Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A wretchedly bad series of education cuts

The Liberal government's education cuts get failing grades on every count. Politically, they make little sense. Parents vote. Hurt their children's education and they'll be angry.
Practically, they're bad public policy. They hurt the students who most need help learning and developing the skills to succeed in the world.
In the last two weeks, the government has announced three cuts to education funding. None seems sensible.
Leave aside the discussion about core school funding and the problems created by per-pupil grants. These are cuts outside of that envelope.
The biggest is the elimination of $110 million in funding that districts had expected for maintaining schools this year. The annual grants provide for upkeep and capital improvements - wheelchair ramps, classroom renovations and all the standard maintenance needed to keep buildings functional and safe.
Five months into the fiscal year, Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid cancelled the grant program without notice or consultation. Some districts had set aside money each year to build reserves for major projects; they could raid that money to cover needed work, she said.
So prudence is punished. Districts that did maintenance work over the summer, counting on the grants, have to cut spending to balance the budget as required by law. And economic stimulus is abandoned.
Next, MacDiarmid was sent out to defend a decision to eliminate the government's entire $130,000 contribution to B.C. School Sports, almost 30 per cent of its budget. The organization helps support and manage all the regional and provincial sports events for schools in the province.
It's a great resource and a little money produces big results, since teachers, coaches and parents donate time and energy. It gives kids inspiring opportunities to take part in all kinds of sports. (I'm writing as a parent; my daughter learned and grew a lot from the opportunities that remarkable coaches and B.C. School Sports provided.)
And the government cut it adrift, despite all the talk about the goal of improving kids' fitness and health.
Then came the most perverse cut.
At a staged event to highlight $500,000 being sent to schools for Olympic programming - about four times the amount saved by cutting the sports funding - MacDiarmid revealed the grants to parent advisory councils would be cut in half. (Also without warning or consultation.)
They had received $20 per student. This year, it would be $10. The government would save $7.6 million, at the expense of parent councils at schools across the province.
Again, it's wrongheaded. The parent volunteers made good use of the money for books, computers and field trips the students would otherwise be denied because of funding shortfalls.
And it's especially bad policy because the funding, from gambling profits, delivered the greatest benefit to the schools where the need was greatest.
In the neighbourhoods where my kids went to school -- and where Liberal cabinet ministers' children go to school -- parent advisory councils have less trouble raising money. They can get great donations for a raffle or silent auction. Affluent families can be generous and stay-at-home parents can contribute time.
But in an Island town with a shutdown mill, or a poor city neighbourhood, it's tougher for the small parent advisory council.
The gambling grants levelled the playing field, a little. By cutting every school's grant by 50 per cent, the government undermined that. Poor schools are in a deep hole.
Finally - at least so far - the Education Ministry eliminated almost all its funding for the CommunityLINK program. It provides meals for hungry children and counselling to keep struggling students on track. The program will still be funded, but with gambling profits that had been dedicated to supporting charitable organizations across the province.
Meanwhile, the education ministry has reduced its target for better graduation rates.
OK, times are tough. But surely a deficit is worthwhile if it means continued basic opportunities for children, the province's future, and all that.
Politically dumb and bad for the people of B.C. That's poor decision-making by a government.
Footnote: MacDiarmid is a star Liberal rookie -- a doctor and former president of the B.C. Medical Association -- rewarded with a posting to a big cabinet job. So far, it hasn't gone well, whether in spite of -- or, perhaps, because of -- the coaching and direction she has received.


Anonymous said...

Aren't we glad the olympics are coming to BC? What was that security budget again? A billion? But we can't afford to fund school sports. Like Campbell says, we'll realize he's been right all along and thank him later. That's because banking all of these little nickels and dimes he's saving so early in the mandate will provide him and his silent sycophants the monies to buy your votes next election.

Leah said...

Exactly Anon! Yet people are stupid or gullible enough to allow themselves to be bought with their own money every election. The last was no exception.

Anonymous said...

Paul, I just watched the 7:00 am news on Global TV and Margaret McDiarmid corrected you - there really haven't been any cuts, only funding increases. The problem has been the way the BC Liberals could have done a better job "getting the message out". And her obsequious interviewer Steve Darling just sat there and lapped it up without objection, so I guess the teachers, parents, students, and school boards have got it all wrong.

DPL said...

There used to be a good bumper sticker way back around the time of Dave Barrett. It said" Don't blame me I voted NDP" It's time such public notices should be available. This bunch of clowns attached to Gordo are downright dangerous. And the woman is a doctor so isn't supposed to be dumb and always consider the patient first and do no harm. Well she sure is doing her best to screw up what's left of the school system , the group she is supposedly doing her best to maintain. But of course the big circus of two weeks beats anything the schools might need? A pox on your houses, all of you folks

Anonymous said...

The Globe and Mail is reporting that funding for CommunityLINK (money for school lunches and counselling for vulnerable kids) has also been cut.

This not good during an economic downturn and with BC already having the highest child poverty rate in Canada (25%).

Dawn Steele said...

I'd be happy to devote more time to taking my kid out "walking, dancing or playing in the park" if any of this made fiscal sense, but it doesn't.

Why are the BC Liberals cancelling school maintenance while committing $14 billion to other infrastructure projects as a means to kickstart our provincial economy?

Why are they asking school children to tighten their belts while giving themselves yet ANOTHER honking big raise again in this budget?

Why are they cancelling a $130,000 sports grant that serves 100,000 BC kids while spending millions more on Olympic cost overruns? Surely direct engagement is a far more effective way to encourage healthy living than spectator sports that most BC kids will only ever get to see on TV.

Why are they cutting supports for underprivileged school kids during an economic recession, when the Representative for Children & Youth has warned that they need to be raising such budgets instead to cope with expanded need?

Why are they making it harder for PACs to engage parents to support their local schools at a time when volunteer parent support will be more urgently needed than ever?

Why is the Minister now suggesting that School Boards cope by running deficits instead of giving them the money they need? The Province can borrow at far more favourable terms than any school board can. Taxpayers will foot the bill either way and it all gets counted as provincial debt under GAAP.

Education spending did not create the fiscal deficit. In fact BC's Education budget has been declining as a share of provincial GDP and our ratio is now among the lowest in Canada. Cutting Education spending won't fix the economic conditions underlying the deficit (it might actually do the opposite) and will cost taxpayers far more in the long run.

I've just started a Facebook group to help link concerned parents and public education advocates. Please join us and invite all your friends to join too!

Or simply write your local MLA and ask them to stand up for BC's school children by rejecting this budget.

Anonymous said...

Margaret MacDiarmid responds in the V T-C

Re: "A remarkably bad string of school cuts," Sept. 11.

The Paul Willcocks column incorrectly states that CommunityLINK funding has been reduced. Funding for the CommunityLINK program to help vulnerable children is going up to more than $51 million this year.

For 2009-2010, CommunityLINK is receiving an increase of $500,000 over 2008-2009. The Ministry of Housing and Social Development is providing $48,454,000 through community gaming grants and the Ministry of Education is providing $2,551,912.

The CommunityLINK (Learning Includes Nutrition and Knowledge) helps school districts provide services such as breakfast and lunch programs, inner-city and community school programs, school-based support workers and counselling for at-risk children and youth. Funding is provided to all 60 boards of education.

School districts have the responsibility and flexibility to determine the most effective use of this funding.

This government has committed to maintaining and protecting core operating funding to our schools -- and we are doing that. This year, funding to school districts is increasing by $84 million.

Given the global economic challenges we face, we've made tough decisions and balanced priorities to ensure that dollars remain focused where they are most needed.

Margaret MacDiarmid

Minister of Education

Anonymous said...

Hey PAB person, please go back to your press releases and stop trying to manipulate public discourse with your nonsense.

Paul Willcocks is absolutely correct. CommunityLINK funding used to be 100% funded by ministry of education, now it will be almost all funded by gaming funds. This change in funding is government trying to justify its deep cuts to non-profit arts, community and sports organizations. Organizations which are part of the social fabric and are needed.

But hey, if you're not a multi-national corporation you simply don't matter to the BC Liberals.

Carrie said...

Liberal say they are protecting core services in education - say one thing do another. Clear transparent government?