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In B.C. school wars, the pupils are the losers

While the B.C. government funds the K-12 education system in the province, the teachers' union effectively runs it.

That is why, for decades now, the conversation around education has focused almost exclusively on the wants and wishes of teachers instead of the needs of those they are paid to teach.

At least that's the perception of many.

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The B.C. Teachers Federation would argue that everything it is asking for in the name of its dues-paying members is about the kids. So a demand to reduce class sizes is not about lightening the load of educators, but providing a better learning environment for the pupils. Lobbying for the elimination of standardized testing is not about getting rid of something that stresses out a great deal of teachers, but abolishing something that stresses out a great deal of kids.

See how it works?

Once upon a time, after man discovered fire but before Steve Jobs invented the iPhone, the education system in B.C. worked on behalf of children. "It was the envy of the country," says Thomas Fleming, a renowned professor of educational history at the University of Victoria. "People thought it was quiet and harmonious. Both sides of the legislature kept education out of politics."

Now, it's only about politics.

As usual, education is back in the news in B.C. for all the wrong reasons. It is bargaining season, and the teachers' union has made demands that the government says amount to more than $2-billion. The union says this is false and inflammatory and typical of a government that doesn't value teachers.

As part of a job-action strategy, teachers are refusing to do report cards. (Many of them must be thrilled. There are few things about their jobs they hate more.) The B.C. Public School Employers' Association, meantime, has asked the labour relations board to rule that report cards are an essential service. The association is also seeking an order that would require the union to reimburse school districts monthly for 15 per cent of gross salary and benefits for work teachers aren't doing because of their job action.

And so it goes in B.C., where teachers (or at least their union) and the government have the most poisonous and counterproductive relationship in the country.

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Dr. Fleming's new book, Worlds Apart, looks at the evolution of the education system in B.C. over the past 140 years. The first 100 years, it turns out, were actually pretty good. It's the past four decades that have been pretty much a disaster.

Unionized teachers began to become a political force in the late 1960s, and are often considered responsible for helping end the 20-year reign of Social Credit premier W.A.C. Bennett in 1972. The BCTF acquired full collective-bargaining rights in 1987 and is now the most powerful and militant union on the West Coast.

The professor's examination of education policy in B.C. over the past 40 years is a withering indictment of political leadership in the province. But he also puts a large share of the blame regarding a system that is fundamentally broken at the feet of a union that has long been viewed as a political arm of the New Democratic Party.

Consequently, the professor told me, the public school system in B.C. is increasingly irrelevant to its K-12 users. The teachers' union resists any change that doesn't benefit its members while government shies away from making the kind of structural and curriculum moves that should have been made years ago because it doesn't want a fight with the BCTF.

"It is in almost every respect a system built for another age," Dr. Fleming writes. "As it now stands [it]is fractured at its core and directionless."

He says the three institutional pillars of the system – the union, the government and the school trustees – are anti-visionary, anti-technological and completely committed to the status quo.

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Welcome to school wars in B.C., where me-first adults argue and name call and accomplish very little.

"The amount of demonization that goes on in this file is stunning," Dr. Fleming said in an interview. "There is no jurisdiction like it anywhere in the country. It seems we're not happy out here until someone is lying bleeding on the ground. The lack of civility is shocking. The system is in shambles and badly in need of an overhaul."

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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