Photo: flickr/KT King

Did the B.C. Liberal government just bluff on that $40 a day voucher plan or do they really want to have that battle over public education now?

It was telling that one of the earliest responses to the announcement came from a former top ranking B.C. Liberal. “Hmm. Did BC govt just take the first $40 per day step towards a voucher system for public education?” asked former Attorney General, Geoff Plant on Twitter.

Yes! Was the resounding answer from those who know what a voucher school system is.

If you don’t know about vouchers, here’s a quick explanation. A voucher system is one of several in the ‘school choice‘ basket. I use quotes here because ‘school choice’ is a codified term that is synonymous with privatized, typically non-union schools.

The government issues parents a voucher worth a specific amount of funding towards their child’s education. Parents take this voucher, shop around and find a school that suits them. Sometimes the voucher is worth the full price of admission, but sometimes it’s only a portion of the school’s fee. The underlying idea here is that in order to ‘stay in business’ schools must compete with each other to attract parents who control the vouchers. Think of it as a B.C. government gift card you can use anywhere, including, according to Finance Minister Mike de Jong, places that aren’t actually schools. And if you haven’t done the math, $40 per day is $7,440 over a 186 day school year.

Here’s why this is not a great idea

School choice systems lead to further segregating kids by class, ethnicity and ability. One reason for this outcome is basic human nature — we tend to be drawn to people who have the same sensibilities and views that we do. Another reason is the biases we bring to decision-making like stereotypes we hold about others or about a school or neighbourhood.

Public education in Canada was built on the idea of equity; school as the one place where regardless of ethnicity or income, all students had the same opportunities. It’s a lofty goal and one that shamefully failed Aboriginal students. But as income inequality increases it’s a worthy goal that should be renewed not abandoned at the whim of a provincial government.

Modern public schools also play an important role in promoting social cohesion. In Canada that means enhancing cross-cultural understanding by breaking down bigotry through the lived experience of students attending school as equals.

The U.S. does not share Canada’s history of public education. The rise of charter and voucher schools in the U.S. occurred, in part, as a segregationist response to the desegregation of schools in the 1960s and within a long-standing libertarian culture deeply suspect of government-run school systems. Even today, influenced by far-right economists like Milton Friedman, many U.S. law-makers do not believe government should play a central role in educating the nation’s children and most certainly not by unionized teachers. I suspect there are B.C. Liberals who feel the same way.

How we got here: A decade of underfunding, legislative changes and bad PR

Once elected, Gordon Campbell quickly let it be known he had no intention of responsibly stewarding B.C.’s respected public school system. Like Mike Harris in Ontario, Campbell implemented shock and awe funding cuts that left school boards scrambling, teachers stretched thin and parents rallying in the streets.

In 2002, then Minister of Education, Christy Clark, may have made history as the only Minister to launch the school year with a bad news story about her own Ministry proclaiming “Graduates are telling us that the education system is barely passing academically…” — a ridiculous assertion in the face of our international reputation but one that foreshadowed the coming PR war on teachers and public schools.

Campbell then began to promote his infatuation with U.S. charter and voucher schools as the answer to the problems he had just inflicted on B.C. schools. A new lexicon of school reform phrases like ‘parent choice’, ‘school choice’, ‘magnet schools’ and ‘school excellence’ began appearing in ministry media releases.

The Liberals lined up their editorial page defenders, elevated the Fraser Institute and its charter school fan club, and began to fly in U.S. school reform zealots to lecture us on how for-profit companies and charity schools were the solution for B.C.’s broken system. These educators mostly came from underfunded, inner city schools where it seemed the only means to hoist students from the pit of school failure was funding from private interests like the Bill Gates Foundation or Nabisco.

But B.C. public education advocates were perplexed. What problem were we trying to solve that would require emulating the patchwork of successes and colossal failures that defines the U.S. school system?

Ironically, by highlighting the importance of proper funding (albeit from private funding or fees), these speakers repeatedly proved the point: professional, well-trained educators provided with adequate classroom resources can produce amazing and engaged students. But we knew that already.

Under the leadership of Deputy Education Minister Emery Dosdall, an ardent school choice experimenter, Education Minister Christy Clark began to roll out almost weekly announcements heralding both significant and perplexing changes the Ministry was undertaking. A thorough look at what happened to a low-income school under Dosdall’s leadership in Langley was written by former principal Dr. Marilynne Waithman in her thesis The Politics of Redistribution and Recognition: A Retrospective Case Study of One Inner–City School.  

A critical early step was changing the school funding formula. Up until that point, per pupil funding excluded many fixed costs — costs that don’t vary with enrollment — that were paid to school boards over and above per pupil grants. The government reduced many of those line items by rolling them up into per pupil grants and reducing overall funding in real dollars. In this way, the government can continue to say per student funding is increasing without dealing with the fundamental question of adequacy.

A 2003 announcement heralding government ‘investment’ in Variety — The Children’s Charity school further signaled the government’s views on educating children with disabilities as a charitable activity.

While B.C.’s population increased by over 500,000 between 2001 to 2013 the government continued to say dropping enrollment as the culprit for school funding shortfalls. What they didn’t want us to see was their desired flight to private schools was the real culprit.

More legislative changes eviscerated the role of school boards as local governing bodies. Mandating that each school create a parent-led School Planning Council was important as it established a school-based governance group. Under the mantra of ‘parent choice’ school catchments were eliminated and standardized tests expanded as a specious means to compare schools.

Rather than support students to graduate, each announcement seemed to introduce new barriers including mandatory daily PE that required teachers keep track of which students walked to school that day (presumably they were excused from jumping jacks); mandatory portfolios for secondary graduation (supervised by an ever shrinking supply of school counselors); more exams, earlier to promote ‘student achievement‘ ; and a ‘portable reduction strategy’ that included targets most easily achieved, it seemed, by just closing schools. And close schools they did — over 200 since 2002.

Layoffs at the Ministry of Education effectively reduced the Ministry’s scope of work. But an education system does not reform itself. You still need some employees to get the work done. And so through a series of existing and newly created societies the heavy lifting of selling school reform was moved off the Ministry’s books and the funding tap was turned on.

Year-over-year government shoveled millions into “education partners” who promoted some aspect of their school choice agenda beyond the reach of freedom of information requests. Notably, these groups tasked with improving student performance, including the now defunct BC Education Leadership Council (BCELC) and gullible ally the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC), did not include teachers.

Teachers were cast as an obstacle to better schools — archaic minions who could be replaced by new and innovative systems like distributed learning, a rebranding of distance education that requires far fewer teachers, and fewer schools for that matter. As for the public, the Liberals quickly took to haranguing anyone who disagreed. Those who wrote letters to the editor were either opposition party hacks (gak) or worse — teacher apologists (gasp!).

B.C. Liberals wanted us to believe that public education advocates were misinformed relics of an egalitarian nightmare any right–minded person would reject. Like the appeal of a shiny new car, shopping for a school is what people should want.

But here’s the rub

B.C.’s public schools weren’t broken. They aren’t now. We know how to do this. We know how to educate students and if not for the distraction of a decade-long war on public schools we could have gotten better at it; better at supporting boys, special needs students and improving the lives of children living in poverty. We will never know how far we could have come and how many students we failed.

For over a decade, B.C. Liberals have pushed and prodded their school reform agenda forward as quickly as public opinion, collective bargaining and court challenges allowed. And unfortunately, their war on public schools is working. The constant barrage of self-inflicted harm, provoked labour conflict, and negative PR has seen private school enrolment increase to 12 per cent of B.C.’s student population.

Injecting the promise of a $40 a day voucher for parents at the height of this labour conflict is a dangerous move. On its new and costly website the Ministry is promoting ‘educational opportunities‘ that include a mishmash of one off courses and resources that can be bought with that voucher.

It’s tempting to think this ‘take no prisoners’ negotiating tactic was just poorly considered, but a government that spent the last two months building a website to offer parents educational opportunities that can be bought with government funds outside of public schools is not a government that intends to bargain in good faith with public school teachers. And given the past decade of school reform groundwork, we need to be ready to have THAT struggle for public education now.

You don’t have to agree with every position taken by the B.C. Teachers Federation or think every teacher is god’s gift to teaching to understand that as a professional group, teachers are the last and greatest obstacle to the full implementation of the B.C. Liberal educational reform agenda.

So while teachers use their leverage at the bargaining table, I call on public education supporters: don’t let this be the perfect storm the Liberals have been waiting for to dismantle public schools. If they are serious about the $40 voucher, you may be picking your kid up at a pop-up charter or voucher school at your local strip mall.

Helesia Luke is a co–owner of Ethos Strategy Group, a communications and planning firm specializing in public interest issues. She is also the co–chair of CCEC Credit Union. A long–time public education advocate, Helesia serves on the board for the BC Society for Public Education and the Co–ordinating Committee for First Call BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition. Because she’s a firm believer in media democracy, Helesia also serves on the board of Megaphone Magazine — a unique publication that helps homeless and low–income vendors earn an income.

Photo: flickr/KT King