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Liberals take another swipe at B.C.'s teachers

The introduction last week of yet another education reform package is further evidence the B.C. Liberals remain on a collision course with school trustees and teachers.

The introduction last week of yet another education reform package is further evidence the B.C. Liberals remain on a collision course with school trustees and teachers.

This showdown has been building for years, and one has to wonder what the eventual outcome is going to look like. Will it be a broken education system, beset by a host of structural problems and worries? Or will it be an efficient, streamlined one that will incorporate needed changes?

Either way, it's going to be an increasingly messy brawl for a while yet.  Any hopes the landmark deal reached with the B.C. Teachers Federation last fall would foster a new era of cooperation and non-confrontation in public education are fast disappearing.

The latest education reform package takes a direct shot at both teachers and elected school trustees. 

Last week's innocuously entitled Education Statutes Amendment Act (Bill 11)  took an easy swipe at one vulnerability of B.C.'s teachers: their mysterious professional development days, which seem to have grown like untended weeds over the years. Few parents have any idea what teachers actually do that constitutes "professional development" when a Pro D day occurs (usually at the beginning or end of the week). But they are much more keenly aware of their own reality -- if they have younger school-age children - of having to scramble to find proper child care with the classroom closed for the day.

The government wants teachers to be "accountable" for their activities on Pro D days. Fair enough, I suppose, but one has to wonder why it takes legislation in the newly introduced form to do this.

The new legislation simply creates a two-year consultation process with the BCTF  to come up with some ground rules. But why not establish the rules and guidelines first, and then put them in legislation? Doing it this way simply pokes teachers in the eye needlessly and implies Pro D day privileges are somehow being abused (which teachers vociferously deny).

But the fuss over Pro D days is window dressing compared to the real meat of Bill 11, which amends the School Act to give the education minister far more authority over how school boards opt to spend money.

Bill 11 will allow the minister to effectively force school boards into "shared service" funding arrangements with other school boards and other public entities,  such as health authorities and municipal governments.

Critics -- and you can count a mounting chorus of boos from school trustees from around the province -- will no doubt view this potential power grab in rather sinister terms, and portray it is as a step closer to abolishing school boards altogether.

That seems a bit of a stretch, although it is clear the B.C. Liberals are throwing a lot of things at the public education system right now -curriculum overhauls, huge funding cuts, the wielding of an increasing large stick at all the players etc.-- that one has to wonder what is really going on.

Conspiracy theorists see all this as simply laying the foundation for the privatization of the public school system. This is silly, because while it is true that independent schools are receiving increases in public finding, the fact remains the gap between the sector is still huge:  $310 million for independent schools and $5.5 billion for the public side.

A more likely scenario is that we have a provincial government that has long-held suspicions about school district spending  "waste," a perceived bloated education sector administration, and a desire to squeeze that sector to force "savings" for the taxpayers (not to mention a continuing mistrust of the teachers' union, the latest contract notwithstanding).

With a growing list of school districts projecting budget deficits of alarming proportions, the stage is being set for Education Minister Peter Fassbender to directly step into the activities of school boards and wrest control of their budget-making powers.

This will no doubt be denounced as anti-democratic by many, although the government may view school boards as public bodies that are elected by a small portion of the electorate and are in many cases controlled by public sector union members.

In any event, there are lively times ahead for the public education sector. Last fall's teachers' strike and eventual contract appears to have settled little.

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