Saturday, June 12, 2010

CG's report on VSB neglects history

A recent opinion piece (CG's report on VSB neglects history by Allen Garr, Vancouver Courier, June 11, 2010) is an excellent example of the good research and critical thinking that exemplifies informed opinion. As a former teacher of English, I am impressed by the discussion of the context and the thoroughness and specificity of detail. In the piece which is, in fact, an essay, Garr determines that the comptroller-general's report is "seriously flawed" and proceeds to contextualize the disagreement between Education Minister Margaret McDiarmid and the Vancouver School Board represented by Patti Bacchus.

School boards have, since the 1980s, steadily lost the power to administer school districts as they are elected to do and have "been reduced, in Victoria's own words, to a role of 'co-governance.'" That is, suggests Garr, do as you are told.

Of particular interest is the downloading of costs not only for carbon offsets but also for the software to assess the carbon footprint on which the offsets are to be calculated. Facilities grants that enable the district to upgrade schools to green standards are manipulated, hokey-pokey style, so that district planning is incapacitated, dangling on the real chance that monies can, at any time, be withdrawn.

Thank you, Mr Garr, for being clear for the citizens of Vancouver. Citizens elect school trustees to attend to the well-being of public education within their jurisdiction, that is, to provide sound stewardship of the system and to advocate for equitable delivery of the best services and programs we can afford for all young learners in public schools in Vancouver. Of particular significance when the powers-that-be are not seen to be addressing the needs of young learners, as is the case in Vancouver, is having trustees who understand the issues and speak out about the consequences of under-investment in public education for our learners and for our society.

This is not just about Vancouver. Vancouver trustees have spoken up. Where districts are making drastic cuts, one might ask, Where are the voices of citizen protest and of trustees whose job it is to advocate for the best interests of young learners? Proposed cuts in Vancouver are happening in just about every district and they are not in the best interests of children. Parents can expect to see fewer students receiving the help of counsellors, special education consultants, and teacher-librarians. In some districts in BC, there are no teacher-librarians left. Some schools will experience closure of their school libraries for the first time. There will be fewer young teachers, the energy in a system. Funding that has enabled ESL students and children from less advantaged homes to receive additional support are being drastically cut. There have been fewer options in schools over these last years for music and art programs. Day care costs will rise if the mandate of the comptroller-general's report is enacted, and schools will be closed. Students are stuffed into classes to meet the requirements of Bill 33 within the limitations of the staffing provided, that is, because it is cost-effective to cut lower-enrolling options in order to match leaner staffing allocations to school populations. Physical education, art, and music specialists have all but disappeared in elementary schools; children do jumping-jacks beside their desks to meet the daily exercise requirements. Every year, additional costs have been downloaded to school boards and the funding denied. Is this what our citizens pay taxes for?

I am moved by Mr Garr's analysis to ask of our Ministry officials, When did advocacy become a bad word, one that puts a group in fear of losing its credibility and efficacy for doing what it must do? Those who advocate usually do so from a most informed place and with passionate and democratic conviction on behalf of a group or cause when the best interests of the group or cause they represent are not perceived as being equitably included in political thinking about the best interests of the majority. Advocates do not intend to disrupt or outrank other groups. Rather, they intend to address the "powers," to work within the political processes to be heard by, and to better inform those powers that make decisions that affect them; they ask to be included and understood and taken seriously in the dialogue that informs political actions. I would contend there is a real difference between advocacy and lobbying.

Teacher-librarians know about advocacy; we learn that advocacy for our programs is an important and essential aspect of our work in schools and districts. When decision-makers don't understand the work we do, our places in the learning equation in schools are at risk simply because they can't see how important that work is in relation to new ways of learning! No, advocacy is something important, a tool that saves us from blindly accepting "the word from on high" and ensures that we have some sense of efficacy and a voice in the democratic processes of our political systems.

If the HST has become a flashpoint for citizen discontent in this province, there is little doubt that public education should be another. Let the rising tide of discontent inspired by the HST protest be a model for an informed citizenry in speaking out against a government that bullies its local officials and uses contrived means of suppression. Invoking fear to achieve its goals of cost-effectiveness, goals that are as much driven by the obvious overrun in costs of the Olympics and infrastructure and other construction projects, the government advances its clear intention to entice parents into enrolling children in private schools, an option that costs half as many tax dollars. What does it mean when a society doesn't stand up but watches powerlessly as years of chronic under-funding to the public education it believes in and pays taxes for leaves naught but the bare bones? How well prepared will these children be to live happily and work successfully in the globalizing economy?

And just how close are we prepared to go in accepting the limiting of free speech and the government's re-shaping of long-held democratic understandings when our elected civic officials are expected simply and silently and unquestioningly to follow orders from the provincial government, particularly when this is not understood to be in the best interests of learners, and if they don't, must they fear the consequences? Informed citizens know that advocacy is NOT a bad word. Nor is seeing what's happening to public education in BC as a flashpoint for citizen response, alongside and equally as important as the imposition of the HST.

I would give Mr Garr an A+ for excellent research and a well-framed, well-supported argument. I don't doubt that you can see that it is important that our youngest citizens are well supported in learning that will enable them to think about issues critically and develop informed opinions and understandings so that governments cannot fool them any of the time and they are not afraid to speak up for what they believe.

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