Privatization dressed up in School Choice clothing

privatization-schools_0

Privatization… what images come to mind when you read that word? Do you get flashes of dirty rooms in hospitals? Do you think about the loss of ferry routes? Are you reminded of all those tolls you pay when you cross bridges these days? Do the faces of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher come to mind?

Today’s neo-liberals know that you have all these bad images of privatization in your minds. That the word strikes fear into your heart. And so they have a new term they will use when they sell the idea of privatizing  BC public education to you.

School Choice.

Has such a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? The idea of having a choice? That you have control? That you have a say?

Trouble is you have to pay for that say. 

Your choice is going to cost you at least $4000 per child per year.

It would have been at least $10 000 but,   denials notwithstanding, it’s still possible that sometime in the near future you’re going to be offered a $6000 education voucher so that you can exercise your choice of where to spend it.

Except they may not call it that – an education voucher. They know that word has negative connotations now so expect to be told about “opportunity scholarships” for your child.  Also expect to be told that the government only has your best interests in mind because now the “money follows the child” while you exercise your choice.

They will omit to mention where the money comes from and the impact of this “moving money”.   They will omit to mention that the money will come from the public education budget and that moving money away from it  will lead to further starvation of already struggling public school districts.

Expect to be told that the government is making all these changes because the public education system is broken, PISA scores notwithstanding.

Expect to be told that taxpayers cannot afford to pay for public education while at the same time taxpayers can apparently afford to pay $750million to California to make a lawsuit against Powerex go away.

The BC Liberals love to exercise all the choices they have available to them for how to spend public funds. They love that they can choose not to fund BC students to the Canadian average of $9000 per student per year. Since 2002 they have chosen to provide only $8200 per student per year for the education of future citizens/taxpayers in BC.

They have also chosen not to be guided by two Supreme Court Rulings.

They have chosen not to negotiate with teachers, not to mediate with teachers and not to accept arbitration either. 

They have chosen to put the education of 500 000 students on hold while they blackmail teachers into giving up their constitutional rights in exchange for better learning conditions for students.

Choices.

We all have them.

We can all choose.

What will citizens choose to do about a government that is unresponsive to calls to end the public education crisis that they created?

What will citizens choose to do about the commodification of a public good?

Will citizens choose to inform themselves about the corporate interest in the “education sector”

Will citizens choose to learn the lessons that others have experienced when their public schools were privatized?

Are choices in lottery numbers going to be the only choice a child growing up in poverty will have to get a quality education?

What kind of democracy will citizens choose to defend?

Back to school sales should not include the sale of public education and the BC Liberal’s version of government making a choice about who gets a quality education and who does not.

If not the rule of law, then what instead?

Charter

Perhaps it’s because I was born without constitutional rights and that I was 32 before I even had the RIGHT to vote but  when Premier Christy Clark declared my Charter Rights invalid with regards to my working conditions, something in me rose up in fierce objection.

I came to Canada because of its democracy, its constitution, its civil rights. I am stunned to note the complacency of citizens as those rights unravel right before our eyes.

It took Canadians over 150 years before we gained all the political structures that underpin a democracy but it has taken the BC Liberals just 12 years to undermine the very foundations of  democracy in this province.

Are we citizens going to watch the unravelling of all the work that was done so that future generations (that would be us) would benefit from having a representative, responsible government? Are we going to simply forget that our autonomy from Britain was hastened by the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge?

Are our memories so fragile that we have forgotten that it was just  32 years ago that we got the Charter of Rights and Freedoms after a long struggle to repatriate the constitution?  Do we take those fundamental rights for granted and just allow the current government to do as it will, regardless of what the Charter guarantees?

Twelve years ago Christy Clark, then Minister of Education, used the Legislature to strip teachers of their Charter Rights. It took 12 years of legal struggles before teachers’ rights were confirmed by the Supreme Court of BC. Twice.

And now the government is essentially blackmailing teachers to give up their Supreme Court wins in exchange for a promise of better learning conditions for students in classrooms. It is behaving as though it is above the law.

Remember that the very cornerstone of a true democracy is the rule of law, that the law applies to all citizens equally. Can you imagine if all criminals in BC had a “get out of jail” card like the E80 clause Christy Clark is insisting the teachers agree to?

Today the BC government holds 500 000 students hostage while it waits for teachers to capitulate to its blackmail. MLAs, the representatives of the people, have closed their doors and have been instructed to not meet with their constituents.

Yes, BC is where representative government has come to die.

This death could have been foretold given the fact that MLAs meet only 36 days a year to discuss what can be done about the needs of BC citizens.

It seems though that the only “needs” that the representatives are concerned about are those of taxpayers, a strange new creature in BC that is everyone who is not a parent, not a lawyer, not a ferry user,  is not concerned about the environment/climate change, does not want subsidized daycare, does not care about poverty, does not mind the oil pipelines, is not worried about the loss of agricultural land, is not a trucker or a midwife or a nurse or a paramedic or a teacher.  Not sure how many citizens are left after that. Perhaps 1%?

These taxpayers, the ones represented by this government also seem to be okay with the millions being spent on an intense public relations campaign aimed at discrediting teachers who are in the invidious position of having their union dues used for paying for the lawyers fighting to protect their Charter Rights and their taxes being used by the government to attack those Charter Rights.

Are we so easily distracted by false claims of $3000 massages that we don’t notice what actually is at stake in the dispute between the teachers and the government?

Do the citizens of British Columbia know that if the government gets away with undermining all that was fought for to build a strong democracy then no citizen is safe. No contract is safe if the government can get away with ripping up a contract with teachers.

If we don’t honour the rule of law, then what will we honour instead?

Massaging the Message

massage the message
http://www.imcreator.com/free/people/nyc-20

I like massages. I like the complete and total relaxation they give me. I like that for an hour at least, there is less labour in breathing, in being. Once after a particularly stressful semester, I had to have massages weekly just so that I could sleep at night. My body was in so much pain, having twisted itself into several knots in response to unrelenting stressful situations in the classroom.

At first when the tweets and comments about the $3000 massages began to surface I ignored them. That was such a preposterous accusation surely everyone knew that teachers would not be asking for a luxuries like spa massages. But the tweets persisted, not unlike the pain I experience when I know I need a massage!

And then I began to pay attention to them. I could not believe the malice, the meanness in the deliberate twisting of our proposal to increase the amount of massages someone who experienced chronic pain and discomfort could claim.

Why would anyone want to deny someone who was suffering from fibromyalgia some relief so that they could do their job?

But the disparaging remarks about massages kept spewing all over social media.  The taunts about them could  not be quelled. The onslaught came to a peak when the Premier took to broadcast media to amplify the discrediting of teachers who dared to request physician-prescribed massages.  She was so indignant about this proposal from teachers she displayed her disdain over and over again throughout the broadcast.

But her disdain was based on incorrect information.

Teachers had not requested unlimited massages. That was what was already granted to another public sector union. A union that the Premier had already signed a contract with. A public sector union whose unlimited massages was somehow well within the “affordability zone”.

When they learned of this, citizens were confused…. If unlimited massages were within the “affordability zone” for one public sector union,  why was the teachers’ request for a modest increase in the number of massages available to them outside of this  “zone”?

If the Premier was insisting that the teachers’ proposals were in line with what other public sector unions were getting, how did the unlimited massages she had granted to other public sector unions make sense in light of her response to the teachers’ proposal?

So much confusion for the BC citizen/taxpayer as they watched the premier massage her message about fiscal constraints.

I can imagine that it could cause quite a few knots of tension to develop in the bodies of citizens who voted for a premier who would at the very least be well-informed about the salient issues at stake in the billion dollar negotiations with teachers.

One would expect, given all the assistants and secretaries who work on her behalf, that the premier would have accurate information available to her. One would expect that at the very least those assistants ensured that their boss did not make a fool of herself in front of the entire province.

But on Wednesday, 3rd September, 2014, it became clear that one would be expecting too much.

Information is an interesting thing. It can so easily be manipulated and twisted and turned into something that does not actually inform but instead misinforms, disinforms. Orwell had much to say in this regard.

Information can sometimes reveal the truth but it can also distort it, turn attention away from what is actually going on.

Information can be a distraction. Pay attention to what the Kardashians are doing and you will miss the civil war in the Congo.

Pay attention to what the  BC government calls the unaffordable demands of  teachers and you may miss the fact that the government considers Education Assistants and Learning Specialist teachers as salary benefits for teachers. A salary benefit in the same way a nurse would be considered a salary benefit if doctors would allow the premier to get away with that twisted logic.

And if you pay attention to all the ruckus about massages, you may miss the fact that teachers are being asked to give up their Charter Rights in exchange for a promise of better learning conditions for students.

No amount of massaging a political message can detract from that fact.

But are you paying attention?

Based on Faith

multifaith

I have previously appealed to BC Liberals of conscience to help us to get a fair deal for our public education system. This appeal is addressed to faith leaders from all our faith traditions – Sikhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity to shed some light on this dark chapter of our provincial history.

Premier Christy Clark’s son has begun the new school year at St. George’s, a very expensive private school. She has said that he attends private school for “faith-based” reasons. I am happy that she is able to make this choice for her son but what “faith-based” reasons can there be for denying the right to attend school for the 500 000 children whose parents cannot afford to send their child to a private school for whatever reason?

What “faith-based” reason can there be for insisting that teachers give up their constitutional rights before they can return to their classrooms?

Minister Fassbender also attends church regularly. What does his faith teach about how to treat others, how to treat children?

When it comes to the treatment of children in this province, I am at a loss to understand why nothing is being done by our politicians about the fact that we have the highest childhood poverty rates in Canada.  How is it possible that this situation exists, that children go hungry in a rich province like this?

In July this year the governor of Massachusetts successfully appealed to communities of faith to help him to provide shelter for the 1000 migrant children as young as 3 years old who had travelled illegally to the US from countries in Central America. Help for the children was being mired in political debates about immigration and there were 50 000 children who needed to be fed and sheltered. Leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities all offered to help.

The presence of these leaders, shifted the focus away from  what was a partisan political debate toward an awareness of the fact that there were real, living children who needed help, immediately.  They could not wait for politicians to score ideological points against each other.

Though diverse in philosophy, all faith communities share The Golden Rule which is a version of: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Woven within The Golden Rule is the concept of justice and fairness.

Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, leaders of very different faith traditions, are partners in the fight against injustice and poverty. They lead by example, showing their followers what their words mean. They, like all faith leaders, are also teachers.

Right now political leaders in power in BC are in need of the kind of lessons that faith leaders teach so well.  Today, teachers in BC are being asked to give up their Charter Rights in exchange for the government agreeing to provide learning support for students in classrooms. This is unconscionable and demonstrates a significant ethical and moral lapse on the part of the government. Faith communities are well positioned to point this out.

One faith leader, an Anglican Minister, has written the following open letter to the premier:

Letter from Donald Grayston, Anglican Minister and Retired SFU Professor,

AN OPEN LETTER TO PREMIER CHRISTY CLARK

Dear Christy: when you started out you said that your motto was “Families first!” What a joke! What is going to happen to thousands of BC families when school doesn’t open on time? The bribe of $40 a day–because that is what it is, a bribe–if you add it up over a couple of months would come to enough to cover the cost of what the teachers are asking for in relation to class size and composition. Think of your legacy, Christy. Think of what the historians are going to say about your role in all this. Think of your grandchildren reading what the historians say, which will not be pretty. My hunch is that this is ideological for you: that you are still angry that the teachers resisted what you did in 2002 when you were education minister. This is ego at its worst.

My strong recommendation: that your government appoint an arbitrator, Vince Ready or someone similarly respected, and take the issue to binding arbitration. Our society is too complex, too interconnected, for this kind of dislocation. Teachers are suffering, parents are suffering, the students will suffer, and the government’s already tattered reputation will suffer. Action, Christy, decisiveness, involvement: families first, remember? Over to you.

Donald Grayston, once a student, father of a teacher, always a citizen

I was raised in the Christian tradition and so am only familiar with stories from the Bible but I am sure there are variations of those stories in other traditions. The Miracle of the Two Fish and Five loaves of bread is what always comes to mind for me when teachers are being asked to do so much with so little.  When we have 8 or more students in a class of 30 students who have various levels of learning difficulties or special needs and there is only one Education Assistant to help, we are being asked in effect to either perform a miracle or to play God and decide who gets the help and who does not.

We do not want to have to make those decisions. We want to be able to provide all students with what they need in order to learn in school.

We are hoping that faith community leaders will help Christy Clark to find her moral compass so that she can do what is right for the 500 000 children  who are affected by her decisions. Faith-based or not.

The government’s mess in BC education: How it affects negotiations

This blog explains the history of how the conflict has unfolded over the past 14 years…

The Coal Mine

Make no mistake. The BC Liberals have got the province into a terrible mess. It’s not unlike their BC Hydro fiasco in which years of lack of oversight of the crown corporation have led to retroactive costs that will need to be funded by sudden massive increases in citizens’ Hydro fees. In education, the problem is similar. Bad policy has led to a huge burden on taxpayers years later.

The trouble started on January 26, 2002, when Education Minister Christy Clark stood up in the BC Legislature and proudly announced the new Bill 28, which removed class size and composition limits from the teacher contract and enshrined them in law.

In effect, what Christy Clark was announcing was that the government was reneging on its part in a contractual agreement, and creating a law that prevented the teachers from ever even asking for such an agreement again.

Naturally, the teachers’ union took the government…

View original post 1,034 more words

What Taxpayers Can Afford

640px-Pieter_Brueghel_the_Younger,_'Paying_the_Tax_(The_Tax_Collector)'_oil_on_panel,_1620-1640._USC_Fisher_Museum_of_Art
“Pieter Brueghel the Younger, ‘Paying the Tax (The Tax Collector)’ oil on panel, 1620-1640. USC Fisher Museum of Art” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger – Artdaily.org.

Dear Christy,

I’m sorry that you did not take my advice in my last letter when I suggested that you should get teachers back into classrooms as soon as possible.  I’m sure your government would have much more support right now if you had taken my advice but I understand that sometimes the right message just comes at the wrong time.

Today I’m writing to you about what you’ve said in response to the breakdown in talks to end the teachers’ strike. You said that you want a negotiated deal that taxpayers can afford.  This has left me with a lot of questions.

Firstly, your use of the word taxpayers. I’m sure you realize that parents who want their children in school are taxpayers and that teachers are taxpayers and some are parents too?

Secondly, in a rich province such as ours, is it fair that  teachers have been spending an average of $1200 of their AFTER tax income to provide resources for classrooms?

I think you and I have different perspectives on what taxes should be used for. I see taxes as public funds, our collective contributions to the public good,  the spending of which should be prioritized for what our most vulnerable citizens need. Correct me if I’m wrong but you seem to think that taxes are best spent on providing corporate welfare. Do I have that right?

And while we’re talking about paying out large sums of taxpayer money, I’m still stunned that your your government said it was a good deal for taxpayers when you agreed to pay $750million to settle legal claims in California against Powerex.

I think we disagree on what a good deal for taxpayers is.

When you were elected, I’m not sure the citizens who voted for you also voted for an  increase in your staff’s salaries and the items on your credit card bill.

Citizens of BC are still not sure how they were roped into paying for the new roof on BC Place Stadium or the Winter Olympics while your party was in power when there are so many other needs in the province.  Like childhood poverty.

Does it ever bother you that BC has such a high number of children who are starving every day, where the only meal they may get for a day may be the one they get at school through the breakfast or lunch programs?  Or that so many teachers store extra crackers and cheese for those students who can’t attend to learning because they are so hungry?

I know you and your son wanted to work on a Free The Children project in Kenya but what about working on freeing the children in BC from hunger?

But if that’s too big a task, how about freeing up their teachers  so that children can go to school? At least there they’ll get a meal, one way or another.

During the election campaign you promised voters that BC would be  “debt free” under your leadership so how do you explain the  huge debt you have incurred since becoming Premier?

I wonder too if BC can really afford to entice corporations here with such low corporate taxes when corporations like Imperial Metals leave taxpayers with huge costs like the one that we have to bear for the Mount Polley tailings pond spill.

As you can see, there are many things that confuse me when you talk about what taxpayers can afford.

I am also puzzled by who you mean when you talk about taxpayers. Currently in BC the  following groups of citizens/taxpayers  are registering their dissent with the way you are governing the province: ferry users, seniors, midwives, nurses, health care workers, doctors, truckers, environmentalists, fishermen, parents who want daycare, parents who want their children in school, paramedics, anti-pipeline activists, climate change activists, lawyers, farmers, poverty activists, people with disabilities, and of course teachers. That’s a big group of taxpayers/citizens who disagree with you about what taxpayers can afford…

Today would have been such a different day if you had used the pickled vodka to toast the end of the teachers’ strike and the reopening of schools .

Instead, parents all across the province are pondering the costs of not having schools open on Tuesday and the costs they have to bear while you are Premier.

With kind regards from a taxpayer,

Lizanne

For the children

for the children
https://www.flickr.com/photos/waagsociety/

After the original BCPSEA was fired in August 2013 when they were close to a deal with the teachers,

and after the government has now twice been found guilty of violating Charter Rights,

and after teachers have been sitting at the table for 18 months trying to get a deal with the government,

and after the government locked teachers out of their classrooms in June 2014 during lunch time, forcing them to eat their lunch on the sidewalks outside their schools,

while imposing a 10% punitive daily salary cut,

the government is now asking for a “cooling off” period before it will agree to mediation,

and is using social media ads that promote the Cisco corporation inspired BC ED plan to persuade parents that the obstacle standing in the way of getting children back into the classroom

are the teachers.

I am incensed at the insistence  by BCSTA that “both sides” are equally to blame for this dispute. I am incensed at the massive disrespect I am experiencing at the hands of this government.  I am incensed that BCCPAC, the parent body that claims to represent 80% of the voices of parents in this province, demonstrates only support for the government’s position.

Since those who use the divorcing parents analogy also claim that both sides are ignoring the children, let’s examine that.

It is teachers like Carrie Gelson who have raised the issue of childhood poverty in this province. It is teachers who spend an average of $1200 of their after-tax income on classroom resources. It is teachers who often spend more time with their students than with their own family during the school year, giving up holidays and weekends to accompany students on field trips.

It is a growing number of teachers whose health is suffering due to the enormous load they continue to bear in an underfunded public education system.

And what has the government done “for the children”?

It has refused to subsidize daycare, the $40 bribe notwithstanding.

It has refused to do anything about the fact that BC has the highest childhood poverty rate in the country. In fact, a representative of the government, Marc Dalton says that childhood poverty does not exist.

It is planning to not just cut but to completely eliminate designations for special needs in classrooms.  If you don’t have students with special needs, then clearly you don’t need to provide support for students with autism, with learning disabilities; students who are gifted, students who are deaf.

This government has gone to a corporation, Cisco, an organization of dubious ethics whose main purpose is to create profit, for the ideas that it implemented into its new BCED plan.

In what ways can the Cisco corporation have the best interests of students in mind?

Teachers do not hold the purse strings to public funds in this province. Teachers cannot pass legislation. Teachers cannot ignore Supreme Court rulings without risking jail.

The government can and has done all these things.

It is the government who can end this dispute. It is the government that can ensure that each student in a BC public school is funded at least to the Canadian average. It is the government that can stop spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money on litigation and instead invest that money into public education.

Doing these things would demonstrate that the government does indeed have the children’s best interests in mind as far as public education goes.

But it would not be enough to indicate that the government was anywhere near considering helping the millions of children who starve each day and whose parents cannot afford daycare.

This government has many opportunities to do something “for the children”.

If they need any ideas about which opportunities they should consider first, they can ask a teacher.

Expect Us

AFrican woman
African by Luigi Morante ( http://www.imcreator.com

We are a growing chorus of parents who have been newly awoken to the effects of 12 years of education funding cuts.

We are immigrant families who came here because of the great public education system.

We are the parents of students of special needs who are incensed that our children are being cut out of funding for their learning support.

We are reading.

We are writing.

We are sharing what we know with each other.

This is what we know:

  • Support for student learning is not a salary benefit for teachers.
  • If pipelines are in the “affordability zone” so are students’ needs.
  • Although funding for education has increased since 2002, those increases have been a fraction of the cost of the increases in MSP premiums and BC Hydro costs for school boards. They have not compensated for the government’s insistence that schools buy carbon credits for heating buildings. They have not made up for the $250million gouged out yearly from the education budget since 2002
  • A balanced budget is a fiscal fallacy. This government has increased the debt by billions since it came into office.
  • If there is money for corporations, there is money for children.
  • Teachers are not lazy and greedy. They are hardworking and have sacrificed much for our children.
  • Ignoring two Supreme Court decisions means that the BC government has no respect for the Charter of Rights or for the law of the land.

We are a resilient network of social media connections, exchanging information revealed by hours of research into public policy.

We are grandparents who will not be idle if our grandchildren do not get the kind of education they deserve.

We are members of the public who are experiencing moral outrage as we watch our leaders bully teachers and bribe parents and ignore the law.

We are taxpayers.

We are voters.

We are citizens.

We know what our duties and responsibilities to the next generation are.

We will not watch passively as our province is hijacked by those who value pipelines above children.

We have written to our MLAs and received twisted lies in response.

We have rallied outside the legislature and have been patronized.

We have stood on picket lines.

We have written letters of protest.

We are not done yet.

Expect us.

The Reasons we are Fighting for Public Education

boy reaching for stars
http://www.gratisography.com/

 

This is a reposting of my friend Cecelia Griffiths’s  post on her blog, Especially About Students. This is a long read but after you read it, you will have a comprehensive understanding  of why we teachers are willing to forgo salary for this fight we are in with a government that does not seem to care about our most precious “resource” – our children.

As everyone probably knows, when doctors become qualified physicians, they take the Hippocratic Oath, in which they are required to vow never to do any harm. But doctors are always having to do harm. They have to cut into people’s bodies to repair what lies within, or they have to poke needles into their arms to get information to help the person. Sometimes, in horrible circumstances, usually with mass casualties, they have to choose between patients, knowing they can save only one of two or more. These are the life and death situations that face doctors routinely, and nobody expects that they would do other than what they do: their very best to help people to survive to continue their lives.

Nobody will ever confuse teachers with doctors. Nobody will ever see teachers as performing a life or death service (except, of course, when they’re shielding children with their bodies in mass shootings and things), and nor should they. Teachers don’t maintain life; they contribute to its quality. At their best, they give their students broadened horizons, wider ranges of thought, and deeper compassion. But they don’t, by and large save lives. Not in a measurable way, anyway.

But teachers do have to make choices, and some of those choices feel very, very important. For me, as a special education teacher, although I probably do not singlehandedly keep anyone alive, I do indeed make choices that have the power to truly affect kids and their parents. About fifteen years ago, when I taught a tiny class of five students with profound disabilities, and had three Educational Assistants (EAs), I made a whole lot of choices. I experimented with different communication strategies for the nonverbal teens (all but one had no speech). I, together with my EAs, used sophisticated technology to work out how much they did and did not understand. We thought carefully about ways to teach them to cope in public places, which they often found frightening or uninteresting. We dug deep and explored the ranges of their capabilities, and as we worked, we learned. It was a wonderful time. One of the EAs in that class told me, a while back, that another had remarked to him that it was the best job he’d ever had.

It was exhilarating to see the kids learn, and grow. We wanted to teach some of them how to take control over their environment, because their disabilities were so severe they’d had no way of making anything happen independently. So we brought in a whole lot of green fabric of all sorts: green whole cloth, green jeans, green tshirts, anything green that we could get, and we wove a jungle. We hung long braided cords of green from the ceiling to simulate jungle vines. We made draping leaves and created a fantastic jungle world in our classroom. Then I went out and bought a bunch of battery operated toys; parrots, and monkeys, and snakes, which we hung strategically amidst our fabric foliage. We ran wires from the battery cases, carefully hidden, to a bank of large, colourful, switches. If you went up to a switch and hit it, something happened in the jungle: a parrot cawed, or a monkey chuckled and spun, or a snake hissed, or whatever. Soon we were wheeling the kids up to the switches, and they would hit one and watch the result, and one would smile, and another would laugh, and laugh. They could make things happen!

We went on to experiment with a whole bunch of fancy technology. We tried galvanic skin switching, with which a severely disabled person can use biofeedback to change the switch by controlling the surface of their skin. We tried mercury switching, where the slightest movement changes the position of the mercury and closes the switch. Always, the switches were attached to things the kids loved: recorded music, or special toys, or a visual treat.

Those kids thrived. They were happy, and we knew it, because they laughed, and smiled, and lit up when they saw us. Their parents were happy because their children were happy. It was a wonderful time in my life, and although those kids were never going to be elected to office, or granted degrees, or even live independently, we knew that we were making a difference, and they knew they could, too. I only left that job because an amazing opportunity arose for me to go off to Australia to get my Masters degree in Special Education.

When I resumed teaching in British Columbia, it was 2002. That was the year that the current run of attacks on our public education system began. I had a lovely little class of primary aged children (5-9 years old) with significant special needs. We did some good things with that group, and many have gone on to do very nicely. But there were clouds gathering on the horizon.

Since that time, year, after year, after year, the cuts have come. Relentlessly, the services we could provide became fewer. Wait times for evaluation became longer. I went to work for an online school, thinking it could help kids who has been medically excluded because of their severe behaviour. These were children and teens with acting out, due to disabilities, so severe, that they could not be housed in the education system, and they had been offered hospital home bound services instead. But for these children, mostly with autism, hospital home bound was a poor fit, so we tried something innovative, called blended learning. It involved some carefully chosen work in a centre with behaviour management staff, and a lot of online study and interaction. It showed real promise for children who had huge trouble attending to human faces, but who did well with computer screens.

When the focus of that online program changed in the direction of catering for paying foreign students, and more ‘typical’ students looking to pick up some coursework at home, I went to work as a Learning Support Teacher in an inner city school. What I saw there was devastating. In the online school, we had had a good budget, which I now realize was partly because various people were looking to commercialize it. But this little elementary school had very, very little. The children were mostly immigrants, and many, immigrant or not, were living well below the poverty line. It was routine for most of us to keep healthy snacks at hand, because so many came without breakfast or lunch. Many of the children spoke little or no English. Some had no winter coats. School supplies? That wasn’t on anyone’s radar, so a lot of us bought them ourselves. One year, we ran out of white photocopy paper in March. A friend of mine taught her class to garden so they could grow their own food.

Things were getting worse. It was taking longer to get kids evaluated by the school psychologists, and the wait list was growing. In a given year, we might have up to twenty five names to propose for urgent assessment, but we could get maybe three or four completed at best. The psychologists, you see, were being spread thinner and thinner, covering more and more different schools. One little girl whom I knew for sure would qualify as learning disabled, never did get assessed while I was there, and I know there were many others.

At that point, the commute was killing me, as it was an hour and a half each way, as long as there were no road accidents. I chose, therefore, to switch to a semi-rural high school. By now, so much damage had been done due to underfunding, that the job I took would have been two and a half people’s work, fifteen years previously.

Now, there are three counsellors for fifteen hundred students. Three. And they do all of the necessary timetabling and juggling of courses for all fifteen hundred, so that everyone will be assured of taking what they need to graduate. This means, that if a student is suicidal, or if a student is grieving, or if they have a very serious illness, or depression, or bipolar, or an addictions issue, or teen pregnancy, or any of the myriad issues that can befall teens, that they must wait to get in to see a counsellor who is tasked with four hundred and ninety nine other kids. When they do get in – and the counsellors do their utmost best, working crazy hours day after day – they mostly get triaged, and referred. There isn’t much counselling anyone can do with those caseloads. But of course, the same cuts that are literally destroying the public education system, are also attacking other social services. The social safety net is very, very thin, and many young people are falling through the holes.

Now, there is one consistent Learning Assistance Teacher, to support the needs of a school of fifteen hundred. There is a little more time allotted, so the rest is filled by various teachers who have a block in their schedule for working with the kids with learning disabilities. That teacher, an extraordinarily passionate and dedicated person, is often in the building after six o’clock PM, because in addition to her teaching load, she has a massive case management load.

Now, we have no sensory room to help our student, who is so easily overstimulated, soothe himself and calm into a state where he can learn. The building is just too full. I actually bought a tent this year from Canadian Tire to try to give him his own comfortable space. We lined it with foam padding on the floor and put in bean bag chairs, but it didn’t block out noise so it wasn’t really what he needed.

Now, students with learning disabilities receive no funding at all. Neither do students with mild intellectual disabilities (what used to be called “mild mental retardation”), or those with mild to moderate behaviour or mental health concerns. These children are supposed to be ‘managed’ without funding for EA support, specialist teacher support, or any extra mental health services. So children with anxiety attacks, for example, or depression, are left without any funding for services at all. Teachers and counsellors, who know and care about these kids, move heaven and earth to try to ‘fit them in’ as best they can.

Now, it is much harder to get a ‘designation’ that will get funding for a child. The Ministry of Education requires that any child with special needs who will receive funding, be ‘designated’ according to the nature of their need. So a student can be designated ‘dependent handicapped’ or ‘chronic health’ or ‘severe behaviour/mental illness’. There are fixed amounts attached to these designations, no matter what the particulars of the circumstances actually look like. So, for example, a student designated ‘chronic health’ receives roughly the amount of money it would cost to hire a half time EA. What we do, then, is whenever we have a child who gets that kind of funding, we load his or her classes with other students who urgently need help, but are not funded. We try very hard to take into account how this will look for the classroom teacher, but essentially, because so many students have high needs but do not qualify for funding, we have to group these with kids who do qualify, to get them any help. This means that the students who have funding often share their EAs with those who do not. The EAs can be stretched pretty thin, and so can the classroom teachers.

There are a very great many more changes in the BC public education system that I have seen over the past twelve years, and none of them are good. Many, many teachers are genuinely exhausted. I have always been pretty healthy, but this year, towards the end of the year, just before the job action began, I got a bad cold. Not wanting to stay home, because my students are all intellectually disabled and the uncertainty of the situation needed a familiar face to provide support, I pushed through what became bronchitis, then laryngitis, and finally pneumonia. Long before the school year would have ended, had it ended normally, I was far too ill to work. Ultimately, I seem to have had pneumonia or its precursor illnesses for around two and a half months when I was finally hospitalised. I am not unusual; more and more teachers are getting physically ill. There is a great deal of stress in knowing you work with some of society’s most vulnerable people, and you cannot possibly meet their needs.

However, like physicians, we make the best choices we can. And after an enormous amount of distress, a great deal of pain and a lot of guilt because we see no other way, we chose to strike. Unlike other public sector workers, we are told that the cost of EAs is one of our ‘benefits’. Unlike other public sector workers, the conditions under which we work directly affects our ‘clientele’. You won’t see car salesmen on strike for bigger show rooms. You won’t see plumbers and pipe fitters striking to raise money for their clients to afford pipes. But we are on strike because we know that the kids, our kids, need books, and rooms, and smaller classes, and timely assessments, and specialist teaching, and libraries and so much more. And only we have a way to stand up, draw a line in the sand, and say, ‘Enough. This is enough. The children need your help.’

So we are on strike. And no matter how many people say that we are greedy, and we are lazy, we know the truth. We walk together, and we write signs, and we grieve. We grieve that children are hurt by our action, but that we know no other way to prevent continued ongoing harm. We grieve that we know how to help, but cannot. We talk to each other, and we hold each other up, and we take turns supporting our colleagues in their fear and sadness. But we strike, we make the hard choice, because it is the right thing to do. Even if it hurts.

Costs and Benefits…

helen and anne s 2
Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Did you know that the BC government now considers learning supports for students with special needs in public education a “wage benefit” for teachers that is “too expensive” for taxpayers to afford?

Better read that again… I know it’s a bit of a mindtwist.  It would make sense though if you remember that this is the same group of people who have redefined what “essential” means… but I digress.

Back to benefits. Now you and I may expect employee benefits to be about medical coverage or a dental plan or a car or travel expenses. We’d be wrong, according to Premier Christy Clark. Benefits now include having other workers around you to do the work that must be done. By this definition, a nurse is a salary benefit to a doctor; a secretary is a salary benefit to an executive, and a dental assistant is a salary benefit to a dentist.

So, according this framing of our proposals for a wage increase in an attempt to decrease the blow our salaries have taken over the past 8 years due to the increase in the cost of living, if an Education Assistant helps a student in our classrooms, or if our school has learning specialist teachers, their work in the school is costed as a benefit to our salaries.

I wonder if the Premier counts the cost of her assistants in the same way, or are they just considered the perks of the job like dining out and iTunes purchases?

But what if we looked at the whole concept of benefits in a different way. Who actually benefits when we support students whose brains work differently?

We all do…

In fact people who ‘think differently’ have completely changed the world in the past. They are also presently changing the world and, if we give the students in our classrooms now the support they need, they will change the world of the future.

Take Michael Faraday for example. As a child he stuttered and struggled in school at a time when the very concept of support for students with special needs was unheard of. Luckily for us, his mother took him out of school and provided what she could in spite of their poverty.  When he grew up, even with an incomplete formal education, he discovered electromagnetism.

Now I’m not a scientist, but this much I know thanks to the television series “Cosmos”, that without Faraday’s discovery the very act of reading this blog post via the internet would not be possible.

Just sit with that fact for a moment…

Imagine what more Faraday might have given us if he had had support at school?

Here’s another example.  I’d never heard of Dean Kamen, the inventor of the iBot wheelchair and the Segway, before I watched an interview with him.  In it he explained how he struggled in school because, he said, as soon as the teacher opened her mouth he felt like a fire hose was coming at him. His  mind would be still processing the first thing the teacher said while she kept moving on, and he felt flooded with information. I imagine that this is how the mind of an incredible inventor works – taking a tiny bit of information and seeing infinite possibilities.

Thomas Edison’s inventions provide another example of how much we have gained from creative thinkers. The way Edison learned in school was so different to what other students did that his teacher said his mind was “addled”.  Despite only three months of formal schooling, he gave us the light bulb, the phonograph and the moving picture camera.  All inventions that radically changed the world.

We are very lucky when people who think differently have mentors or people who support them.   How much poorer in ideas would our world have been without the mind of Helen Keller, who although deaf and blind contributed so much through her writing and talks.  Her success due in no small way to the support she received from her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

Temple Grandin is another example of someone who has contributed much to the world after having lots of support as a child for her autism and speech difficulties.  What she has done is so amazing, Hollywood made a movie of her life. In fact Hollywood seems to have more interest than politicians do in special thinkers, given movies such as Radio,  A Beautiful Mind, Little Man Tate, Rain Man….

In this century, when all our chickens are coming home to roost in the form of dramatic climate change sparking the rapid spread of diseases once limited to small areas of the planet, we are going to need out-of-the-box kinds of  thinking that students with special needs do naturally all the time.  We are going to need special solutions to the special challenges we all face. Students with special needs may grow up to be the very people who will help us solve our most intractable problems.

So I guess in some sense, the BC government is right when they say that support for students with special needs is a benefit.

The part they got wrong however is that it’s a benefit for us all, not just to teachers. Supporting students with special needs will benefit humankind in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

But what about the costs if we don’t support these students? Well, apart from never knowing what the inventions or discoveries of students with special needs could have been, we will also continue to spend billions of dollars on a population of incarcerated people, many of whom are illiterate or have learning disabilities.

Since 2002  the number of Learning Specialists in BC schools has been cut by 20% and the cuts will increase again in 2014/15, a direct result of chronic underfunding. I’m not sure how much our Premier believes she is saving and for what purpose when she continues to cut approximately $250 million per year from the education budget, but that money is not really a savings if it has to be spent dealing with the costs of the consequences of those cuts.

Supporting all our students in all ways possible is not a cost when seen in this light. It’s an investment in benefits that we will all share.