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Solidarity key to protecting public education in British Columbia

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FACE Rally

Hundreds of parents, teachers and students will be protesting education cuts in B.C. on Sunday. Families Against Cuts to Education is hosting the protests in five B.C. communities after yet another round of budget cuts for school boards and increased costs surreptitiously delivered through increases to BC Hydro rates and Medical Services Premiums. This, when B.C. already provides $1000 less per student than the Canadian average for per pupil funding.

The parent-initiated rallies are inspiring to see after so many years in which government has fostered divisions between parents and teachers. There is no question that if we are to push back and actually make improvements in our schools, we will need the solidarity of parents and teachers together. This has been undermined due to the "blame the teacher" narrative propagated by government and some sections of the media. But ironically, the latest education legislation of the B.C. Liberals targets three different sections of the education community. Bill 11 attacks student privacy rights, the independence of locally elected school boards, and the autonomy of teachers to identify and organize their professional development. Combined with a budget that required $29 million in "administrative" cuts -- what Christy Clark called "low hanging fruit" -- the stage is set for a united response against both the legislation and the budget cuts.

Interestingly, the three components of Bill 11 each, in their own way, demonstrate a different arm of the neoliberal monster. 

The changes to student privacy comes in the wake of a fundamental shift in the treatment of student data in the province. The failure of the notorious BCeSIS -- the first attempt at a province-wide student data collection system -- led only to an even larger and more pervasive system, about to be implemented this fall. MyEducationBC will centrally store student data and will collect significantly more information than previous student information systems. The shift to a centralized system, while not explicitly mandated, has been in practice when the B.C. government refused to accept an alternative proposed and developed by the Saanich school board. Thus every district in B.C. will be contributing to the "big data" collection of student information. MyEducationBC has more data fields, will be on more computers in more Districts, and will potentially allow massive student data collection by the government. Like other government data collection systems, it is unclear what this information will be used for. As critics point out, these systems violate the basic tenets of privacy protection -- collect only what you need, identify your uses prior to collecting data, allow access only in proportion to a genuine need to have access. Student records are thus potentially becoming part of the mass surveillance structure of the twenty-first century. Bill 11 sets up the legal framework to enable it. 

The second component of the Bill involves new mechanisms for government to directly interfere and control the actions of school boards. It is a direct attack on local democracy and is designed to instill caution in Trustees. While the government has always had the ability to remove an elected board (and indeed did so recently in Cowichan), the new powers permit them to mandate specific actions (selling school lands?) or to require a "special advisor" to interfere with and report on the functioning of the board. 

This attack on local democracy is not surprising. Boards have become more and more vocal about the impacts of underfunding on the operations of schools. The Cowichan board had the courage to submit a deficit budget that demonstrated the actual needs of students. A number of boards have tacitly endorsed the BC Teacher Federation campaign to ask parents to opt out of the annual standardized tests (FSA) by sending information to parents and accepting without questions their opt out requests. When local democratic structures are actually used to push back on corporate education reform policies, the neoliberal B.C. Liberals feel the need to shut it down. 

The final section of the Bill impacts the ability of teachers to choose and determine how and what type of professional development they engage in. New rules will require specific activities that have been approved by the Ministry. This feature of the Bill is one more in a string of policies that seek to narrow what teachers teach and how they teach it. Christy Clark has long advocated a streamed, vocational style of school system where the primary focus is basic literacy for those who struggle, vocational training for the mass of students in industry specific areas, and access to a university stream for the privileged few. The Ministry has already mandated that one professional development day per year focus on trades training. No doubt there will be a distinctive slant to the type of professional development deemed "acceptable" under the new legislation. As Sheldon Wolin describes: "Privatisation of education signifies not an abstract transfer of public to private but a takeover of the means to reshape the minds of coming generations". Teacher professional development is one small piece of the process of shaping coming generations.

Neither the recent budget cuts nor the new legislation come in a vacuum. B.C.'s education system is being massively reformed. There have been more than a dozen Bills over the last decade that have fundamentally shifted how schools operate. We will need to see beyond the lack of funds and to the more fundamental questions being raised by these changes. Bill 11 is one more in a long line of legislative changes that seek to privatize not only the sources of revenue for schools, but the ways in which schools run and the type of schooling they do. It is one more in a long line of structural changes that undermine public control of schools, the role of public schools in providing equitable access to education, and indeed the very content of schooling. This is all the more reason we need parents and teachers and students and citizens out in the streets demanding change.

More information about tomorrow's eventis available at:

 

FACE Rally

 

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