G. Heyman: I rise to speak in opposition to this bill. There’s such a long list of reasons to oppose this bill that it would take me far more than the allotted time I have to address them all, but I know that virtually every one of my colleagues will be speaking to this bill.
Let me start by responding to one of the final comments from the MLA for North Vancouver–Seymour that she and her colleagues support professional development, and they want to help teachers get the best possible professional development they can.
That’s an ironic statement, which I will highlight later, with regard to the complete failure of this government to show respect for teachers over virtually the entire tenure they’ve held office here in Victoria, particularly with respect to treating teachers unlike any other profession in British Columbia that self-regulates, that decides what they need for their own professional development, or even to respect the commitment that this minister has made to consult with the BCTF on any number of issues as recently as the conclusion of the collective agreement.
Once again, this minister has reverted to type. In the case of this minister, the Education Minister, his type is: my way or the highway.
Let me start by reading into the record part of a response from the Delta school district addressed to the minister on April 22 and signed by the chairperson of the Delta board of education. There are some important points made early in the letter. It says: “Delta trustees express concerns that consultation as set out in the co-governance relationship memorandum of understanding did not take place in the development of this legislation.”
Trustees focused on the following section of the memorandum of understanding:
“Consultation and notification. Any party proposing a change in policies or programs that will affect the other party will consult and collaborate with the other party to the fullest extent possible given the specific circumstances and any respective legislative and confidentiality obligations. This commitment includes, but is not limited to, timely notification of the proposed change.”
“To the fullest extent possible” means just that. It doesn’t mean cursory and perfunctory notification moments before legislation is going to be introduced that fundamentally changes the relationship from one of co-governance to one of subservience. It’s certainly not the Minister of Education who will be subservient to the knowledge and vision and desires of locally elected boards of trustees, to build the best possible and the most responsive possible education system that they can within the jurisdiction for which they’re responsible.
The letter goes on to say:
“We are also committed to continue exercising our fiduciary responsibilities to the highest standards possible, while allocating resources to ensure an excellent public education for our students. In accordance with our oath of office, we have made many tough decisions to comply with School Act requirements for a balanced budget.”
I’ll pause in reading the Delta board of education’s letter for a moment just to highlight that this is true of every district as this government has systematically underfunded, cut funding and not covered increases in costs that they themselves have imposed.
Whether it’s the cost of power or whether it’s the requirement to purchase carbon offsets or whether it is rising MSP costs, which they are contractually obliged to pay as part of collective agreements and which rise without any corresponding funding from the government, school district after school district have done their best to ensure a quality education for students. But that, apparently, is not good enough for this minister.
This minister wants school boards to do exactly what he says. He wants them to find money when he wants them to, when he tells them to, in exactly the manner that he wishes them to and not in the manner that they deem most responsive, even within constraints imposed by the government to the needs and desires of the parents and families who elected them and hold them accountable.
The letter finally goes on to say:
“We’ve been democratically elected to safeguard the resources of our district on behalf of our constituents. We must therefore speak against any legislation that would alter this mandate by placing an unelected special adviser who is not accountable to our community in front of our trustees’ ability to serve our community.”
Parents regularly come to my office to speak with me about what they see in education — the gaps they see, the challenges they face as families, the challenges their children face as students. Whether it’s lack of resources or lack of textbooks or lack of proper class composition or overcrowded classrooms or inadequate infrastructure, too many portables, or whether students have to travel to another district because there simply aren’t enough spaces for them in the schools which may only be a block or two away from where they live…. There are any list of issues.
Every MLA in this House knows this, because parents come and talk about the challenges they face. They take time away from their busy days. They struggle with work, but they come to talk about their kids because their kids don’t get a second chance to get a good education. They don’t get a second chance to prepare themselves for the work world that they will face in the future and to which their education is so crucial in preparing them equitably with every child in the province, no matter how wealthy or poor their family, and which prepares them for the rest of their lives.
In all the meetings that I’ve had with constituents on the education system, strangely enough, not a single parent has come to me and said: “Gee, I really wish the Minister of Education just had power to do whatever he wanted. Clearly, the school boards aren’t doing enough hard work to find low-hanging fruit and cut our education system even further. They need a strong Education Minister who knows exactly what he wants to do to drive through the government’s agenda to underfund public education, to take resources from education to support a $236 million tax cut to British Columbia’s most wealthy citizens and to find, in the midst of supposedly looking for low-hanging fruit in the public system, 30 million additional dollars a year for independent private schools.”
Strangely — I have to scratch my head — not a single parent has come to me to ask about that; although, in a few minutes I will talk about exactly the kinds of things they have asked from me.
We’ve seen, through this government, time after time their willingness to centralize power, their willingness to break the constitution and break collective agreements and contracts in order to bend the education system, school boards and teachers to their will. But what they’ve done in the past, or the rulings of the Supreme Court or even lower courts in British Columbia that have found…. Even when the government said they were going to change tack in order to obey the ruling of the court, they simply violated the law yet again.
This bill further centralizes government control over education, and that’s what it’s about. More damagingly…. I’ve sat in this Legislature. I’ve listened to the Minister of Education and to the Premier time after time crow about their ability to negotiate collective agreements with teachers — that that’s exactly what they did, that they found a workable agreement and that they’re going to start a new chapter in the relationship with teachers in which everybody will work happily ever after to create a better education system.
So what do they do after the longest job action in B.C. history? The government failed to consult with teachers, other than a perfunctory notice moments before the bill was tabled, over something so fundamental to professionals in the education system as control over their own professional development — not only as teachers as a group but ensuring that aspects of professional development and how it’s delivered that are specific to the needs of each school district can be decided in that district by people who actually know what’s needed, who know what they need in order to best meet the needs of their students.
No, that’s not good enough for this Education Minister. Unless the teachers are doing exactly what he says, in exactly the way he wants them to do it, it’s not good enough for him, and it’s not good enough for this government.
This bill eliminates school planning councils. Right throughout this bill there’s poison pill after poison pill for any hope of maintaining locally elected democratic influence that can be responsive to the needs of parents and the needs of their children in the local education system.
This is about centralization. It’s about ministerial authority, either directly or through surrogates, over virtually every aspect of the education system, whether it be professional development, whether it be maintenance, whether it’s safety of school properties or whether it’s how the district spends its money.
The minister has the power to appoint an official administrator if boards fail to comply with his direction to engage in shared-service delivery in a particular manner. Now, there’s much to be commended about cost-efficiencies in shared-service delivery. But the people who know what will work and what won’t work are the people in the local school boards.
The minister could have said: “I’m contemplating legislation, but before I do that, I would like to have a conference of school trustees.” In fact, he might even have taken the trouble, given that he’s Minister of Education, to attend the annual general meeting of the B.C. School Trustees Association.
It would have been a good place to get input, to take the temperature, to hear what people are considering and looking for and, perhaps, to float some ideas about consulting about how we might find real efficiencies within the school districts and school system without compromising aspects of independence that are there because, quite simply, they work better or because some aspects of shared services don’t work across regions.
But no, he didn’t bother to go to the school trustees before the AGM and talk about his ideas and consult. He didn’t bother to actually go to the AGM and be accountable for this piece of legislation to the school trustees. Maybe he wasn’t prepared to face them. Maybe he didn’t trust himself to control his reaction when trustee after trustee told him exactly what they thought of his heavy-handed legislation. For whatever reason, he didn’t go.
Perhaps it’s simply a matter of extending what’s implicit in this bill: complete disrespect for locally elected officials charged with governing and overseeing the education of kids. Maybe he’d just rather sit in his office or hang out with some friends and decide what’s best for everyone.
Having said all that, the sensible thing to do would be to bring the stakeholders together and talk about what might work instead of saying, from the start: “I’m going to tell you what to do, and if you don’t do it, I’m going to send somebody in to make you do it.”
There’s a word for that in the school yard. It’s a word that relates to the annual event around which the Premier of this province happily dons a pink T-shirt. It’s called bullying, and it’s not the first time this Minister of Education has engaged in it.
There are other aspects of this bill that are heavy-handed and, quite possibly, that violate legislation of this province. Let’s talk about access to student information. There’s a key question in these amendments. Will they allow disclosure of students’ personal information in ways that are not allowed under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act?
I wish the minister was here to hear this concern. It’s a question and a concern that will be asked of the minister….
Deputy Speaker: Member, do not point to the members who are in the House or not. Please carry on.
G. Heyman: Thank you.
I look forward to all of us having an opportunity to put this question to the minister during committee stage because it’s an important question. Section 170 of the School Act, entitled “Non-disclosure of student records,” is now deleted.
The current section 170 has strict controls over the ability of ministry employees to disclose student personal information. The amendments remove those strict controls. It’s not clear what the rationale for this is. It’s not clear to whom the personal information will be disclosed.
Is the government envisioning data linking between public bodies? Is the government considering that, perhaps, the way to raise money for schools is to sell the information to somebody in the private sector who may want to market to students? Nobody knows, because we don’t have a reason for this.
All we know is that this amendment, in particular, appears to compromise the confidentiality of students’ personal, private information. These are vulnerable children. These are children. These are people who have grown up in a world where information is so easily accessed. But they have yet, probably, in all likelihood, to develop the defense mechanisms to be careful about what’s out there. Certainly, schools have access to much personal information about kids.
Let me close this section by simply saying that the minister should go back to the drawing board on this section. We don’t know if the minister consulted with the Information and Privacy Commissioner. We don’t know if the minister intends to override that act with this amendment to the education act, the School Act. We simply don’t know.
It’s not acceptable. It’s not advisable. It’s bad policy. It runs counter to everything that we’ve talked about in this Legislature and that’s a concern in society about protecting our personal, private information. Again, this is a flaw in the bill.
This bill risks a lot. This bill risks throwing away an ability to develop some true consultative mechanisms between this government and stakeholders in the education system. This bill risks further alienating teachers and the B.C. Teachers Federation.
This bill risks alienating parents who believe that for all the flaws in the education system, for all the funding problems, for all the cuts that the system has seen, at least they have a relationship with locally elected and accountable trustees. It now appears that the minister wants to use locally elected, accountable trustees as a screen between himself and his own accountability and the public and, when the boards do not do what he wishes or what he orders, to simply send somebody in to force them to do it.
There are already some abilities within the School Act brought in by this government to have special advisers sent into schools, but this just expands it. It expands it exponentially, and it expands it unacceptably.
We recently saw around British Columbia a series of rallies called Families Against Cuts to Education. The kinds of things I heard at the Vancouver rally were echoes of the very real and troubled conversations that I’ve had with parents of school-age children in my constituency office. But included among those concerns was a very real concern that Bill 11 eroded democracy. It undermined teachers. It undermined their professionalism. The result of that could only be bad news for their kids, bad news for the education system.
If you continue to erode and undermine the professional accountability and the respect for people in the teaching profession, you will get a predictable result. You will end up with teachers who have struggled for so long, often dipping into their own pocket for extra resources in order to give students what they need, who have tried and tried to make this government hear that it’s almost impossible for them to deliver quality education within a system that’s starved for funds and where class size and composition are completely out of whack with demonstrably proven good educational and learning conditions.
They will at some point give up. Their morale will be so eroded that it will become next to impossible for them to continue to bring the goodwill, the energy, the desire to give kids the best possible education that they have done for so long.
In Vancouver-Fairview parents have told me about their kids telling them they can’t do their homework that night because they’re forced to share textbooks — share textbooks — and it’s some other child’s turn to have the textbook. Or the parents tell me about returning from a hard day at work and having to drive their kids to some other kid’s house to get the textbook needed for homework.
At Simon Fraser Elementary we have a school that’s operating with two portables. It’s getting one to two more. It’s very full. It includes the Olympic Village in its catchment area, so it’s going to get fuller as Olympic Village fills up.
We have stories of kids who live two blocks from the school who have to go to another school far, far away because there’s a catchment lottery system. If they don’t win the lottery, they don’t get to go to that school because there’s not an available space for them.
There’s not enough time for librarians in the school, I’m told, and I believe it.
Marlene Rogers and Jen Stewart, two parents who are very active in organizing other parents to speak out against underfunding of education, told me that their PAC is always fundraising. They’re always fundraising for art supplies, for library books, for everything they get on the teachers’ wish list at the beginning of the school year. They say “teachers’ wish list.” Teachers’ wish list is simply a code word for the necessities of education on a daily basis.
Parents are forced to supply reams of paper so that things can be photocopied in the school. There are delays in testing for special needs, for challenged kids and even for gifted kids. That is driving parents to an option they don’t want to consider. They want their kids to get the best possible education. They’re stretched financially, but parents who want their kids to have the best and believe they will not be able to get that in the public education system are looking to private schools to fill the gap.
They don’t want to. They’re being forced to, and perhaps…. That is clearly the government’s agenda because, as I said, school boards who year after year after year have found every possible administrative saving they could are now being told to find something called low-hanging fruit. Low-hanging fruit was picked a decade ago, and unlike the fruit in the orchards in the Okanagan, it doesn’t spring up every year. When it’s cut, it’s gone.
On the one hand, we have cuts to administration costs that are being foisted on school boards, and on the other hand, we have additional money going to private schools. I don’t know about you, but what that says to me is we have a government that has shifted focus from the great equalizer of the public education system to a private system where if you have enough money, your kid gets the start that all kids deserve and if you don’t have enough money, too bad. You will never reach your full potential because you won’t get the education you deserve.
Let me wrap up by talking about some comments from former school superintendent Geoff Johnson. Both of these were made in articles he wrote, columns he wrote in the Times Colonist.
[D. Horne in the chair.]
In the first column Mr. Johnson said, with respect to professional development:
“Teacher professional development days are historically a matter of contractual agreement. Of the five or so days each year, some are school-based and some are organized by the school district, usually in collaboration with the union.
“District-organized days are more often than not focused on instructional goals the school district has established. School-based days are determined by the staff of the school and are sometimes specific to that school.
“With the government and the BCTF already in court on the unresolved matters of class size and composition, it would be less than productive to pour legislative gasoline on that still-smouldering issue.”
Geoff Johnson was not a president of the BCTF. He was a school superintendent who recognized and still recognizes that you cannot continually torch the relationship with teachers without getting a negative result on the education system.
Finally, in another article, Mr. Johnson says something that, for me, is the most unfortunate and in some ways the most frightening point made in his articles. He says: “A new study, reported in the British journal Nature last month, tells us that poverty shrinks a baby’s brain right from birth, dooming the child even before it has a chance and dooming the teachers who to try to save it.”
Now, there’s an issue a family-oriented government could really get after. According to the United Way: “Thirty percent of six-year-olds are not ready to learn by the time they enter school due to poverty and related factors.”
We know that for ten years running this government’s record with respect to children in poverty — and, of course, that means families in poverty — has had B.C. at the bottom in Canada or tied for the bottom in Canada. If the Minister of Education, the cabinet and the government are concerned about the future of our children and the best education, why don’t they take a step back? In order for every child to have the right that we’re born with to reach our full potential if we’re willing to work as hard as possible to achieve it and to realize it and to actualize it….
If we get the support we need to get the food that children need for their brains to be healthy and grow and to get the education, the quality education, the attention from teachers that they need to develop their skills, to learn and to be the best they can be….
If the Minister of Education, if the cabinet and if this government really wanted to improve the education system, they’d start with improving lives of all children — not just the children of the richest 2 percent, but all children. They would address child poverty. They’d address the needs in the education system. Instead of underfunding the education system, they would meet every additional cost that they have larded onto the system by raising rates, not just for schools but for every British Columbian. They would put money where it mattered. They would ensure that kids could do the best they can and be the best they can.
Instead, we have a minister whose imagination is so impoverished that all he can do is appoint special advisers to impose his will on locally elected school boards, ignore the demands of parents to restore funding to education and programs that have been cut, and disrespect teachers who deliver that education system. That is why I and my colleagues will oppose this bill.