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B.C. budget a blow to public education

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Parents and teachers were in a state of shock this week after the B.C. Liberals announced yet more cuts and expense increases for B.C.'s beleaguered school districts. Teachers were on the picket line for five weeks last summer with parent support to try to address the funding crisis in B.C. schools. B.C. students currently receive about $1000 less per student than the Canadian average. This in a province with a budget surplus.

The strategy of the B.C. Liberals has been privatization by a thousand cuts. This budget follows the usual pattern. There is an outright reduction of $29 million this year and another $25 million the following year. But in addition, there are across the board cost increases that will significantly impact board budgets. For example, there is a four per cent rate increase to Medical Services Plan premiums, which the school boards pay on behalf of employees, and there will be another round of BC Hydro increases. There is no allowance for inflation, and there are continued cuts in capital funding, at a time when many boards are now experiencing increasing enrollment.

The government had plenty of input about what is needed to restore adequate learning conditions. Teachers have been very clear that unless class sizes and lowered and funding restored for students with special needs, we will continue to fail to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students. A parent petition prior to the budget release urged the government to meet the recommendations of their own finance committee. It called on government to provide funding increases, stating:

"In their report, the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services noted that evidence indicates current funding is insufficient to cover the operating costs of public education and recommended an increase. Citizens of B.C. are calling on Premier Clark to do the right thing and remedy the underspending on B.C. education, especially now, when the province is in a state of budgetary surplus. We cannot afford to continue to erode public education through underspending."

Reaction to the budget has been swift and critical. The Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council issued a press release commenting: "To the extreme disappointment of Vancouver parents and parents throughout the province, the 2015/16 Budget announced yesterday (February 17) does not raise public education funding to an adequate level; on the contrary, it provides far less than adequate funding, and requires further cuts by school boards who have already faced more than a decade of cuts".

Notably the budget did include two increases. The first was a very small credit for teachers who coach extra-curricular sports or music activities. They will be entitled to a tax credit worth up to $25. Not only does this in no way offset the costs and time put in by teachers who volunteer to work with children, it also blatantly chooses to target one group of teachers while ignoring those who tutor after school, purchase supplies with their own money, or run other types of activities such as board game or chess clubs.

More insidious, however, is the $30 million increase to independent private schools -- almost exactly the amount being cut from the public system in the first year. This follows a decades long trend of shifting resources from the public to the private system. B.C. private schools can receive 50 per cent of the per pupil funding grant and as they continue to flourish, the amount of the education budget going to private institutions keeps increasing. Enrollment in private schools now accounts for 12 per cent of the student population. 

Thus, in education, as elsewhere in B.C. budget 2015, the news was the same -- increased funding for the wealthy and more cuts to services for the rest of us. So much for families first.

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