Friday, January 07, 2011

Falcon's confusing merit-pay pitch underwhelms

Kevin Falcon's proposal to introduce merit pay for teachers remains a mystery. That's not a good thing in a leadership campaign.
In interviews this week, Falcon proposed a radical re-ordering of teachers' compensation that would lead to huge battles with their union.
No more pay grid based on seniority with regular raises. "Teachers' growth in income shouldn't just be determined by how long they have been in a classroom, but by how well they are doing their job," he said.
Hard to argue with in the abstract. My children had teachers who were brilliant, committed and devoted great amounts of extra time to helping students and they had some who were duds. It would be nice if their pay recognized their effectiveness.
And the idea is would appeal to the party's right wing.
But it's pointlessly impractical. There's no way to measure teacher effectiveness currently in place in B.C. Any effort would involve huge costs, including much more testing.
It's not a realistic goal in bargaining with the B.C. Teachers Federation, which is adamantly opposed. Going ahead would mean - once more - using legislation to rip up contracts the government has already agreed to.
And there is mixed evidence on whether merit pay actually improves educational outcomes for students.
All in, not a sound public policy proposal.
In a campaign press release, Falcon changed directions, proposing a "master teacher incentive program." Better teachers - judged on a range of criteria, from test result improvements to peer reviews to parents' reviews - would get extra pay.
They would be encouraged to share their skills and experience as mentors. The program could be extended to whole schools, Falcon said.
The model could be based on a proposal by Australia's Labour government, he said.
That would be expensive. Australia proposes to pay almost 10 per cent of teachers an extra $8,000 a year in merit pay. The cost in B.C. would be about $25 million.
And Australia hasn't actually done it, so there are no results to monitor.
But it's a more sensible proposal than empty talk about a merit-pay plan with no chance of implementation or strong supporting evidence.
The whole process left Falcon looking like a less-than-serious candidate. No one should expect fully costed, studied proposals during a leadership race. Part of the point is to hear new ideas from the contenders.
But it's reasonable to expect clarity about what the candidate is proposing, rather than two contradictory versions.
It would also have been welcome if Falcon had talked about a more modest, inclusive approach, rather than another provincewide edict from government.
Why not invite three school districts to submit merit pay plans, developed with teachers (and their union), principals, school board and school councils, fund them and see what worked?
All the candidates should be addressing some of the major education issues - dismal graduation rates for aboriginal students, the loss of students to private schools, the failure to improve student achievement (while acknowledging it is, compared to other jurisdictions, very good).
Falcon also got things wrong in his press release. "A high quality education system is the best anti-poverty initiative and the best health program government can advance," he said.
Educational achievement is critical for creating opportunities for individuals and a strong province. Educated graduates are healthier and less likely to be poor.
But Falcon has it backward.
Reducing the number of poor kids in B.C. is the best educational and health program government can advance.
Children who grow up in poverty have lower educational achievement, worse lifetime health and lower incomes and are more likely to commit crimes. Those are facts.
Instead of expecting the school system to change all that, we need to hear a plan - so far missing after nine years of Liberal government - to reduce the number of children living in poverty in this rich province.
Footnote: George Abbott rejected, nicely, Falcon's plan. He called for a broader focus on helping students in their first years in school. Christ Clark said the idea had merit, but wasn't worth the conflict it would create. Mike de Jong said he needed more information before commenting.

Government news, or party advertising

I wrote last month about a highly spun provincial government release on job grown reported in StatsCan monthly release, suggesting in a post that taxpayers shouldn't be paying for what looked like party advertising.
The point was reinforced this month. B.C. lost 22,000 jobs, 19,900 of them full-time, StatsCan reported.
But there was no release from the provincial government.
If news releases about job numbers are actually a useful government communications effort, then they would go out whether the numbers made the party in power look good, or bad, and would provide context.
If releases only are sent when the news is good, then the party should be paying — as the Liberals would have once, long ago, agreed.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Softwood border skirmish raises issue for B.C. taxpayers

The latest skirmish in the perpetual softwood lumber battle with the U.S. is worth your attention.
American lumber producers are complaining, again, that B.C. is subsidizing forest companies based in the province. That’s giving the companies an unfair advantage and costing profits and jobs in the U.S., they argue.
If the complaints are legitimate, it also means B.C. taxpayers are losing out on payments we should be getting for the trees.
The American grumbling is to be expected. The industry maintains a pretty much permanent effort to fight imported lumber from Canada, using lobbyists, political allies and the softwood lumber agreement appeals process.
But their criticisms are being supported by forest researchers here and at least one Canadian industry executive.
The issue is stumpage. We own most of the trees in the province. Companies have to pay for them when they cut them down. The price is set by government, partly based on market forces.
The American producers argue the stumpage system is rigged to give the companies the wood at a big discount. Their companies, which pay market prices for trees on private land, can’t compete.
The pine beetle is at the centre of the latest offensive.
The government sets a dirt-cheap stumpage rate for low-value wood - traditionally trees too small or low quality to be used for lumber, which ended up being shredded and made into pulp. The rate, at 25 cents per cubic metre, pretty much gives the trees away. The stumpage rate for trees destined for lumber has been about 50 times greater.
But since the latest softwood agreement was signed in 2006, more and more wood has graded at the lowest rate. About 10 per cent of logs used for timber used to qualify for the 25-cent rate, the U.S. industry says. That’s climbed to 50 per cent. (All this courtesy of a report in The Oregonian, Portland’s newspaper. The issue has been getting media attention south of the border.)
Forest Minister Pat Bell says the stumpage being charged is appropriate. Vast tracts of dead forest, killed by the pine beetle, are deteriorating in quality. The trees are worth less and tougher to use for lumber.
But Rick Doman, tracked down by the Oregonian, disagrees. He fought unsuccessfully to save Doman Industries, his families’ Island-based forest company and now runs Eacom Timber Group of Montreal.
Doman says the U.S. producers are right. Good quality wood is being graded falsely to give the companies a great deal. The pine beetle-killed lumber was good enough to use in the Richmond Olympic Oval, he notes.
The Canadian companies are getting a gift from government, the U.S. industry faces unfair competition and B.C. taxpayers are the “losers,” he told the Oregonian.
It’s tough to know who is right. Government forest revenues have plummeted from $1.2 billion in 2005-6 to about $345 million last year. But the recession and collapse of the U.S. housing market were the major factors.
Still, forestry revenues were equal to 19 per cent of the value of exports in 2005; that’s fallen to 12 per cent in 2009. If trees had been selling to the companies for the same average stumpage levels today as they were four years ago, taxpayers could expect an extra $200 million in revenue this year.
The consultation process under the softwood lumber agreement didn’t produce any settlement. The next step, while political pressure continues, is arbitration.
British Columbians should be watching that with as much interest as the American industry.
The whole issue would be a useful topic for review by the province’s auditor general. As well as concerns about stumpage rates, earlier reviews have highlighted risks in letting companies set their own grades for public wood, an inadequate number of spot checks and puny fines for violations.
Footnote: The low stumpage rates have protected jobs. The cheap timber has encouraged companies to invest in more efficient mills in the interior to deal with the pine beetle-killed wood and opened opportunities in using the fibre to produce electricity.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Government buys an addiciton treatment centre

Jody Paterson draws attention to a surprising announcement from the government three days before Christmas. It's stepping in to spend $3 million to buy the property occupied by the Baldy Hughes Treatment Centre near Prince George, and promising more than $1 million annually in operating funds.
The project, based on a program in Italy, was launched by former Liberal MLA and cabinet minister Lorne Mayencourt. It's an interesting project, but the one-off deal takes a lot of money as existing addiction programs struggle with underfunding.