in 1961 through the Cuban literacy campaign. This campaign involved thousands of young volunteers going out into mostly rural Cuba to teach farmers and peasants to read. It also meant getting children into schools and learning, rather than working on family farms. This has been called “the world’s most ambitious literacy campaign” and it has been a great and lasting success!

      According to UNICEF statistics the Cuban government dedicates about 13% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to education. Nationally Canada uses about 5% according to UNICEF statistics. We know from Hemingway's report that that number is lower in British Columbia about 2.5% of the GDP for the 2016 Budget.

      A World Bank report placed Cuba in the top position in terms of investment in education for 2009-2013. According to the report Cuba’s investment of 13% of its GDP in education means it spends a larger percent of its GDP on education than any other country in the world!

      Cuba has firmly established education as a human right. They have made elementary, secondary and post-secondary studies free and accessible to all. Their education system is also renowned in Latin America. Salim Lamrani, professor at the University of Reunion and author of the book: Cuba, the Media, and the Challenge of Impartiality, wrote an article about Cuba's education system in May 2015. Lamrani explains, "Areas such as health, education, culture and sport have always been a priority in Cuba and the results are outstanding. With a literacy rate of 99.8%, the island exhibits the lowest rate of illiteracy of Latin America, according to UNESCO, which also emphasizes that Cuba has the highest enrollment rate in Latin America with 99.7 of the students with free education. Another UNESCO report on education in 13 countries in Latin America ranks Cuba in first place in all subjects and stresses that a Cuban student has twice the knowledge and skills of the average Latin American student."

      In another World Bank report: "Great Teachers: How to Raise Student Learning in Latin America and the Caribbean" had to begrudgingly recognize the outstanding teacher training Cuba provides. They wrote, "No Latin American school system today, except possibly Cuba’s, is very close to high standards, high academic talent, high or at least adequate compensation, and high professional autonomy that characterize the world’s most effective education systems." Once again Cuba shows itself to be a major force in education for the western hemisphere. Also showing that it is not only about money, it is also about government priorities.

      What can BC learn from Cuba?

      It is true that Cuba is a developing or third-world country. Cuba’s Gross Domestic Product annually is $77.15 billion as compared to Canada's $1.552 trillion or even the province of British Columbia's GDP which will reach $250 billion in 2016. Cuba reminds us of what is possible on a small budget, when quality education is your goal and priority. Despite over 50 years of economic blockade by the United States and even the crushing economic crash of the special period in 1990s- Cuba did not close its schools or hospitals, because Cuba’s priority is people, not profits.

      Here in BC and across Canada, we are hearing constant excuses for cuts to our social programs. Families and communities are consistently fighting the provincial and federal governments to put the money where it belongs, in the programs and institutions that provide health, education, shelter, water and jobs to the people of BC and Canada. We need to put a stop to the school closures and demand that the BC government adequately fund our education system. However, we also need to reflect on what Cuba has been able to accomplish and work towards systemic change to a more equitable education system for all.

      Follow Tamara on Twitter:@THans01

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