On the Reopening of BC Schools

As a teacher, I would feel less anxious about schools reopening next week if the Public Health Office expressed confidence in a return to in-school instruction after they had conducted random checks of a sample of schools in a range of socio-economic areas to see first-hand the facilities that public schools in British Columbia actually have.

Restaurants are regularly inspected to ensure that meal preparation is hygienic and safe; all businesses frequented by the public know that their facilities have to be in safety compliance or their reputation will suffer and they will lose clients.  Public schools in B.C. seem to exist in a different category when it comes to health and safety. 

It’s only recently that there has been progress toward seismic safety but ongoing problems with mice infestation and the lack of drinkable water in many schools seems to be an inconvenient truth that we should all just learn to live with.

For almost two decades under the BC Liberals, there was little money for failing and inadequate infrastructure. It’s understandable that the current  BC NDP government cannot reverse the damage of  decades of neglect within a short time. 

That neglect was at best tolerable during the Before times. But then Covid-19 came along and shed blinding sunlight into the darkest of health and safety corners within the public education system in B.C.

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Like many people in B.C. I’ve been riveted to regular Covid-19 updates by Dr. Henry. I admire her calm demeanor and steadfast handling of an unprecedented crisis.  I have been especially impressed by the way she responds when concerns are raised about the number of people lining up to board a ferry or the number of people enjoying the sun at a local beach.

She refuses to fan any frustration that some may feel at the apparent violation of her orders. Instead she expresses confidence, backed by data, that people are in fact following her orders. 

Dr. Henry is reasonable and expects people to be as well. She has instructed the Ministry of Education to ensure that schools are safe for students’ return. I’m sure she expects that the Ministry of Education will be reasonable in its execution of her orders.

The problem is that teachers have vivid memories of the Ministry of Education being anything but reasonable.  Whether it was when they demanded concessions to our collective agreement in recent bargaining or when they ignored pleas for more funding for students with special needs, being unreasonable has been the Ministry’s default setting for quite a while.

For years teachers have said that it’s not reasonable to expect students to learn in hot and stuffy portable classrooms; that it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to spend their own money on supplies for their classrooms. 

And teachers know that it’s not reasonable for the Ministry of Education to expect that after decades of cuts to budgets that there will be enough money in each school district to ensure that all Dr. Henry’s protocols are followed.   

Covid-19’s presence has led to the opening of the government’s purse in ways unseen since the Great Depression with many programs available to support various sectors of society during this challenging time.

So where’s the money for schools? 

In fulfilling Dr. Henry’s orders, how does one ensure thorough hand hygiene when taps have to be held down to get a 4-second spurt of cold water? 

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How will overworked, skeletal custodial staff manage with the much longer list of cleaning tasks when they barely had enough time for cleaning classrooms during the Before times? 

In BC we can expect that any hospital in the province has standardized facilities to protect the health of patients and staff. No such standardization exists in BC schools.

Whereas one school may have a mice infestation and warnings posted at drinking fountains not to drink the water,  another school may have ergonomically designed classrooms with beautiful bathrooms in wide hallways, lots of natural light everywhere, and easy access to outdoor classrooms.

Teachers all across the province know that, in some schools, it will be easy to follow all the guidelines for a safe return to school but in too many schools it will not be. 

When all schools have lead-free drinkable water, when all school washrooms have taps that don’t have to be held down in order to work, when all schools have fully-functioning ventilation systems, then we can be confident in there being reduced opportunities for viruses to spread when we return to schools.

That would take money though. And the education budget, as a percentage of our GDP, has been kept low by both major political parties when they’re in power.

In the Before times, the impacts of regular reductions to education budgets have been borne by students who have fallen through the cracks in the system.

In this time of a pandemic, the impacts of neglected infrastructure could spread well beyond classroom walls. 

And that is not reasonable at all. 

Softly Selling the Privatization of Public Education

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When there’s news every day of yet another school district budget shortfall and yet another school being closed, it’s difficult to see what’s really been happening to public education in British Columbia for almost two decades now. But within the seeming chaos there is a clear pattern that emerges. It’s a pattern that can be clearly seen in many countries around the world as corporations turn their profit-hungry eyes toward the $5.5 trillion that is being spent on education worldwide.

Over a century ago public education was a radical idea in Britain. It was considered an utter waste of taxpayer’s money and was strongly resisted by many politicians. Nevertheless, arguments about public education being a public good won the day.

The big idea was that public education would provide an equal playing field for all society’s children.  Children from poor homes could work their way up the social ladder through a free education and this in turn would ensure that the state would benefit from having a well-educated workforce and citizenry.  Sounds all very democratic, doesn’t it?

Fast forward to the 1970s and a new idea began to spread from a group of economists at the Chicago School of Economics. One of them, Milton Friedman, wrote a seminal paper suggesting that public education be privatized.  For most people in North America this was an outrageous idea akin to suggesting that we should sell motherhood.  Because of the strong resistance to privatization of public education, it has to be sold to the public in a way that is subtle, is soft, is slick.  

HOW TO PRIVATIZE A PUBLIC EDUCATION SYSTEM

You will need the help of politicians. This is easy to obtain since they are always looking for donations for their election campaigns. Spending a few million will reap rewards ten times over. Once you have politicians on board, direct them thus: 

Competition

Erode the collaborative and co-operative foundations of public education by introducing competition between schools. As an example, in B.C.  the Fraser Institute began to rank schools in 1998 in a way that completely ignored multiple variables that made each school unique but that made sense to a public used to hockey team rankings.

Choice

Create a two-tier education system, one public and one private, both supported by public funds.  Keep increasing the amount of public funds that go to private schools while decreasing the funds that go to public schools. Watch while private schools advertise everything that public schools are accused of not having: small class sizes, new technology, support for students with learning disabilities.

Costs

Promote the idea that funding public education is too expensive and outside of the “affordability zone” for taxpayers. Keep changing the formula used to fund schools while you repeatedly tell the public that you’re increasing funding. They won’t realize that you’re spending less and less each year as you no longer fund things you used to fund in the past.

Count 

Insist that public schools be accountable. Insist that students be subjected to standardized tests like the FSA so that taxpayers can see whether they’re getting what they pay for. Ignore all the protests about standardized tests being invalid and that they don’t reveal anything of value regarding a student’s learning experiences.

Create Divisions

Implementing these steps needs to happen over a long period so that the pattern is not too obvious.  While you are waiting for the public to accept that privatization is good and is inevitable, it is also important to ensure that groups that may be natural allies, do not unite. It is therefore necessary to divide parents from teachers.  Use every opportunity to increase any dissension that may arise.

For example, when Parent Teacher Associations in BC were replaced by Parent Advisory Councils, teachers and parents moved to separate camps, so to speak, and this was good for the privatization agenda.  When the provincial body of PACs, the BCCPAC,  was led by those in support of accountability, this was also good for the privatization agenda since the perception was that the parents of 500 000 students were in support of the BC Liberal government’s education policies.

Speaking of perceptions, another important project is to change public perception of teachers.  There should be no limit on the budget spent on public relations in this regard. Painting teachers as greedy and lazy will turn public sentiment against them.

Also, support and encourage attacks on the teachers’ union. In BC, the attacks on the British Columbia Teachers Federation took the form of newspaper articles and editorials and also social media comments made by  digital influencers.  

You should also try to weaken teacher unions by other means. For example,  court cases that take over a decade to resolve.

Be Patient

Finally, patience is required for the privatization project since most people in society value public education and strongly believe that it’s a public good.

It’s the soft sell that will win them over.

Remember there is a big reward: a piece of that $5.5 Trillion pie.