BALDREY: In the fight to control classrooms, our education system suffers

Whatever the outcome of the messy fight between teachers and the B.C. government (and as I write this, the two sides are negotiating but no end is in sight), it’s likely the provincial education system won’t see any significant improvement in the near future.

And for this, we can blame both the government and the BC Teachers Federation.

The two sides have been locked in a war for more than a decade, and even a negotiated contract will not end the acrimony and bitterness that characterizes their relationship.

When we strip away the rhetoric, it all comes down to this: control. As in, who controls the classroom and the system itself – the teachers’ union or the government?

This struggle for control is not a unique one in education. Ontario is experiencing a similar fight, and most states in the U.S. are also mired in wars between elected governments and various teacher union organizations.

Pushed to the sidelines in this widespread fight are students and parents. Forget the rubbish talk from both the union and the government that "this is all about the kids" and forget the boasts from both sides that they feel for "kids caught in the middle."

It is not about the kids and never has been. It is about control.

And it is perfectly understandable why both sides are fighting for control.

From the government’s perspective, the education system is a spending priority but it also a huge consumer of tax dollars.

Of course, there are voices (particularly from BCTF members) who claim the government is hell-bent on "destroying" the education system and is secretly conspiring to drive everyone to the private school system.

The fact that $4.7 billion of tax dollars are poured into the public education system every year (second only to health-care spending) demolishes this hysterical notion, yet the mantra from the ideologues keeps being chanted over and over again.

Nevertheless, the BC Liberals can be faulted for not keeping pace with the need for even more funding. While not destroying the system, the argument can be made the government has allowed considerable fraying around the edges.

Class composition remains an urgent issue in some classes (though certainly not all), and school trustees find that balancing their budgets becomes more difficult every year as cost pressures exceed any funding increase.

As for the BCTF, it looks out for the interests of its members as any union should, but it doesn’t have a good track record on that front.

Every other public-sector union has received higher wage increases than the BCTF has won over the past dozen or so years. The union has also fought a never-ending public relations war against the BC Liberal government (which has gobbled up millions of dollars of union dues) without any evidence of success (the government has won four consecutive elections).

While it’s true the BCTF has won two important court challenges against the government, the final ruling on that issue has yet to be made, so any celebrations of victory there are premature. The union is locked into a fight for smaller class sizes, which among other things, translates into hiring more teachers, which in turn inflates the union’s treasury.

The BCTF also zealously guards its members’ job security, even if in so doing it protects poor teachers at the expense of better ones. The actual interests of students is not held as high a priority, in the BCTF’s view, as a teacher’s job security.

Again, the BCTF is not unique in this aspect compared to other teachers’ unions. Its American counterparts are notorious for resisting any threat to their control of the system.

The struggle over who controls a school and who controls a classroom will not end anytime soon, even after the current contract battle ends.

Because governments of all stripes and philosophies are loathe to raise taxes in any significant way, revenues become more and more precious, which will inevitably put more pressure on the education system.

I suspect the public increasingly takes the view of "a pox on both your houses," which reflects the frustration and impatience of watching this soap opera go on for so many years.

All about the kids? Forget it.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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