Thursday, December 02, 2004

High school testing up to government, not union

VICTORIA - You've got two different issues in the current spat between the B.C. government and the teachers' union over province-wide testing for Grade 10 students.
On one level the debate is about whether the tests makes sense and will help students leave school with a better education.
At the same time, it's about who runs the school system and sets standards - the BC Teachers' Federation or the government.
I have my own unpleasant memories of provincial exams. I moved from Ontario to Quebec for my last year of high school, happy product of a system in which you didn't have to write any final exam at all if you muddled through the school year with half-decent marks.
But in Quebec - as well as having to wear a jacket, shirt and tie in a public high school - I found that in every course, your mark was based entirely on a single provincial exam. Bad news for those people who panicked, or happened to have the flu that day.
B.C. isn't going nearly that far. The newest provincial exams, for Grade 10 students, cover math, sciences and English language skills. They only count for 20 per cent of a students' mark for the year, and it's not necessary to pass the test - or even write it, for that matter - to pass the year. When the tests were used on a pilot basis last year, the pass rate ranged from a high of 89 per cent in English to a low of 76 per cent in science.
The education ministry says the exams will help make sure all students are leaving high school with basic skills.
The test results will also continue to be available by school and district, like the FSA tests they have replaced, so parents - and districts - can see how they are doing at educating students.
It seems like a reasonable set of goals.
But the BC Teachers' Federation disagrees, and is urging its members not to mark the essay answers that are part of the English exams. (Everything else is marked by machines.) If ordered to mark the exams, teachers are supposed to "comply with the order under protest."
The union's objections is only partly to the exams themselves. They also oppose a change that requires students to pass Grade 10 courses in English, Science, Social Studies, Math, Planning and Phys Ed as part of the qualifications for a high school diploma.
The Grade 10 courses are tougher than some of the options available to students in Grade 11 and 12, the teachers' federation says. Now, students can be fail the Grade 10 courses and be enrolled in less demanding courses in Grade 11 and 12. They can still pass those, and get a high school diploma. Without that alternative, the struggling students may just drop out.
It's a legitimate debate, and one that teachers have an important role in. A high school diploma has to mean something in terms of basic skills; the issue is whether the bar being set in requiring all students to pass a half-dozen Grade 10 courses is reasonable and useful. (Does it really make sense, for example, to deny a student a high school diploma because she failed Grade 10 phys ed or the traditionally lame Planning course?)
But teachers are just one voice in the discussion, and their opinions are compromised by their consistent opposition to any sort of external testing or evaluation of students - and implicitly of the relative effectiveness of teachers and schools. Parents and the community have a right to independent assessment of just how well children are learning.
The dispute comes against a background of wretched relations between this government and the teachers' federation. Both sides share the blame for that state of affairs.
But ultimately, the decision on what testing is required to ensure educational success rests with the government, not the BC Teachers' Federation.
Footnote: The wider issue is the ridiculous emphasis put on highly unreliable high school marks as an indicator of future success. Universities and colleges rely almost entirely on Grade 12 marks to admit students, a process that leaves some of the brightest and best stranded on the sidelines.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Government is a pimp for desperate women from other countries

VICTORIA - Most Canadians would be dead ashamed to know that their government is playing pimp to desperate women from around the world.
But it is, helping to recruiting 665 women last year to come to Canada and work in sleazy strip clubs, doing lap dances and more for half-drunk men.
Federal Immigration Minister Judy Sgro is in trouble for allegedly giving preferential treatment to one of those women, a Romanian stripper who worked on her election campaign.
But that's not the real scandal.
For seven years now the Canadian government has been a partner in the global sex trade, offering special two-year immigration permits to women recruited to come here and work in strip clubs. Send a naked picture to immigration officials - that's demanded to prove that you're willing to do the work - and the usually tough immigration rules are relaxed.
The special visa program is supposed to cover jobs that Canadians can't or won't do.
But strip club owners have managed to convince the federal government that they should have the right to hunt the world for desperate women to work the floors of their bars. It is a national disgrace.
It's no coincidence that the program started seven years ago. University of Toronto la professor Audrey Macklin, who has studied the issue, says that's when strip clubs began demanding contact with customers and sex acts from dancers. They couldn't find Canadian women willing to enter this new branch of the sex trade, so they appealed to the Liberal government for help. And to their shame, the government said yes.
Anyone who spent even one moment thinking about the implications of this program for the women would know it's a disaster. Young women are recruited from Costa Rica or Mexico or Romania, either by local agents or brokers who travel from Canada to find them and recruit them to work in Canadian bars.
It's all legal. The government issues visas - once immigration officials see the nude photo and a job offer - and the women are brought here. They know no one, often speak little English and are completely dependent on the brokers, who arrange apartments - often over-priced - tell them where to work and generally control their lives. They are sent back home if they stop working, or complain about being forced into the sex trade.
It is a formula for exploitation.
The government can't plead ignorance. Almost from the time the program began, police and others have been warning that the women were being exploited and coerced into the sex trade.
Six years ago the RCMP, immigration officials and Toronto-area police launched a major investigation that found many of the women were sex slaves, exploited and abused with no way out. They were recruited to dance - or in some cases told they would be cleaning, or singing in clubs - and ended up working as prostitutes.
Other investigations have revealed the same pattern of abuse and exploitation. Once they are here, the women are controlled and pressured to perform sex acts with the bar's customers. Saying no means deportation, at best. Canadians could walk away from the demands; these women can't
Incredibly, Sgro still defends the program. Strip bars are "a strong industry," she says, and if they need help recruiting young women from poor countries as fresh meat, then the Canadian government will be there for them.
Imagine someone you love so desperate that she agrees to be treated this way, and how you would feel about the government that was a partner in her debasement.
Others claim the program offers the women an opportunity. But if Canada cared for one second about the women, it could offer visa programs that would allow them a chance to use other skills in in this country. Instead, it wants sex trade workers.
Canada mouth its opposition to the global sex trade, and trafficking in women.
But its actions show it for just another pimp.
Footnote: The sex bar business does have clout; Sgro's top aide went to a strip bar to meet with a disgruntled owner. But it's time politicians heard from Canadians who don't want their government sponsoring global trafficking in women for the sex trade. Sgro's email address is and Prime Minister Paul Martin's is

Monday, November 29, 2004

Surplus good news, but puts Liberals to test

VICTORIA - It should be unalloyed good news that the B.C. government is heading towards a $2.2 billion surplus this year.
Instead, the pot of cash holds some big headaches for the Liberals.
Finance Minister Gary Collins and a clutch of finance ministry officials presented the latest budget mid-year report Monday in the basement of the legislature.
It was good news. The surplus, which Collins predicted would be $200 million at the beginning of the fiscal year, looks to be $2.2 billion. Part of that is due to an $800-million one-time boost from Ottawa, but that still leaves a $1.4-billion surplus.
And the latest forecasts show B.C. with the second strongest provincial economy this year and next, trailing only Alberta.
"This is exactly where governments want to be," enthused Collins.
It is handy to be heading into an election with money to spend, but the surplus carries some political risks.
The Liberals are going to be defined by what they decide to do with the money, and it is hugely important to their prospects in the May election.
There are three options, and infinite variations on how they are weighted. Governments can spend surpluses on programs and services to make life better for citizens. They can cut taxes, reducing the revenue governments take in and shrinking future surpluses. Or they can pay down the debt.
What the public wants, based on consultations by the legislature's finance committee, is more spending on health, education, social services and other needs. The committee's responses showed British Columbians wanted 80 cents on any surplus dollars to go to services. Debt repayment should get 14 cents and tax cuts six cents, the said.
Though that's only one indicator, as Collins rightly noted Monday, it highlights the problem for the Campbell party
What the Liberals have said over the past three years is that they have not wanted to cut budgets for ministries like children and families. It has been a necessary evil, forced by a lack of money.
What their critics have suggested is that the Liberals simply don't like government, and would prefer a much smaller role for it on principle. (And that they in fact forced that outcome with their first day 25-per-cent tax cut.)
Now both theories will be put to the test. If the Liberals really didn't want to cut the children and families' budget, or funding to women's centres, they can now put the money back. If they never really thought the programs were worth much, they can pay down the debt or offer more tax cuts.
There's no magic formula or right answer. It's always sensible to pay down debt. But the government has already committed $350 million this year and B.C.'s debt is low compared with other provinces, and easily manageable. Some targeted tax cuts might encourage investment, but broadly B.C. is competitive.
That leaves spending increases.
Those are tricky too. A benefit - perhaps intended - of the Liberals' tax cuts is that they forced ministries to reduce spending. It is one rough way of cutting, forcing managers to find a way to get by with less money.
Now the government has a lot of room to spend money on making peoples' lives better.
The LIberals' plan already calls for a program spending increase of almost two per cent in the pre-election budget coming in February. But with the new financial forecasts, the government could easily add six per cent to its spending - enough to eliminate surgical wait lists for most procedures, or offer universal child care, or a huge literacy initiative.
It's a time for real choices, and those are never easy. There are those within the Liberal party who would put both tax cuts and paying down the debt ahead of improving services.
If they win the day then the party will suffer at the polls in May.
Footnote: Collins is now set to earn a place in the B.C. record books as the finance minister who delivered both the largest surplus and the largest deficit in the province's history, in one term. It's a remarkable indication of how extraordinarily volatile the province's economy can be.