BC teachers need to push NDP for fundamental change

By Kimball Cariou 

As delegates gather on March 16-19 for the annual BC Teachers’ Federation convention, it’s clear that despite the change in government seven years ago, the public school system here continues to suffer from chronic underfunding, which prevents expanded staffing or real progress to enshrine class size and composition language in teachers’ collective agreements. The long-term shortfall of capital investments for new schools and seismic upgrades leaves tens of thousands of students stuck in cramped, unhealthy portables.

It’s true that right-wing attacks are wildly overstated, and that the teachers and support staff in BC’s public schools provide great education to students despite facing many obstacles. But the undeniable problems with the system are one factor leading more families to send their children to private or religious schools, or to try the grossly inadequate home-schooling model.

Shockingly, this province still has the highest proportion in Canada of school-aged children who are not enrolled in the public system – almost 14 percent, or nearly one in seven. Yet the NDP government has not even considered changing policy decisions going back decades, pouring millions of dollars into tax breaks and direct funding for private, independent and religious schools. And this despite the recent anti-SOGI attacks by right-wing forces linked to these schools, which seek to undermine public education at the expense of students facing discrimination along the lines of gender and sexuality.

Of course, teachers, support staff and families with children in school still remember the sixteen years of reactionary policies by the BC Unity Party when they were the Liberals. Teachers played a key role in the massive fightback against those governments. Not much has changed under BC Unity leader Kevin Falcon, a key player in the former Liberal regime. If Falcon wins a majority in October, his government will resume the war against public education, right where it was interrupted by the electoral defeat of Christy Clark in 2017.

But the current NDP government’s claims to understand the importance of public education ring hollow. In response the February budget, BCTF President Clint Johnston correctly pointed out, “without a significant funding commitment that goes beyond keeping up with the growing population, Budget 2024 won’t make a dent in solving acute staffing shortages in schools….. Teachers need a lifeline, and we didn’t see that in this budget.”

Comparing today’s numbers to the Campbell-Clark austerity years sets the bar painfully low. The fact is that current spending levels deprive students with the greatest needs of the supports they need to succeed, especially special education students, those from families in poverty, Indigenous students and others. As BC’s population growth rises, the NDP has left the staffing levels much too low. As the BCTF has warned, in order to make the system truly inclusive, a realistic strategy to recruit, retain and train teachers and staff is needed.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that the post-2017 NDP governments simply don’t understand the scale of the problems facing public education. While these governments have shifted slightly from the neoliberal austerity attacks of the former Liberals, they remain committed to the historic trajectory of policies that promote capitalist resource extraction industries, at the expense of the working class and Indigenous peoples. Under Premiers Horgan and Eby, budgets still provide huge taxpayer support for fossil fuel industries, while spending for schools, healthcare, housing and social programs lags far behind the real needs of working people.

In the October 2024 provincial election, the Communist Party of BC will demand dramatic improvements in public education spending, along with a call to end taxpayer support for private, for-profit and religious schools. We will campaign to roll back the huge tax breaks given to the corporations and upper-income earners over 20 years ago by the Liberals, and to scrap the NDP’s supports for the fossil fuel industry. Shift those revenues into expanding public schools, healthcare, social assistance, housing and childcare. Put the needs of working people and the environment first, not corporate profits.

Teachers have the potential to help raise understanding of the need to win real and lasting social change. We encourage delegates at this year’s BCTF to raise these demands on the floor of the convention, and in classrooms and communities.

Kimball Cariou is BC leader of the Communist Party of Canada

[Photo: BCTF X]

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