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Premier Christy Clark in the BC Legislature in Victoria, May 30, 2011. (Adrian Lam / The Globe and Mail/Adrian Lam / The Globe and Mail)
Premier Christy Clark in the BC Legislature in Victoria, May 30, 2011. (Adrian Lam / The Globe and Mail/Adrian Lam / The Globe and Mail)

B.C. Throne Speech pitches millions for special needs education Add to ...

With education in the forefront of Premier Christy Clark’s first Throne Speech, the B.C. government is offering tens of millions of dollars to assist special needs students in the classroom but has rejected demands to reduce class sizes.

It’s the latest gambit in a battle with teachers that began in 2002 over the B.C. government’s law on class size and composition and promises to drag on throughout this fall’s labour dispute with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

Monday’s pledge is a step toward addressing a Supreme Court ruling that the law is illegal.

The courts found the government wrongly stripped teachers of the right to negotiate the makeup of classrooms – student numbers and how many special needs students are integrated into each class.

“Because teachers make the difference between good students and great students, our government will dedicate funding to address issues of class composition,” said the speech, read by Lieutenant-Governor Steven Point.

The BCTF has gone back to court to press for a firmer ruling, but Education Minister George Abbott said later on Monday that he is prepared to put money on the table – he promised the funds would start at “tens of millions of dollars” – to deal with special needs education when negotiations with teachers on the issue of class size and composition resume.

The teachers’ group walked away from the talks in mid-September, saying that a proposed “class organization fund” fell far short, and that it would not return until a court hearing scheduled for Oct. 11 clarifies the ruling.

Mr. Abbott said the province has no intention of providing the money to reduce class sizes.

“I am not persuaded by the empirical evidence that class size is where we should be investing our education dollars. For $150-million, you could reduce every class in British Columbia by one student. I don’t believe that would strengthen our education system.”

While the throne speech raised the prospect that public servants could see wage increases next year after a two-year freeze, the current round of B.C. teachers’ labour contract talks – separate from negotiations on class size and composition – wouldn’t be affected.

The speech also promises an overhaul of the agency that regulates school teachers to “ensure that those very few individuals who abuse their positions of trust are removed and not permitted to return.”

For the rest of the public sector, the Throne Speech sounded a more conciliatory note. The province is prepared to back off its “net zero” wage mandate for public sector bargaining next year if other savings can be found to pay for increases.

Under the current mandate, public sector unions can negotiate wage increases only if they provide alternate savings within their labour contracts. Under the new model, which was quietly rolled out a few weeks ago, wage increases can be proposed for the 2012 round of collective bargaining, but only if savings are found somewhere within the sector.

It is still, in effect, a “net zero” bargaining mandate but it’s unclear how the government will achieve its commitment to balance the budget in 2013 if it gives up needed savings to fund wage increases.

Opposition leader Adrian Dix dismissed the Throne Speech as a disappointing grab-bag of platitudes. “They haven’t done what they needed to do,” he said.

One of the most concrete initiatives in the Throne Speech is a plan to make good on Ms. Clark’s pledge from the B.C. Liberal leadership campaign to create a new statutory holiday, Family Day. However, it won’t start until 2013, because Ms. Clark said employers need time to adjust due to the downturn in the economy.

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