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B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Education Minister Don McRae read a book to a Grade 2 class at K.B. Woodward Elementary School in Surrey on Jan. 24, 2013. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Education Minister Don McRae read a book to a Grade 2 class at K.B. Woodward Elementary School in Surrey on Jan. 24, 2013. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Teachers’ union rejects B.C. Liberals’ olive branch Add to ...

It didn’t take long for the B.C. Teachers’ Federation to shoot down the provincial government’s proposal for a 10-year peace agreement. Premier Christy Clark would hardly have been surprised by the union’s response.

There was no way the union was going to gift-wrap a winning issue for Ms. Clark’s Liberals mere months in advance of a general election campaign. The BCTF wants the governing party to lose and lose badly. That said, the union’s obduracy will not stop the Premier from campaigning on a populist idea that many British Columbians will likely heartily endorse.

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And that includes many teachers.

Because of the timing, it’s difficult to separate the politics of this plan from any merits it may possess. Is this a genuine effort by the government to repair one of the most dysfunctional and disruptive relationships in the province, or an attempt to stump and grandstand on a proposition that many voters would cheer? The government knows that the Opposition New Democrats could never endorse the policy, which ensures that the Liberals’ archrivals won’t benefit politically from any positive response it might engender on the campaign trail.

Setting motive aside for a moment, however, it’s hard not to approve of the plan’s underlying intent. Students in the K-12 system in B.C. have been ill-served for too long by the broken association governments in B.C. have had with teachers and their bargaining agents. And certainly both sides have been to blame. In the last decade, the animus between the governing Liberals and the BCTF has been almost palpable at times.

But is this plan the answer to repairing relations?

A dedicated fund to address education priorities is certainly something for which educators have long been calling. The establishment of a new policy council that would include various stakeholders in education seems like a sensible idea. A compensation system that is based on the average of major public-sector wage increases is a formula many people in the private sector would accept in a minute. And a new bargaining system that gives teachers the full right to strike – while a gamble – does make the process more transparent.

What I particularly like about the new bargaining plan is that if the two sides can’t agree on a new contract, the teachers would have to declare at the beginning of the school year if they are going on strike or not. If the teachers decide to strike, it’s better that it happen at the beginning of the school year, rather than in the middle or three-quarters of the way through. That way, whatever time is lost through strike action can be tacked on to the end of the school year.

So there is a lot to like in this plan. But there are two central issues that rankle the union. One is compensation. The BCTF doesn’t believe teachers should be measured against other public-sector unions in B.C. It wants teachers here to be rated against what teachers in other parts of the country are making. On some levels that is understandable. Doctors make the same argument. So do other professional groups.

But at the end of the day, it’s what the government in this province is able to pay, not what the governments in Alberta or Saskatchewan or Ontario are able to give their educators. This is an ideological divide between the BCTF and government that I’m not sure can be easily bridged.

The other issue the BCTF has is class size and composition. Teachers recently won back the right to bargain these areas. The BCTF asserts that this plan effectively takes that right away and puts it in the hands of the policy council whose decisions aren’t necessarily binding. (The provincial government disputes this.) Beyond that, the union is only one voice at the table. It is outnumbered by other stakeholders who may not view the world the same way it does. So I can see why the union isn’t buying the idea. This aspect of the government’s proposal would have to be changed for it to have any hope of flying.

It would be too cynical to completely dismiss this 10-year proposal as a publicity stunt in advance of an election, because it contains many recommendations that have been made in the past by well-meaning educators who have worked in the system for some time. And the fact is, we do have to find a better way when it comes to the relationship between government and the province’s teachers.

Whether this document provides that way remains to be seen. But it should at least serve as a starting point for a reasonable discussion.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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