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.

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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

Co-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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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. Continue reading Can you hear us now? Public education needs stable adequate funding

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.

May 28: Rally for Public Education

This Saturday, May 28, at 1 pm, there is a rally for public education at the Vancouver Art Gallery. This rally is being organized and led by students; let’s show up to support them!

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Find more info on the Facebook event page.

If you’re not in Vancouver or can’t make it to the rally on Saturday, you can always use our quick and easy email tool to give the minister of education and your MLA your input on public education funding.

Seeing through the spin on public education spending

We think it is vitally important for the citizens of BC to demand accuracy and accountability from our elected representatives, so we were very glad to hear some education funding statements fact-checked on CBC Radio recently, and we hope to see and hear more media fact-checking in the future. In the meantime, here’s a little of our own fact-checking:

Statement #1: “110 million extra dollars to education this year”

This statement was made by MLA Dan Ashton and was analyzed by the CBC in its fact-checking segment; education minister Mike Bernier used the same wording in a different CBC interview. Presumably what this number refers to is the “total” line for the education budget (exclusive of capital spending), which is approximately $110 million more in 2016 than it was in 2015. What the MLA and the minister didn’t mention is that $48 million of that “extra” money is going to “independent” (private) schools and $36 million of it is going to “other partners” (eg, public libraries).

Public schools operational funding (instruction, administration, Learning Improvement Fund) is being increased by only $28 million. That is a less than 1% increase over last year, which amounts to a cut because inflation is 1.9%. (Not to mention more costs have been added; see Statement #2.)

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Statement #2: “These are local decisions.”

When faced with pleas to save a school or program, provincial politicians often distance themselves by saying these are “local decisions” to be made by the boards.

Yes, the difficult decisions regarding which schools to close and which programs to cut are made by the local school board, but the larger context cannot be ignored: the cuts are necessary because of provincial decisions. The provincial government controls the school boards’ funding and, to a large degree, the costs that boards face. Every time the province raises Hydro rates, MSP rates, ICBC rates, etc., and doesn’t increase education funding proportionately, that amounts to a cut to boards’ budgets. Additionally, the provincial government has a history of making spending decisions (for example, negotiating wage increases with employees, or constructing the Next Generation Network) and then pushing those costs onto the boards without increasing funding. The provincial pattern of downloading costs and not increasing funding is detailed in this letter written by School District 5 and this statement by School District 28.

Statement #3: “The Vancouver and Saanich school districts are the only ones facing a budget shortfall.”

The Times Colonist quoted education minister Mike Bernier saying this on May 14, 2016. By that date, FACE already had 30 districts on our shortfall list, with a combined shortfall of over $84 million. The only thing unique about Vancouver and Saanich was that those trustees had put their foot down about making cuts to cover their shortfalls.

*New* Statement #4: Cuts and closures are necessary “due to declining enrolment.”

Provincial politicians often cite “declining enrolment” as a reason that boards need to close schools or make cuts. This implies that enrolment growth would solve the problem.

However, even districts with growing enrolment, such as Surrey, Sooke, and Maple Ridge, are facing operating budget shortfalls. So enrolment growth on its own is no magic bullet, and the per-pupil amount of funding is clearly insufficient to cover costs. (The per-pupil funding model has many drawbacks: it is unpredictable and punishes kids in districts with declining enrolment, but that is a discussion for another post.)

Context is key

We will keep checking the education funding facts, because it is important for citizens to have correct information. Without context, background, and accuracy, numbers are essentially meaningless.

For more context, questions, and answers, look here.

Can you hear us now? School District 5 responds to Minister of Education

On February 23, education minister Mike Bernier gave an interview to On the Coast in which he dismissed education funding concerns as mere “noise.” In response, FACE launched our “Can You Hear Us Now?” email tool; we (and Mr. Bernier) have heard from citizens all across BC that they are more than just noise, and more emails continue to arrive.

Now SD 5, Southeast Kootenay, has written an open letter to the minister requesting an apology and correcting his figures. Find the letter here.

The letter concludes with “Our Board urges you to rely less on the information you are being provided internally and have an honest look at the information and feedback your constituents—Boards, administrators, teachers, support staff, parents, and students—have and continue to provide you.”

Please take a moment to give Mr. Bernier and your MLA your own feedback, using our quick and easy email tool.

FACE in the media: VSB budget

The Vancouver School Board’s proposed budget, including deep cuts to cover a $24 million shortfall, has received a lot of media coverage. Jen Stewart of FACE was quoted in the Globe and Mail on April 13; the FACE presentation to the VSB was featured in the Vancouver Sun on April 15; and Jen Stewart represented FACE and the Parent Advocacy Network on Roundhouse Radio on April 15.