Could B.C. be headed for another teachers’ strike?

Vancouver Courier

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After four years of labour peace, trouble could lie ahead for teachers.

Their contract expires in June, and talks are expected to start soon. It’s the first round of bargaining since teachers won back the right to negotiate classroom conditions in the Supreme Court of Canada in November 2016.

In 2014, Vancouver teachers joined educators across the province on the picket line as schools closed for five weeks over parts of two school years. Photo Dan Toulgoet

That’s also when their 2002 contracts were restored, bringing back rules on class size, class composition and the numbers of specialist teachers. In the two years since, B.C. has hired nearly 4,000 teachers, gains that may be at risk if a possible change to education funding goes through.

Back in April, I wrote about a pending review of B.C.’s education funding model. A report was expected by last summer, but it still hasn’t been publicly released.

The report is expected to recommend a change how special needs students are funded, away from a reliance on individual diagnoses to a prevalence funding model that predicts how many students with special needs and vulnerabilities are expected.

BCTF president Glen Hansman called the possible change “problematic and troubling” in a recent issue of Teacher magazine. He says some districts would win, but others would lose, relative to their actual needs. The timing with the start of bargaining couldn’t be worse.

“We certainly hope this is an oversight and not a bargaining strategy,” Hansman writes.

If the prevalence model is approved, it could make the teachers’ gains on class composition meaningless because students would no longer necessarily be identified as having special needs.

Surrey Teacher Laura Barker wrote an open letter saying this would have “devastating consequences on the ground, in classrooms and schools, and would once again harm our most vulnerable special needs students.”

The panel that conducted the review was made up of consultants and education administrators and did not include any teachers.

Back in 2015, I investigated the rates of students with special needs and found that the number of students identified as “gifted” in B.C. dropped in half, from 2.5 per cent of students in 2002 to just 1.1 per cent in 2015.

Why? The province stopped funding gifted students, and an argument can be made that without the extra funding, teachers and parents no longer pursued the expensive option of getting a student identified as gifted.

At the same time, the number of students identified as having autism spectrum disorder grew significantly, from 0.3 per cent to 1.2 per cent of students. A diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder comes with extra funding.

Last year, 12.9 per cent of students in B.C. had special needs, up 3,020 students from the year before, the ministry says.

A lot of money — one report says $100 million a year — is spent on identifying students with special needs, money that could be spent on educating them, rather than labelling them.

On the other hand, if students are no longer identified, it’s going to be hard to give them the education they need. It’s a tricky balance, but it needs to be done right.

Although the NDP government has increased education spending by $580 million since coming to power, most of that money was dictated by the restored contract. In all, $6.6 billion will be spent on K-12 education this year, the government says. There are still 400 unfilled teaching positions in the province, the BCTF says.

In a letter to BCTF, Minister of Education Rob Fleming promised to “actively engage” with the BCTF about the report before releasing it to the public and said that the “government completely respects and honours the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision.”

The Ministry of Education says the report will be released before Christmas. Changes to the funding formula were supposed to be in effect by next September, but now the ministry says Fleming will announce next steps when he drops the report.

Another bargaining issue, different, but related to the funding review, is the inequity between school districts. Across the province, there are 60 different collective agreements for teachers, all of which contain different language about class size, class composition and the numbers of specialist teachers.

Another bone of contention in the negotiations will be salaries. Despite the shortage of teachers in B.C., BCTF says salaries here are among the lowest in the country.

Last time there was a teacher strike in B.C. was in 2014, when schools were closed for five weeks over parts of two school years. It’s definitely not an experience anyone wants to repeat.

Tracy Sherlock writes about education and social issues. She can be reached at tracy.sherlock@gmail.com.