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b.c. election 2017

Madeleine Freedman, 21, poses for a photograph in Toronto. Freedman is a third year University of Toronto student whose graduation was delayed because of a B.C. teachers’ strike.

The BC Liberal government's tenure has been overshadowed by labour conflicts and legal challenges over the public education system. Wendy Stueck looks at how the system, and students, have fared

For nearly two decades in B.C., conflict has been part of public school students' educational experience.

Strife between the 41,000-member B.C. Teachers' Federation and the provincial government was a backdrop to students' time in the classroom and on occasion interrupted it. For some students, the long-running dispute between the Liberal government and the BCTF – bookended by legislation introduced in 2002 and a Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2016 – lasted their entire school career.

During a televised leaders' debate on April 27, NDP Leader John Horgan highlighted that timeline.

Read more: Who's who in the backrooms of the B.C. election campaigns

"You've never apologized to the kids who lost a generation of educational opportunity," Mr. Horgan said to Liberal Leader Christy Clark.

"You've never apologized to their parents, you've never apologized to teachers – will you do that today, will you apologize to the kids, the generation, that you stole?"

In response, Ms. Clark said education is the most important investment government can make and highlighted B.C. students' academic achievement.

"Our kids in B.C. are No. 1 in reading, in international comparisons around the world, number two in science, number six in math," Ms. Clark said.

"And as a result of the agreement we came to with the BCTF, we are adding just about 3,000 teachers to classrooms, which I think will make it even better."

Those teachers are being hired following a court decision that requires the Liberal government to restore contract provisions stripped from teachers' contracts in 2002.

But has the long-running tension between government and teachers affected results and if so, how?

Here's a look at some of the benchmarks.

Completion rate

This indicator looks at the proportion of public school students who graduate within six years of enrolling in Grade 8. B.C.'s rate has improved during the time the Liberals have been in power, climbing from 76.5 per cent in 2002 to 83.2 per cent in 2016.

The completion rate has also climbed for specific groups of students within the system: The rate for aboriginal students climbed from 42.5 per cent in 2002 to 64.4 per cent in 2016. The rate for special-needs students rose from 32.5 per cent to 66.2 per cent over the same period. For English Language Learners, the rate rose from 79.1 per cent to 87.1 per cent.

With thousands of special education teachers, counsellors and teacher-librarians headed into classrooms, the rate could be expected to rise further in coming years.

The BCTF says B.C.'s completion rate reflects the skills and dedication of a diminished work force and shouldn't be used to gloss over gaps in the system.


In citing B.C. students' scores in reading, science and math, Ms. Clark looked to the Programme for International Student Assessment.

Run every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, PISA is a survey that tests reading, science and math skills of 15-year-old students around the world.

It was first administered in 2000 in 32 countries. The sixth and most recent assessment, for 2015, involved 72 countries. In Canada, about 20,000 students from 900 schools from 10 provinces participated.

In PISA 2015, B.C. Grade 10 students ranked first among OECD countries in reading, second in science and sixth in math. In the preceding survey, for 2012, B.C. students ranked second in reading, third in science and 10th in math.

PISA is not without controversy. The BCTF and other critics have raised concerns about the survey's narrow focus and its impact on government policies, including an increased focus on standardized tests and a corresponding increase in stress levels for students and teachers.

Additionally, teachers and students say the statistics don't tell the whole story of the tumult caused by the fight over staffing levels.

The student

Madeleine Freedman is one of thousands of B.C. students whose time in school dovetailed with the legal dispute.

Her experience included crowded classrooms – she recalls eight portables at her high school, Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary in Surrey – and not being able to get into her chosen electives, because they were full. (Crowding remains an issue in Surrey.)

In 2012, when teachers' job action hit extracurricular activities, she missed training for sports meets.

Now attending the University of Toronto, she was in Grade 12 in June, 2014, when teachers went on strike. She ended up graduating late, in January the following year, because she didn't have access to teaching support for an online course she was taking as an elective.

Madeleine Freedman, 21, poses for a photograph in Toronto.

She wrote a provincial exam for the course in June and got 98 per cent. But because she hadn't officially filed plans to "challenge" exam before she took it, she was required to complete the course work – which required a teacher to mark assignments, something that wasn't available while teachers were on strike.

The university allowed her to start in September despite not having officially completed high school, Ms. Freedman said. She won a District Dogwood Authority Award – a $1,250 voucher to put toward post-secondary education – but it was revoked, because she failed to graduate by August of the year in which it was rewarded.

She is currently working on a degree in Canadian studies, with minors in Indigenous studies and human geography, and hopes to go to law school. She recalls friends worrying about report cards, university admissions and grades.

"The [labour dispute] has impacted a lot of us and is a big issue in the upcoming election," she said in an e-mail.

The teacher

Nancy Palejko is a high school teacher in Vancouver. She teaches French and Spanish to students in Grades 9 through 12.

A lengthy dispute

A brief history of the battle over B.C. education:

2002 Liberals pass bills that remove class size and composition language and prevent teachers from negotiating those issues in future contracts.

2005 Government extends the three-year contract that was imposed in 2002, with no wage increase. Teachers vote in favour of a strike and walk off the job in October. They return to work later that month.

2006 The BC Teachers’ Federation and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association reach a five-year deal that includes a one-time signing bonus and a wage increase.

2010 The BCTF files a court challenge to the 2002 legislation.

2011 B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin finds the 2002 legislation was unconstitutional and gives the government a year to fix it. The government does not appeal.

2012 Government brings in Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act. Teachers walk out for three days over contract concerns.

2013 BCTF files a court challenge to the new bill.

2014 Justice Griffin finds the replacement bill was virtually identical to previous legislation. She also finds the government bargained in bad faith with the union and tried to goad it into a strike. The province appeals this decision. Teachers go on strike in June; the dispute carries into the new school year. In September, the BCTF and the government reach a six-year deal that expires in 2019; it allows for renegotiation depending on the outcome of court cases.

2015 B.C. Court of Appeal overturns Justice Griffin’s 2014 decision. The BCTF seeks leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

November, 2016 The Supreme Court of Canada upholds the 2014 Griffin decision, citing the dissenting opinion of Justice Ian Donald from the Court of Appeal ruling. The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision restores nearly 1,400 clauses across 60 collective agreements.

January, 2017 Government and BCTF reach an interim agreement for $50-million for up to 1,100 full-time employees during the 2016-2017 school year.

February, 2017 Provincial budget includes $740-million over three years for education.

March, 2017 Government and BCTF reach a deal to restore contract language. Schools districts start the process of hiring staff and reorganizing classrooms.

She started teaching in 2001 and followed the court case as it unfolded.

That labour dispute has not been the only sore point in the education sector. There are also long-standing tensions over the pace of seismic upgrades and education funding. The Liberal government says funding is at record levels; advocates say it falls short of what is required to cover costs, including supplies.

In its pre-budget submission in November, 2016, the select standing committee on finance and government services – made up of MLAs from both the NDP and the Liberals – said numerous groups raised issues related to "adequacy, predictability and allocation of funding." The committee acknowledged the need for "predictable, stable and adequate funding for K-12 education, and the need for a review of the current funding formula."

Ms. Palejko is optimistic about the changes that will result from restored contract language. Right now, her classes routinely run to 30 students. Of those, up to five might have special needs recognized by the school district, another five might be learning English as second language and another handful might have behavioural or learning difficulties that are not officially designated and therefore get no additional classroom support.

"So in any given class, I might have anywhere from five to 15 students who are having trouble focusing, understanding the English, keeping up the thread of what is going on," Ms. Palejko says.

"It's difficult to make it truly apparent how little time this problematic composition leaves for things like one-on-one time for each student," she says.

Under restored contract language, some of her classes will be capped at around 24 students and others at 28. There will be also be restrictions on how many special education students can be in respective classes.

"When I have a smaller class, I can spend the extra minute as opposed to the extra second – it's not like I need 20 minutes with each kid, I just need two – you can actually have a big talk in two minutes."