You can have labour peace in some provinces all of the time, and in all provinces some of the time, but you can’t have labour peace in all the provinces all the time, and for that we can blame British Columbia teachers. The B.C. Teachers Federation and the provincial government have been on an antagonistic footing for so long now, that it would probably feel weird if they started to like each other. This has got to stop. The upcoming school year is now in jeopardy over a strike that wiped out the last two weeks of the previous year. Worse, the two sides are locked in mortal combat over an issue that is arguably irrelevant: classroom size and composition. We hate to say something so obvious, but it’s time to think of the children.
Neither side has acquitted itself particularly well by failing to negotiate a deal over the summer, but the facts that are known tend to put the government in a better light than the union. Twice, the government has failed in its legislated efforts to strip teachers of the right to bargain class size and composition (for example, the number of special-needs students in each class). In each case, the B.C. Supreme Court said the government violated the teachers’ constitutional rights. Fair enough.
But who can blame a government, in times of austerity, for trying to retain control of such a critical cost issue? By some estimates, every time the B.C. government lowers average classroom size by one student, it costs $150-million. To lower it by five would cost three-quarters of a billion dollars. And there is far from sufficient evidence to prove that lowering classroom size is, in and of itself, an efficient and plausible way to improve education. There is, in fact, evidence that, outside of preschool and the early grades, class size has no impact on student outcomes.
And yet the union and its members continue to say this is the hill they will die on. They are not striking for better salaries, they claim; they are doing it in the name of smaller classrooms. This in spite of the fact the government has already set limits of 22 students in kindergarten and 24 in grades 1 to 3, which are respectable figures and comparable to most other jurisdictions. As well, the government has created a fund that schools can draw on to hire additional staff when a teacher is overloaded by the demands, for instance, of special needs or English-as-second-language students.
The union, though, is still insisting on smaller class sizes. And until it gets it, it has shown itself to be quite prepared to go with an average class size of zero for as long as it takes and regardless of cost. The government has been right to stand up for its right to control classroom size. It’s the union that needs to blink.