Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Nothing wrong with teachers' union ads, but they may backfire

VICTORIA - It’s hard to share Liberal outrage that the BC Teachers’ Federation dared to use children in an television ad slagging the Liberals’ education record.
Backbencher Lorne Mayencourt leapt to his feet in Question Period this week, voice raised in indignation at the ads (which he hadn’t seen).
"Carole James and the BCTF have weaseled their way into our school system and are shamelessly exploiting nine-year-old children in their efforts to launch an American-style negative campaign," Mayencourt raged.
The union kicked off their current ad campaign with a commercial during the Oscars that gave Gordon Campbell an award for most devastating performance for closing schools and doubling post-secondary tuition.
The new ad, which had Mayencourt so worked up, uses real students and highlights their concerns about the school system under the Liberals. There’s a kindergarten student who rides the bus because a local school closed, a Langley student who says he no longer has special needs support, a Nanaimo student who says learning is difficult in a class of 35 children You get the idea.
The claim that the BCTF is exploiting children is a bit rich. The premier and education minister - like politicians everywhere - are always popping into schools when they need a good photo op for a new announcement. Nothing says caring like a photo showing you reading to a class of fresh-faced eight-year-olds.
And there’s nothing wrong with the visits, despite what Mayencourt says about politicians weasling their way into schools.
On one level, the Liberals likely welcome the BCTF ads. One of the Campbell party’s early election campaign themes is that James and the New Democrats are captives of the big public sector unions. If elected, an NDP government would put their interests first, the claim goes. Money going into the education system, for example, would improve the lot of teachers. not students.
The BCTF’s active support of the NDP campaign is going to reinforce that message with some voters. (The federation is reported to have $5 million set aside for poltiical advocacy.)
And the fact is that the union’s first obligation is to advance the interest of its members. That’s the reason it exists.
But at the same time the ads will raise legitimate questions about what has happened in the school system under the Liberals.
Education Minister Tom Christensen answered Mayencourt’s question by noting the education budget was being increased this year by $150 million, the largest jump in history.
But even with the increase, the money going to school districts will have increased by a total of 8.2 per cent since the Liberals were elected. The consumer price index, the basic measure of inflationary pressures, will have risen by almost 14 per cent through the same period.
Yes, the Liberals say, but the number of students has gone down, so school districts should expect less money.
That's only partly true. A drop in students doesn't translate into an equal drop in costs - if there are 10 fewer children in a school the heating bill and maintenance costs stay the same.
The real increase in per pupil funding - after the $150 million increase - will be about 3.5 per cent over four years. The reality is that has meant tough decisions on where to cut spending in school districts across the province.
Teachers have a right to be angry at the government. The Liberals promised to honour contracts, then used legislation to gut the teachers’ agreement of clauses governing maximum class sizes and other clauses that set staffing level. The union had bargained those provisions, and presumably given in other areas to get them.
And the government has been consistently confrontational, treating the BCTF as an enemy.
But sympathetic or not, most parents are going to believe that issues like class size are best decided by elected officials - MLAs and school trustees - not set in union contracts.
The ads’ effectiveness remains to be seen. The notion that they are in some way offensive is bogus.
Footnote: The impact of third party ads of all kinds during this long unofficial campaign should get a through review after the election. Business groups plan to support the Liberals; unions the NDP. My guess is that the campaigns could do more harm than good for both sides in reaching undecided voters.


Anonymous said...

Good analysis of the intricacies of education funding. I was one of those parents who thought class size, etc. was best left out of union contracts, until we saw the results!

B.C. has some 500,000 K-12 students, plus ?? university students, each of whom has a parent or two, grandparents, etc., many of whom are concerned about the impacts they've seen first-hand.

The "union" card is usually a sure bet for a good segment of the voting population, but concerns about our children or grandchildren will naturally take precedence. When the BCTF are the only ones speaking up to voice our concerns, it puts unions in a whole new light!

Tanya said...

Yes it is good to see someone who is realistic about school funding. The government can announce all their so-called funding increases that they want, but we don't see any of it in the classroom. Ask our Gr. 7 teacher with 35 students and a crowded classroom if she sees any benefits. I live in the northern part of BC. Our heating costs have increased more than the government has allotted for. In our cold winters, heating has to be paid before new textbooks or computers are purchased.

I must say that I am proud of the campaign launched by the BCTF. Someone has to speak out for the children in our school system, after all. My greatest wish is that parents would go to the government with their concerns about our schools. They are the ones that the government and the general public would listen to. But they remain silent so BCTF does their part to educate people about what is happening. And they are doing it with dignity and humor. Wouldn't it be effective if the Parent Associations expressed their concerns too?

Teachers are currently attempting to negotiate a contract with the government. I will say publicly that I don't care if I get a raise or not. Keeping up with the cost of living would be nice and would help me to provide more things for my classroom but I can live without it. What I would like to see are more supports for special needs children (I'm a special ed. teacher) .. more teacher-librarian time so that our library can be open more often .. smaller class sizes so that a student has a better chance of having personal contact with his teacher at least once a day and not be crammed into crowded classrooms .. enough textbooks so every child can have their own copy .. enough working computers so that students don't have to share .. a return to the level of support we had for maintenance and groundskeeping so that the school building can remain safe and clean. Yes, these are things that benefit teachers but can't people see that they benefit children as well???? The government brags that BC's education is among the top ranked in the world. That isn't because of anything the government has done. It is because teachers work harder as they are given less. If the government wants to keep that ranking then they should help us (teachers) help the children.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the more balanced commentary Paul...much appreciated as we see the voracious hype spread by the Canwest crew. I am also a teacher. I have grave concerns on where this government is taking public education ( read privatize and commercialize). It seems the teachers of BC can't do anything to either a) raise awareness of the situation, or, b) promote our profession without getting hit with the "big bad union" label. The public ( with exceptions) are all too eager to swallow the anti-BCTF, anti-teacher trollop spooned out in the last decades by a compliant media. To get to reality, let's ask parents of children to analyze whether they've noticed a difference in education since the Campbell era began? Not political pundits or single, white professional males who typically jam the telephone lines and talk shows. Yes, I have seen an incredible erosion of services in the last 4 years...but nobody believes it. All too often, some parents rely on schools as daycare, so do not promote strikes...but without strikes teachers have no teeth and the government has no will to bargain in good faith. Truly between a rock and a hard place we all are. With every attack on the teachers and the attempt to split the BCTF from its members adds to the low morale. The future of a truly free and equal public school system looks bleak. When it comes crashing down, the vociferous will howl, " How did this happen?" and....I'll bet, teachers and the BCTF will be blamed.

Robert said...

Take a look at the Ministry of Education service plan recently posted on the Ministry Web Site. Funding for public schools is projected to increase 4.5% between the the 2004/05-2007/08 school years. Over the same period of time funding for independent schools is projected to increase approximately 16%. Ideology is clearly driving the Liberal Agenda, somebody has to protect public education.

Thursday said...

Mayencourt's always been a bit useless, so I suppose it's a credit to get him barking...

I'm as interested in post-secondary cost increases over the past four years as grade level education. Having an educated public improves the whole of society, plus as an added bonus there's an opportunity to drain some of the educated from down south. Keeping costs down (yes, higher subsidies) and increasing funding (most of the federal increases have gone to infrastructure) for staffing and practical rooms (labs, workshops et al) to ensure we are a draw will not only increase education opportunities for our citizens, but bring a diverse and educated population to our nation. There is no down side to a smarter populace.