Monday, May 01, 2006

New class size law a reasonable compromise

VICTORIA - Hey, the system works. Look at the government's move to set class size limits.
The Liberal government is in the process of bringing back size limits for Grades 4 to 12. It has acknowledged that eliminating maximum class sizes was a mistake. Too many children were lost in large classes.
That's a win for the students and for the BC Teachers' Federation, which went on an illegal strike last year at least partly over the issue.
The strike worked. The government had steadfastly maintained there was no problem with class size. That was contradicted by Industrial Inquiry Commissioner Vince Ready, who said the issue had to be addressed. And now the Liberals - to their credit - have admitted they were wrong.
At the same time the BCTF didn't get all that it wanted. Class size limits used to be in the teachers' contract. The Liberals used legislation to break the agreements. Class sizes and the number of special needs students were educational issues to be decided by trustees, they said.
The problem is that they are also workplace issues, which are usually subject to collective bargaining.  
The union would have liked to see the class sizes back in the contract. But this is a reasonable compromise. Teachers get influence, if they can keep the public's support.
The government refused to do anything about the issue until last fall's strike. Its interest appeared to be waning until negotiations with the union reached a critical point this month. That's when the legislation was introduced.
It was a pragmatic move. The BCTF is the last significant public sector union without a contract. The government wants to negotiate a deal without job action, especially after last year's strike. The public's support for the teachers did much to shape the government's new, more moderate approach to labour relations.
Partly, the union won support because the public had just grown tired of the government's rough treatment of its employees. People were prepared to tolerate some righting of the union-management balance after the NDP years. But after four years time had run out on tolerance for union-bashing.
The BCTF also made the strike about class sizes as well as about wages. It's an issue much more likely to attract public support.
The legislation pretty much takes that option away as teachers bargain a new contract. BCTF head Jinny Sims accepted the class size legislation as "a small step" forward.
Now contract talks will be largely about money. The union is apparently seeking something above 20 per cent in a three-year deal, citing the need to keep up with Alberta and Ontario. The government is looking for am agreement by June 30 that would match the rest of public sector deals - about 11 per cent over four years, plus a $3,700 signing bonus. The public is not likely to be onside if the BCTF demands more than other public sector unions. Sounds like good news for everyone, right?
Not for school trustees, and perhaps not for some students. The old regulations let districts have some large classes from Grade 4 up as long as the district average was under the cap. Now with the new law districts will face strict limits. That means some larger classes will have to be split and districts will have to hire additional teachers. But while the government is passing the law, it's not providing any more money to to school districts. They face increased costs and fixed funding; some other area will suffer. The problem will be especially serious for rural school districts, which will have fewer chances to shuffle students around to try and stay within the new limits.
It's far from a perfect outcome.
But class sizes have been addressed, as the union wished. The decisions have been made outside collective bargaining, as the government wished.
Students won't face extremely large classes. And a strike is now less less likely.
Score one for this democracy thing.
Footnote: The new law also deals with special needs students. Until 2002 classes with special needs students were required to have fewer students overall. The new law sets a soft limit of three special needs students per class. Advocates fear this will mean special needs students are shuffled around.


Anonymous said...

It's a sad situation when professionals have to illegally strike to get this present government to take notice. And of course the professionals got noticed when the voting public supported them in droves. If the public had been soft on teacher support, the "New Era" gang would simply have ignored them. What a way to run a government.

Anonymous said...

"...while the government is passing the law, it's not providing any more money to school districts."

Same old, same old...

Expect specialty programs - like art, sports, music etc - to be cut as school boards try to find the money to cover the additional costs. I wonder if the BC Liberals will be cheeky and not properly fund the teacher's new contract too?

Speaking of not providing any additional money: Where is the $7 million for hospital emergency rooms coming from? The ever evasive Minister stated that the funding was coming out of the budget and was NOT new money. So what got cut?

Anonymous said...

I asked: "So what got cut?"

Turns out emergency room doctors got cut.

Pamela Fayerman is reporting in today's Vancouver Sun that: "Mount St. Joseph Hospital, which has the best emergency department patient care response time in Vancouver, will be hit with a 23-per-cent reduction in ER doctor staffing on June 1."

And the ever evasive Minister?
Again from today's Sun: "Health Minister George Abbott said in an interview it was inappropriate for him to comment on the matter..."

I'm sure it will be "inappropriate" for the Education Minister to comment on school program cuts when local school boards start slashing progams to pay for the BC Liberals underfunding of their legislated class size limits.

Gazetteer said...

Anon #2 said:

Expect specialty programs - like art, sports, music etc - to be cut as school boards try to find the money to cover the additional costs."


It's the tried and true Norquist strategy (shrink it down so that, ultimately, you can drown it in the bathtub with a spoonful of Luntzian 'Framing' sugar to help it all go down.

Or put another more euphamistic way, what I once heard local framer Ms. Erin Airton call a needed 'correction' on Rafe Mair's now defunct radio show awhile back.

More on Mr. Frank Luntz at my place for anyone who wants specifics.


Anonymous said...

I am concerned about the soft limit for special needs students set at 3 per class in the new BCTF contract. I had 16 in my practicum class last year. Schools with these levels of special needs children cannot simply shufflw classes to lower caps. They will need to re-classify children as non special needs to decrease the overall amount. Taking away this status from special needs children will mean less specialist diagnosis. Bottom line, teachers will have less knowlege about problem students in their class because of this new cap.