Friday, October 14, 2011

Teachers, government clash; students lose

Parents probably want to know one thing about the B.C. Teachers’ Federation latest excursion in B.C. Supreme Court — will it make escalating job action in the schools less likely?
Probably not. Barring big changes in the way the union and government are approaching the issue, the current labour dispute will follow the common path of escalating disruption, posturing by both sides and legislation imposing a contract.
The union went to court to ask Justice Susan Griffin for clarification of an earlier ruling. In April, she found the government had violated the teachers’ Charter rights by stripping provisions from their contract in 2002. Legislation removing class size and composition limits — that, is the number of special needs students allowed in any one class — was hastily introduced without consultation, negotiation or an effort to find a less draconian solution than gutting legal agreements, the court ruled. The teachers had a right to negotiate changes to contracted working conditions.
Griffin gave the parties 12 months to come up with a solution before she imposed one.
The BCTF starting point is that the government should put the former provisions back in the contract. That would cost about $300 million a year, as more teachers would have to be hired if class sizes were reduced, as well as more special needs workers.
The government, naturally, takes a different approach. It believes a good faith effort to resolve the issues through discussion should be enough to satisfy the court. Sort of a “better late than never” approach to what it should have done in the first place.
So far the government has promised $30 million next year, rising to $75 million in the following two years, to help improve the situation for special needs students and teachers. That’s about $18,000 per school in the first year, enough to hire an extra part-time aide. Education Minister George Abbott has refused to address the broader issue of class size limits.
The union went back to court to ask Griffin to clarify her ruling (or really, to back its interpretation). She told the union go away and sort out the problems with the government.
The most likely outcome would be a deadlock and return to the courts in April to let Griffin impose a solution, with both sides gambling they’ll prevail.
At the same time, in a parallel process, the BCTF and the employer (really the government) are in contract talks.
The union wants big pay increases and other contract improvements. The government says teachers will have to accept a pay freeze like other public sector unions, in part because any increase for teachers would trigger “us-too” clauses in other contracts.
Teachers’ job action is already affecting schools and Abbott has mused about imposing a contract. That’s not likely to happen until the government decides the public is fed up enough to accept a legislated agreement and the removal of the teachers’ right to bargain (and strike).
The class size and composition issue, if linked to contract talks, could be helpful. The government could maintain its pay freeze in the new contract. But teachers could get extra money — and more jobs for members — if there was action on class size or composition.
But that would require a pragmatic, mature approach to negotiations, something uncommon in BCTF-government talks.
Meanwhile, the government is preparing to launch a big education overhaul. It’s all vague so far, but Abbott promises personalized learning for every student, quality teaching and learning more flexibility and choice for students and parents and new technology, both in classroom and for students who choose to learn at home.
That initiative could offer opportunities for progress on the contract, if it meant more resources for teachers — or increase conflict if teachers oppose some of the measures.
Footnote: The education changes will include an overhaul or abolition of the B.C. College of Teachers, which certifies and regulates teachers. The college has been dominated by the union and appeared to be ineffective in dealing with wrongdoing, putting the interests of teachers ahead of the students. At least some of the changes will be included in legislation that could be introduced within days.