This was already going to be a tough year for schools in B.C.
School districts have been closing classrooms and cutting costs for years now. Collectively, they estimate that they will be $300 million short of what’s needed to keep education quality at the same level after the March budget.
Trustees, of course, tend to be advocates for education.
But the government’s own numbers indicate a big problem for education in the province.
That was made more complicated by an arbitration award this month on the way class size and composition limits are handled by school districts.
At a time when districts are likely going to be looking at more oversize classes, the ruling means they will be paying more to teachers as a result.
Which will, in turn, lead to more oversize classes.
This all goes back to 2002. The teachers’ union and school districts had negotiated contractual limits on class size, with some flexibility.
The Liberal government used legislation to strip the provisions from contracts in 2002 and made it illegal for teachers and districts to negotiate any class size limits in future.
That turned out to be a mistake. Class sizes jumped in schools across the province. Parents weren’t happy.
In 2006, the government acknowledged the stumble and introduced legislation setting limits on class size and on the number of students in a class requiring special assistance.
It was a reasonable solution. For teachers, class sizes are a workplace issue. Unions usually deal with those in bargaining.
But the appropriate class size and composition decisions are also questions of educational effectiveness. Those decisions shouldn’t be made as a result of labour bargaining. Elected school trustees and MLAs have the responsibility and can be held accountable.
The government’s effort was flawed though. It didn’t give school districts enough money to comply with the law.
While the legislation allowed schools to have oversize classes, or more special-needs students in classroom, after consultation with the teacher, the process was poorly defined.
And there was no provision for enforcing the law.
So it didn’t work. In the 2008-09 school year, 3,336 classes had more students than the limits called for. Almost 11,000 classes had more than three students with special needs called for in the legislation.
Not all those were a problem. In many cases, teachers, principals and superintendents agreed the extra students could be accommodated, as the legislation envisioned.
But the arbitration award found that in many cases that wasn’t the case. Teachers weren’t really consulted and the class sizes violated the law.
The districts were ordered to give the teachers paid time off as compensation, which will mean higher costs.
The decision was based on small number of test grievances. The B.C. Teachers Federation said thousands more cases will now go forward.
This all comes as school districts are set to receive a funding increase of well under one per cent; at the same all costs are rising. Teachers, for example, are set for a two-per-cent base pay increase.
The Education Ministry’s response to the ruling has been dismissive. Not our problem, it says. School districts should sort it out.
But arbitrator James Dorsey didn’t see it that way. He noted that when the class size legislation was introduced, the government said it was needed to move toward the first of the province’s five great goals by making B.C. the “best educated” jurisdiction in North America.
If it’s that important, and if government took away school districts’ right to negotiate class sizes, then the government must provide enough money to meet the standards. Or it could change the law.
In short, the government can’t make a big deal about the importance of class size in education and then make it impossible for school districts to comply with the law.
It’s a useful ruling. Or it will be if the Education Ministry takes its responsibility seriously.
Footnote: The arbitrator’s judgment offered a reminder of the relevance of legislature debates. His interpretation of the law and its meaning was based in part on the explanation cabinet ministers provided in the legislature.