Is there a better answer to teachers' dispute?

As the latest contract dispute involving B.C.'s teachers careens towards the inevitably unsatisfactory conclusion for all involved, it's worth asking whether another bargaining model should be adopted.

But while it may be worth it to pose the question, it's far from clear that any alternative exists that is the magic solution that would satisfy all parties.

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Take binding arbitration, the most commonly referred to option to the current system. I've not heard enthusiasm for this solution from either the employer or the teachers' union.

The problem with binding arbitration for the parties involved in it is that it can lead to an outcome that is beyond the control of those affected.

For the employer, this can mean a financial arbitration that may greatly exceed its ability to pay, or may have a "domino" effect on other contracts involving other groups of its employees (i.e. other public sector unions) with the total financial impact being substantially higher than anything contemplated in a single set of negotiations.

For a union like the B.C. Teachers' Federation, binding arbitration would mean it would have to buy into the notion that its wage proposals (always substantially higher than any other public sector union) would likely have to be scaled back considerably to be treated seriously by an arbitrator.

Of course, prior to 1987, binding arbitration was actually used to settle teachers' pay (and few other issues). That was the year the Social Credit government of the day gave the BCTF the right to strike, which led to full collective bargaining.

But if binding arbitration was to be used today, it presumably would include many more cost items, not the least of which would be the thorny and expensive issues of class size and class composition. The fact both parties likely fear that an arbitrator could rule against their self-interest on these issues is another big reason for the lack of enthusiasm for that model.

And frankly, I'm not sure binding arbitration could adequately deal with the class size/composition situation. That's because it's a very complex issue, and it's as much about a philosophical split between the employer and the union as it is about funding.

The BCTF wants fixed rules in place that govern how many special needs students can be in a particular classroom, while the employer argues the system needs flexibility to deal with what can  be  very complex situations (the employer also argues fixed ratios are actually discriminatory against special needs kids).

The union's position inevitably translates into more classrooms being created, and therefore more teachers being hired (this fits with the BCTF's constant struggle for control of the classroom). The employer's position would presumably not create the same number of classrooms.

Each side exaggerates the merits of its own position, and the dire consequences of the other's. There's no question the issues involved are vital, but I wonder if most people even know what is meant by "special needs" when it comes to diagnosing children.

Do people know there are actually 12 "categories" of special needs? They include: physically dependent, deaf or blind, moderate to profound intellectual disability, physical disability and chronic health impairment, visual impairment, hard of hearing, autism, severe mental illness, mild intellectual disability, moderate mental illness, learning disability and gifted.

The definitions of what constitutes each category are shaped by diagnostic findings of the American Psychology Association, and those diagnostic tools are used to diagnose students when their parents or their teacher(s) think it's necessary to do so.

And some of the definitions can change. Take autism, for example. In 2000, about 1,300 kids were diagnosed with autism, and this past year the number was 6,750.

Experts say this phenomenal growth is because much more information has become known about autism, and the diagnostic tools are vastly different now than they were back in 2000.

I'm providing this kind of detail because I think it shows the complexity of the situation may be beyond the skill set of a traditional labor arbitrator. Best to leave the decisions surrounding this issue in the hands of those actually running the system - which means teachers and administrators.

The BCTF has made a compelling argument that more funding is needed to address class composition situations, while the employer has made an equally good case about the need for flexibility in the system. Hopefully the two sides can still achieve some middle ground in the current dispute.

To accomplish that, they will have to engage in real collective bargaining. The traditional model hasn't served teachers well for a number of reasons, but binding arbitration may prove to be no better, at least when it comes to class size and composition issues.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.

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