Talk of bold changes to the B.C. public school system in Monday’s speech from the throne has the head of the Nanaimo teachers’ union worried about the future.
Education took a front seat in Monday’s speech, which promised additional flexibility and choice, and changes to improve the skills of current teachers and ensure that future teachers have the tools they need to produce first-class graduates.
Derek DeGear, president of the Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association, is wary of the province’s talk of change, given past changes the Liberal government has made to the system, such as legislation stripping teachers’ contracts of classroom size and composition limits in 2002, which the union says led to larger classes with more special needs students in each class. A recent court ruling struck down parts of the legislation as unconstitutional.
DeGear is also taken aback by the province’s call to modernize the education system. He knows of many teachers in the district who use the most current teaching methods in the classroom, as well as technology such as Twitter, iPads and electronic chalkboards.
“We’re constantly evolving and changing as professionals,” said DeGear. “Our teachers go to school for between five and eight years. This notion that teachers are not keeping up with the 21st century, I think is a misnomer. Their elimination of funding and support for kids is where our system struggles.”
Teachers want guaranteed levels of support for every student, but so far he’s only heard the province talk about a “class organization fund” where schools would compete for a pot of money.
DeGear supports the province’s promise to provide more flexibility in the system, as long as the changes are research-based.
For example, the move to a year-round school calendar would give students and teachers periods of intense learning with balanced breaks, he said.
Trustee Jamie Brennan said any attempt to “modernize” the education system would require money.
For example, the school board is trying to update the district’s information technology network and a review conducted by IBM K-12 last spring found that this would cost between $3.6 and $5.8 million over five years, at a time when the district has been cutting programs and services to balance the books.
“You don’t suddenly flick a switch and all of a sudden you’re modern,” said Brennan. “It all comes back to the money.”
He said the throne speech revealed no overarching plan for the education system.
“It’s kind of cobbling together bits and pieces of a plan,” said Brennan.
Education Minister George Abbott said modern teaching practices are not available universally to all students across the province and the ministry is having discussions with education partners about strengthening certain areas of pre-service preparation for teachers and putting in place a mentoring program for teachers for their first five years of service.
Meanwhile, the day after the throne speech, the Ministry of Education released more details about its proposal to rectify class size and composition legislation that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional.
Last month, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation walked away from discussions with the province regarding the court ruling on legislation that took away the union’s rights to bargain limits on class sizes and the number of special needs students in each class while it awaits clarification on that ruling.
A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 11.
Last spring, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin ruled certain parts of the 2002 legislation violated teachers’ rights to freedom of association under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and were unconstitutional and invalid.
The province has proposed the creation of a Class Organization Fund, which would target classrooms with the highest needs and could be used to provide extra teaching staff or education assistants.
Education Minister George Abbott said the province has amended the proposal at the discussion table which is dealing with the court ruling to include $165 million in funding over the next three years and then $75 million each year after that.
He said the province believes the return on investment in special needs students is much higher than reducing class sizes.
Derek DeGear, president of the Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association, said he’s happy the province wants to devote money to helping special needs students, but he is opposed to the idea of schools competing for a limited pot of money.
“What we’re pushing for is guaranteed levels of support for every student,” he said.