Ever since 1995, when the B.C. Teachers Federation was appointed as the provincial bargaining agent for teachers and the BC Public School Employers’ Association was set up to bargain for school boards, the issue that has kept both sides apart is the teachers’ demand that learning conditions (class size, composition and specialist teacher ratios) be set out in contract. So it continues today.
In the media’s reporting, focus usually falls on wages, but money for salaries has only rarely been a major sticking point. The two sides have nearly always been able to come to a compromise on money, even if neither side is happy with the end result.
With learning conditions though, neither side has ever been able to bring the other around to its view. Teachers want class size, composition, and specialist teacher ratios guaranteed in contract, while boards want the unfettered right to manage all aspects of their schools.
The two sides have never reached an agreement on this issue. Even when teachers managed to get class size, composition, and minimum ratios for specialists into contract in 1998, it was the result of a deal negotiated directly between the NDP government and the BCTF. But it had to be imposed on school boards because they refused to ratify it. In 2002, when the Liberals stripped this language from contracts, the fight was renewed, and for more than a decade, court action between the BCTF and the government has ensued. The government is now appealing the court’s most recent finding that they acted unconstitutionally when they wiped out these guarantees.
So, who is right? Should learning conditions be set in contract or not?
From my vantage point as a teacher, I have seen first-hand what happens when these conditions are not in contract.
In an era of underfunding, well-meaning, dedicated school board trustees like those who serve our communities in the Vernon School District end up approving budgets built by intelligent, and compassionate district administrators, even though everyone involved with schools knows that these budgets do not meet the needs of students.
Budgets like these cut teacher-librarian time when we are trying to improve literacy rates, they reduce school counsellor time when kids are facing more challenges than ever, they reduce support for fine arts and athletics when it is often these “frills” that attach many students to their schools, and they cut special education teachers who work with kids with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning challenges.
They force class building decisions that jam 30 or more students into shops, science labs and home ec rooms that are designed to safely and effectively house only 24 students (the limit that used to exist in contract for these classes).
Finally, grossly inadequate budgets like the one that was passed most recently, force school principals to put three, four, five or more special needs students in the same class (the stripped contract language set the limit at two) at a time when the number of the certified educational assistants who support these kids’ inclusion has been drastically reduced.
This is why, for two decades, teachers have fought to get learning conditions language in contract. It’s what guarantees the funding to adequately support kids.
And, most importantly, it’s why we need everyone – students, PACs, principals associations, trustees and members of the public – to support teachers’ efforts to get these guarantees for our students back in contract.