As the debate continues over the future of public education in British Columbia, the Liberal government of Premier Christy Clark continues to press the Vancouver School Board to close schools and impose more cutbacks. On Sept. 22, the Vancouver East Club of the Communist Party sent the following open letter to the VSB Trustees and to the wider community.
We begin by expressing our appreciation for the long-standing efforts of VSB trustees to find ways to minimize the impact of provincial government underfunding on the classrooms of Vancouver schools. As strong supporters of an inclusive, quality, democratic public education system, we are fully aware that the Trustees and the VSB have been under enormous pressure for over thirty years to make painful cutbacks. Most often, this pressure has resulted from factors beyond the Board’s direct control, in particular the budget and policy decisions of provincial governments.
This trend became much more severe with the election of the Liberal government in 2001, followed by outrageous actions such as the illegal tearing up of collective agreements, the refusal to help reduce student-teacher ratios, demands to close large numbers of schools, the appointment of biased “auditors”, the imposition of the quickly discredited “95 percent capacity” rule, repeated delays of promises to fund crucial seismic upgrades of schools, and much more. During this government’s time in office, the percentage of provincial revenues going to K-12 public schools has fallen from 20% to 15%; meanwhile, funding for private and religious schools has grown rapidly, along with a range of tax credits and other incentives for parents to shift their children to such schools.
In our view, these actions, along with the frequent attacks against the BC Teachers Federation by Premier Christy Clark (starting from her term as Education Minister) reveal a pattern which leads to one conclusion: that the agenda of this Liberal government is to create a two-tier system: private and religious schools catering mainly to wealthier families, providing a higher quality of education, increasingly funded by taxpayers; and a public school system for the bulk of the population, forced to deal with funding shortfalls and constant downloading of new costs. The reduction of funding for education (along with cuts to health care, social assistance and disability rates, and other areas of social spending) was artificially forced by one of the government’s first actions fifteen years ago – the massive tax cut for the corporations and upper income earners, which continues to deprive the provincial treasury of an estimated $2.5 billion per year. This tax cut was deliberately implemented to set the stage for a continual crisis in the provision of public services, including the education system, allowing the Liberals to promote privatization, user fees, deregulation, and other right-wing policies promoted by the Fraser Institute and other corporate think-tanks.
By 2016, the result of this agenda has been to take British Columbia at the point where spending per public school student is a shocking $1000 below the Canadian average. Our schools are being starved and shut down, classrooms are becoming ever larger, and teaching and learning conditions are deteriorating rapidly. The victims of this agenda are those who face the greatest needs: indigenous students, students and families from impoverished and racialized immigrant communities, those with special learning needs, LGBTQ students, and others who are disproportionately affected by the overall corporate/government attack on working people and the poor in our society.
Within this context, Vancouver School Board Trustees have a laudable record of pushing back against provincial cuts, and standing up for the rights and interests of students, staff, and families. We have not always agreed with VSB budget decisions, and there have been times when our hopes for the Board to help lead a broader public fightback around these issues were not met. But overall, most Trustees during these difficult years have tried to do their best to help keep the cuts out of the classrooms.
At times this meant adopting budgets which included painful cuts in other important areas, leaving the District with nowhere else to trim costs, despite the propaganda lies of the Liberal government and other right wing forces. This year, in response to widespread public calls to stand up against underfunding, the VSB Trustees refused to adopt a cuts budget, taking a position which required courage and principles.
Today the Board faces a massive push to shut down schools in Vancouver, a transparently obvious attempt to save the province hundreds of millions of dollars in seismic upgrade costs, but at the expense of students, teachers, support staff and families in the public education system. Not surprisingly, most of the schools facing potential closure or other undesirable options are in east Vancouver, where incomes are lower. The province bears a huge responsibility for the situation in Vancouver, arising from the earlier decision to eliminate school catchment boundaries, which created the trend to send students to west side schools.
We do not call for special measures to save this or that school or program; such an approach, as always, plays into the provincial government’s hands by turning neighbourhoods against each other. Having said that, we hope that the Trustees and management will find ways to minimize the impact of underfunding on those most disproportionately affected, in particular indigenous and special needs students.
More importantly, we call upon the Board and Trustees to expand your efforts to a wider level, by urging a province-wide campaign to win adequate education funding. This must become a crucial issue in the May 2017 provincial election campaign, putting strong pressure on all political parties to reverse the anti-education policy agenda, not just with minor spending increases, but by pledging to reverse the 2001 tax cuts and restore funding for education, health and social programs.