This month: PAN forum & #ReThinkEducation

The kids might still be on summer vacation but public education advocacy is a year-round necessity. Here are two advocacy items to check out this month:

PAN’s “Public Education Matters” Forum

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Mark your calendar for August 31st, and don’t forget to register if you need childcare. This is not just for parents—if you care about public education in BC, this evening is for you. You can find out more about guest speaker Alex Hemingway here.

#ReThinkEducation

As part of its #RethinkPoverty campaign, the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition’s August focus is #RethinkEducation. Check out the website to see how education underfunding contributes to poverty issues in BC, and how prioritizing education will benefit all British Columbians.

BC’s government knows public education is underfunded

The BC government has a lot of spin lines it brings out to counter any argument that public education is underfunded:

The truth is that public education is underfunded. Parents know it, trustees know it, teachers know it.

And it turns out the government knows it too. Back in 2002, when now-Premier Christy Clark was Minister of Education, her government decided to “protect” education funding by arbitrarily capping it (in other words, when they said “protect,” they meant “cut”). The funding system that existed at that time was “program-and-cost” or “block” funding; the government was responsible for funding all the costs of education or deciding which areas to not fund. But because arbitrarily capping the education budget would mean that the government would not be able to meet costs, which would inevitably rise, that meant there would have to be cuts. The provincial government/Christy Clark didn’t want to take the heat for those inevitable cuts. And thus, program-and-cost funding was ditched and per-pupil funding was born, whereby the arbitrarily limited amount of funding is divided between districts based on enrolment numbers, and the districts must decide what (not “if,” because the government knew these cuts would happen) to cut.

All of this was explained in a 2002 Province column by Mike Smyth.* Everything that he and the government predicted would result from capping funds and moving to per-pupil funding has come to pass. We have had 14 years of school closures and devastating cuts to programs and services. Children have spent their entire K-12 span receiving less each year than the year before. And the cuts continue.

The government denial of underfunding continues as well, but it’s clear they have known all along that the system is underfunded. If they try any of their spin lines, just show them this, and tell them to keep their spin:

…Despite their election promise to “protect” education spending, the Liberals are actually cutting funding to many B.C. school districts. Some may have to close schools as a result. And the Liberals want to shift the blame for underfunding schools away from themselves and on to locally elected school boards.

Those are the recurring themes in a fascinating nine-page document I obtained Friday, the day Education Minister Christy Clark announced the government’s new “funding formula” for B.C. schools. It’s entitled “Cabinet Decision Document,” stamped “CONFIDENTIAL” and signed by Clark. The document reveals the reasons behind Friday’s move to per-student funding and away from the old system, known as “program-and-cost” funding.

The document, signed by Clark on Jan. 25, explains that the old formula obligated the government to “meet or manage each increase in cost or each new service offered by school boards.” But with total education funding now frozen — or “protected” in the Liberals’ language — the document warns the cabinet: “Given government’s direction that education funding will be flat over the next three years, the current program-and-cost funding formula will not work.

“The Ministry will be called upon to make decisions about which programs to cut or reduce in order to offset unavoidable cost increases. Responsibility for reductions will thus rest with the Ministry, not with the local school boards.”

The document details the political peril of sticking with the old funding formula. Under the heading “Disadvantages” (of the status quo), it says: “The province will be seen as responsible for funding all costs. With overall flat funding and rising costs, this option would require the minister to decide annually which programs and services should be cut throughout the province.”

Uh-oh! Christy Clark taking responsibility for cutting education programs? Can’t have that! The solution? Scrap the old system and bring in a new one based on student population. The key? Funding is tightly capped and individual boards decide where to cut, making them the bad guys…

– Mike Smyth 2002

Use our quick and easy email tool to tell the government and opposition leaders that you want stable, predictable, adequate funding for public education. It only takes a minute!

*Katie Hyslop of The Tyee found this old column and linked to it in a sidebar to her own recent article regarding underfunding.

 

The true cost of “balanced budgets”

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When you hear the latest government talking point—“59 out of 60 boards have managed to balance their budgets; why won’t Vancouver?”—please remember what a “balanced budget” actually means:

School boards are required by law to balance their budgets, meaning that their expenses cannot exceed their revenues. However, they generate very little of their own revenue and rely largely on funding they receive from the provincial government.

For several years, the amount that the provincial government has allocated to public education has failed to keep up with the boards’ expenses (and many of those expenses are created and increased by the government: eg, MSP premiums, negotiated contracts, and Hydro rates). The failure to increase funding to meet costs means that boards have experienced annual shortfalls in funding. This year is no exception: at least 31 boards faced shortfalls totalling $85 million (and those were just the shortfalls that FACE could find through the media and online info).

Because they are required to balance their budgets, the boards have had to make up for these shortfalls with a combination of cuts, one-time funding, and school closures.* The BC School Trustees’ Association, which represents 59 of the 60 boards, listed the following as examples of cost-cutting measures boards have taken to balance their budgets:

  • Reduction or elimination of student bussing (once considered a core service)
  • Implementation of monthly student transportation fees
  • Increased class sizes and the loss of elective classes
  • Reduced support services for students including fewer Education Assistant hours
  • Reduced school supply budgets affecting the classroom directly
  • Reduced support for teacher and school-based innovation projects
  • Program, classroom and school closures
  • Expanded introduction of a two-week spring break and fewer school days
  • Reduced building and grounds maintenance, supplies and summer work
  • Deferment or cancellation of technology upgrades and implementation
  • Reduced library time and fewer library services for students
  • Loss of co-curricular music and arts programs
  • Reduced funding for students’ extracurricular programs such as sports
  • Reduced custodial services for schools
  • Reductions in school and district administration services
  • Delayed replacement of text books and library books
  • Higher costs for community groups wanting to use school facilities**

Forcing school boards to balance underfunded budgets is not fair to the boards, the students, and the future of our province. School board budgets have been balanced at the cost of our children’s education. Our kids and our future deserve stable, predictable, adequate public education funding.

Use the latest version of our quick and easy email tool to tell the government you want an end to the underfunding.

*The Vancouver School Board was dismissed in 1986 for refusing to balance its budget; it has submitted a balanced budget every year since (until this year). In more recent years, the Cowichan Valley and North Vancouver school boards have been fired for not balancing their budgets.

**See here for the full BCSTA document.

Underfunding is a fact

As part of a continuing effort to focus on the facts regarding education funding, rather than spin and talking points, FACE founding member Jen Stewart sent this letter to the Globe and Mail in response to a recent article by Gary Mason.

Re: “Vancouver school board needs to face the facts about enrolment,” June 21, 2016 (*1)

I am a parent in Vancouver. I spend far more of my time than I should have to advocating for adequate funding for public education in BC, so I am familiar with the facts on this issue, and it pains me to see the Globe print a column such as Gary Mason’s, which omits key points and contains misleading figures. I hope you will consider printing what I have written below as a counterpoint to Mr. Mason’s opinion piece.

Mr. Mason’s column dismisses education underfunding as “a tiresome and misinformed trope”; as evidence, he cites a supposed $1 billion increase in education spending since 2001. This is misleading: Mr. Mason has clearly not adjusted for inflation so he is making a completely inaccurate comparison between 2001 and 2016. It is impossible to compare education funding across years unless you talk about constant dollars, adjusted for inflation.

I do not have the 2001 figures, but I do know this about how 2002 compares, after much back-and-forth discussion with the finance department of the Ministry of Education: After making adjustments to reflect the fact that the 2002 and 2016 budgets contained various amounts that have since been moved to other ministries or do not directly fund K-12 education, the amount allocated in the 2002 budget to the Ministry of Education was $4.297 billion dollars. That converts to $5.557 billion in 2016 dollars. The adjusted 2016 Ministry of Education budget is $5.565 billion— an increase of only $8 million or 0.1%.(*2)

Mr. Mason points to lower enrolment, but he does not point out the fact that boards’ costs have increased, even taking enrolment into account. In many years, the school districts’ budget has not been increased enough to cover inflation, let alone other costs imposed (but not funded) by the government, such as carbon offsets, pay increases, Hydro and ICBC rates, and MSP premiums. The BC Association of School Business Officials estimated in 2009 that districts faced $293 million in unfunded new costs, and in 2014 the same organization calculated that the districts had a cumulative total of $193 million unfunded cost pressures for school years 2012/13 to 2014/15.(*3) In other words, much more than a 0.1% funding increase could cover.

Mr. Mason refers to Prince George having to close 21 schools “to deal with funding issues it has faced,” but he leaves the reader hanging about the source of those funding issues, and whether closing those schools solved the issues. The answer is no, closures didn’t solve the problem. Prince George, like at least 30 other districts around the province, had to deal with an operating budget shortfall yet again this year. Prior to the government deciding not to go through with this year’s round of administrative cuts, Prince George’s shortfall was about $3 million for 2016/17; for the 31 districts it was about $85 million.(*4) And many of those districts have been through years of school closures, as Mr. Mason points out. Several of them, such as Surrey and Sooke, have shortfalls despite growing enrolment.

The source of these shortfalls is underfunding. The government has not been allocating enough money to boards to cover their increased operating costs discussed earlier (to say nothing of their capital costs) and so boards need to make cuts every year. This is a fact acknowledged by the Legislative Finance Committee, which consists of BC Liberal and NDP MLAs, and which unanimously approved a conclusion that “additional funding is necessary to ensure the provision of quality public education and to properly meet the increased costs that schools are currently facing.”(*5)

In order to provide stable, predictable, adequate funding for education, the Finance Committee recommended a review of the funding model for education. The current per-pupil model has severe deficiencies: it is unstable, does not address the fixed costs of providing education, and essentially punishes children who happen to live in districts with declining enrolment. The BC School Trustees Association has called on the government many times to create a funding model that allows districts to make long-term strategic plans that meet students’ needs,(*6) and the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils has characterized the current model as “broken” and “in need of a complete overhaul.”(*7)

Yet Mr. Mason doesn’t mention any of this in his column; I guess including facts like this would have made it harder for him to dismiss underfunding as “a misinformed trope” about which the VSB is “whining.” I wish he was right, but parents all over BC know that underfunding is a fact. We also know that our kids, our future, deserve better. They deserve the stable, predictable, adequate funding that the Legislative Finance Committee recommended.

Jennifer Stewart

Founder, Families Against Cuts to Education (facebc.wordpress.com); member, Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education (panvancouver.ca)

You can find this letter in pdf format here.

*2www.panvancouver.ca/uploads/6/7/1/4/67145647/pan_answers_to_bc_budget_2016_moe_on_april_24th.pdf
*6 Letter from BCSTA president to Premier Clark, dated June 16, 2016. (https://twitter.com/rparmarSD62/status/743658104361910273)
*7 BCCPAC media release, dated June 20, 2016. (https://twitter.com/FACE_BC/status/745052535396831232)

Can you hear us now? Public education needs stable adequate funding

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Citizens from all over BC used our last “Can you hear us now” email tool to tell the minister of education and their MLAs that they wanted an end to underfunding, starting with the removal of the $25 million administrative cuts in Budget 2016. It’s clear that the government realizes British Columbians are unhappy with the education funding situation: in recent weeks, there have been announcements in which the $25 million was returned to districts, some capital projects have been announced, and special funding has been given to rural schools.

The response to these announcements has been “too little, too late.” Much more funding is needed to meet the costs of public education, and a long-term approach that provides stable, predictable, adequate funding is necessary, rather than the current erratic and unpredictable funding by photo-op, which leads only to more confusion and instability.

Please use the latest version of our quick and easy email tool to write to the government and leaders of the opposition parties, to tell them what you expect your government to do in the long-term interests of public education.

Here is the email text:

Examining “Education Matters”

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Mike Bernier, the minister of education, recently appeared to discuss “Education Matters” on Voice of BC with Vaughn Palmer. You can watch the interview here. It lasts an hour and covers a wide range of topics; below are some observations related to funding-specific issues they discussed.

 About 2:15 mark:

Palmer & Bernier remark how expensive new schools are. (“Almost as much as a bridge!”) The funding announced for the New Westminster Secondary replacement this week is about $100 million (“the largest ever capital investment in BC education”) and the new Argyle Secondary also announced this week is receiving about $40 million in funding. For context, here is how much money has been or will be spent on some other capital projects, both past and future:

  • BC Place roof replacement: $563 million
  • Vancouver Convention Centre West: $883 million
  • Massey Tunnel replacement bridge: $3.5 billion estimated
  • Site C Dam: $9 billion estimated

 About 4:30 mark:

Palmer asks Bernier if there will be any relief for Osoyoos losing its only high school. The short answer is “no.” Bernier relies on the government talking points of “local decisions” and “declining enrolment.” Those and other lines are examined here.

About 14:15:

Bernier states that some Vancouver schools are operating at 25-30% capacity, leaving the impression that that number is representative of capacity in Vancouver. At pages 53-54 of the Vancouver Long Range Facilities Plan background document, it is clear that 1 school is at 28% capacity and 1 is at 32%; it is also clear that there are 31 schools that are between 100% and 140% full. The minister didn’t mention those overcrowded schools and the communities in Vancouver that have been waiting years for new schools.

About 15:00:

Bernier mentions the EY report that found that closing schools could save the VSB $37 million. If that is true, it is still less than half of the $80 million the VSB needs in its annual operating budget to provide the same level of service that it did in 2002 (including adjustments for enrolment and inflation.)

About 15:30:

Bernier says that he has talked to parents in Vancouver. Parents in Vancouver don’t agree: the Parent Advocacy Network, which represents parents in over 70 Vancouver schools, has written to Bernier to request a meeting to discuss the budget. His response came through the media: he’s too busy to meet with parents.

About 22:00:

Bernier discusses how the province is returning the $25 million in “administrative savings” that it forced boards to make in 2016. What he doesn’t mention is that the two-year total of administrative cuts is $54 million. There has been no move to return the $29 million cut in 2015.

About 25:00:

Bernier is asked whether he’ll review the funding formula to make sure fixed education costs are met. He doesn’t give a direct answer but implies that the government is happy with the current per-pupil funding model (which essentially punishes students in districts with declining enrolment). This is despite the fact that the bi-partisan Legislative Standing Committee on Finance unanimously recommended a review of the current funding model so that “economic and community goals have a better chance of being realized.” 

About 47:00:

There is a question about funding for the coding portion of the new curriculum. The minister hints that funding is coming, and on June 10, 2016, he and Christy Clark announced $6 million for training and technology required for the new curriculum, including coding. This small amount is for public and private schools, is supposed to cover implementation of the entire new curriculum as well as purchase technology, and amounts to around $10 per student. Clearly, PACs will have to continue fundraising for the technology their kids need.

At 58:20:

Bernier says, “Libraries are amazingly important.” Unfortunately, that attitude has not been reflected in the funding of school libraries: from 2001 to 2015, 345 full-time teacher-librarian positions were cut across BC. Many schools have a librarian only part-time. Furthermore, many PACs fundraise to buy books for their school library.

Chilliwack DPAC advocacy letter

The District Parents Advisory Council (DPAC) in Chilliwack, SD 33, has written to local MLAs, stating that parents are “exceedingly dissatisfied” and want their MLAs to advocate for increased public education funding.

The Chilliwack DPAC has asked us to post the letter here as an example of DPAC advocacy, and they hope that other DPACs around the province will join them in advocating for better public education funding. The text of the letter follows; you can also find it in PDF form here.

Chilliwack District Parents Advisory Council

May 19, 2016

John Martin, MLA                                Laurie Throness, MLA

Re: Parent advocacy for increased funding to public education in BC

Dear Mr. Martin and Mr. Throness,

At our April 21st meeting, the Chilliwack District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC) voted unanimously in favour of initiating a district wide parent advocacy project. Our membership has grown significantly, and we have committed to spreading awareness regarding the negative impacts underfunding has had on the public school system in Chilliwack and throughout the province. Please accept this open letter as official notice that the Chilliwack DPAC is looking to you for support, as you represent the views of your constituents. Parents of public school students in Chilliwack make up a great portion of your constituents, and we are exceedingly dissatisfied.

Many DPAC discussions throughout the year focus on the amount of time and effort PACs spend fundraising. Cuts to public education funding in BC have been on-going for more than a decade and PACs are expected by school administration and school board staff to simply fill the gaps. It is our belief that this is causing parents to disassociate from their school’s PAC, and ultimately be less involved in their children’s education. This is detrimental to students, parents, and the operation of the PAC, and will have long-term negative effects on society.

The Chilliwack DPAC is the legislated voice of parents at the district level consisting of representatives from the individual school PACs in School District (SD) 33. One of several purposes of the DPAC is to promote the interests of public education and, in particular, the interests of SD 33. Currently, the DPAC believes that it is in the best interest of SD 33 and public education province wide, to speak out against the chronic underfunding of our public education system, and highlight the negative impacts this has had on our students and their families. This includes, but is certainly not limited to the following:

  • Since districts were required by the provincial government to make “administrative cuts” in 2014/15 and again in 2015/16, Chilliwack operates with $1.3M less per year, increasing the pressure on parents to subsidize public education.
  • Technology upgrade costs, specifically the Next Generation Network which was formally funded by the provincial government, have been downloaded onto the district. This cost the district $563,000 in the 2015/16 school year, $115,000 for the 2016/17 school year, and will become a regular line item, coming out of the already stripped operating budget.
  • Bussing fees ranging from $215 – $350/student have been downloaded onto parents.
  • Per pupil funding for students enrolled full-time is a paltry $7,158. It will increase by $8 for the 2016/17 school year; however, a $64 increase would be necessary to simply cover collective agreement increases. Thus, students will actually receive less.
  • Custodial services have been drastically reduced; square footage of schools has increased by 78% since 1992, yet maintenance and custodial manpower has decreased. The only area of any school in the district that still gets cleaned as thoroughly and as frequently, are washrooms. No other areas can be kept up to previous standards. At the elementary level primary desks are only cleaned every second day and intermediate desks are only cleaned once a week. These desks double as eating tables for students, creating an opportune breeding ground for germs and bacteria.
  • Learning Assistance/Resource Teacher hours have been reduced. As a cost saving measure, the responsibilities of these positions have been downloaded onto administrative staff despite the fact that this goes against the recommendations made in the Special Education Report by Dr. Carter in 2013. SOURCE http://ssc.sd33.bc.ca/sites/default/files/Special%20Education%20Review%20Report%202012.pdf
  • In 2014/15, staff replacement costs were upwards of $500,000. The district experienced a significant increase in absenteeism, particularly of support staff employees, likely due to low workplace morale and an ever increasing workload for those whose hours weren’t reduced. In anticipation of continued high absenteeism, it will be necessary to increase the replacement staff budget. When support staff employees are absent, the most vulnerable students go without support, negatively affecting the entire classroom.

In addition to all of this, while BC is spending less on public education and communities are forced to close schools, $358M is going to fund private, independent schools. This is a gross misuse of public funds as these schools are exclusive and not accountable to the public.

Clearly, underfunding of BC’s public education system is not a myth, and the low-hanging fruit has long been picked. School District 33 already saves money by participating in shared services, and they have reduced district staff personnel. Parents are asked to fundraise for playgrounds, library books, on-line math and reading programs, sports equipment, and even text books. Some PACs have even been asked to pay for water fountains, classroom fixtures, and carpet. Parent fundraising has gone way beyond enhancing students’ educational experiences, and in some cases is necessary to keep the school operational. This is unacceptable, especially to students attending schools in less affluent neighbourhoods where parents may be unable to contribute financially to fundraising. This creates a gap between have and have-not schools and means some students are not provided with the same resources and opportunities as their peers in neighbouring schools.

The British Columbia School Act states that:

…it is the goal of a democratic society to ensure that all its members receive an education that enables them to become literate, personally fulfilled and publicly useful, thereby increasing the strength and contributions to the health and stability of that society.

If the government continues to reduce the amount allocated to public education in BC’s budget, it will soon become impossible to fulfill the British Columbia School Act mandate stated above. In addition, the School Act states that the PAC’s legislated purpose is to advise the board, principal and staff on any matter relating to the school. PAC constitutional duties include promoting parent involvement, educating parents on their rights within the school system, organizing community-building events, and contributing to the overall effectiveness of the school. However, the role of the PAC has shifted and because the focus is fundraising, the legislated purpose and constitutional duties of the PAC can no longer be fulfilled. Thus, the Chilliwack District Parent Advisory Council will continue to speak out against the chronic and unacceptable underfunding of public education in BC.

It is time for public education funding to increase so that all students have access to quality education, and so that parents can return to their roles assisting and supporting students, and promoting the interests of public education. We ask that you join us in advocating for the public school students in Chilliwack, and lobby the provincial government for increased funding in order to provide an equitable education for all students in SD 33, and across the province.

We thank you in advance for your much needed assistance in this important matter.

Sincerely,

Justine Hodge

President of the District Parent Advisory Council

SD 33, Chilliwack

cc: Mike Bernier, Minister of Education; Evelyn Novak, Superintendent of Schools; Silvia Dyck, Board Chair and DPAC Liaison