It was just three months ago that British Columbia's teachers settled a long and fractious labour dispute, but already the next round of bargaining is coming up. And whatever the outcome of the May, 2013, provincial election, teachers will face an unsympathetic government on the issue of class size.
At an editorial board meeting with The Globe and Mail, NDP Leader Adrian Dix said Tuesday that his bargaining priority would be to address the number of special-needs students integrated into the classroom. "The key issue is composition," he said.
Which is precisely the position adopted by the B.C. Liberal government.
When the government announced a $165-million "learning-improvement fund" last spring, it too focused on the composition of the class rather than the total number of students in each classroom.
"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," then-education-minister George Abbott said.
Mr. Dix said such issues should be negotiated at the bargaining table but signalled clearly where he wants education dollars to flow: "When I talk to teachers and parents, I hear composition more than class size."
That's a frustration, however, to the B.C. Teachers' Federation, which has fought to reduce class sizes for more than a decade.
The union and the public-school employers' association are due back at the bargaining table in March, 2013. Unless a settlement is reached in record time, it is likely these will be the first major public-sector contract talks to confront the government after the provincial election in May.
It will be the first round of bargaining in more than a decade where the teachers' union will be allowed to negotiate class size and composition. But the message from Victoria, on both sides of the fence, is that these are lean times and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce the number of kids in each classroom will not be a bargaining priority on the government side.
If the NDP is to shed its reputation of being in the pocket of public-sector unions – something Mr. Dix is trying to do – bargaining with the teachers would be crucial if there is a Dix-led government. But in advance of the election, Mr. Dix has already quietly sent a message: Although he has been "almost relentlessly" meeting with business organizations, he seems to have found little time for the party's traditional allies at the BCTF.
Susan Lambert, president of the BCTF, said she hasn't talked to the NDP Leader since last spring. "I'm hoping for a meeting in the near future," she said in an interview on Tuesday. She wants to persuade him that class composition is only part of the picture, that class size needs to be reduced to improve education.
Mr. Dix, speaking at the editorial board meeting, noted that, after a dozen years in opposition, there is enormous pent-up demand from NDP supporters to make changes if his party wins the election. But he said he sees little room to ramp up spending programs. "There are some things I absolutely support that I cannot do," he said.
Ms. Lambert said she wouldn't expect an NDP government to boost education funding overnight, but she wants a commitment nonetheless.
"We expect any government to adopt a multiyear plan of restoring funding to public education to what it used to be – and then bringing it up to what it needs to be," she said. "That will require a significant infusion of dollars."