Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.
Stretched to the Limit
April 25, 2023
By Moira Mackenzie
Public education is not broken; funding is.
This message was woven through the presentations and discussion at the recent IPE/BC forum, Stretched to the Limit” with each of the featured speakers putting the pressures on K-12 and post-secondary education into perspective. The forum featured:
- Annabree Fairweather, Executive Director, CUFA BC,
- Tracy Humphries, Executive Director, BCEdAccess, and
- Andree Gacoin, Director of Information, Research, and International Solidarity, BCTF.
While the speakers spoke from very different vantage points, they all underscored the urgent need for a well-supported, accessible, and inclusive education system at all levels
Annabree began by talking about the provincial government’s current post-secondary funding model review which has as its objectives a fair and impartial funding model, alignment with education and skills training needs, and the expansion of supports to students to ensure success. In the government’s own words, the current model has created constraints and inequities, a perspective with which Annabree wholeheartedly agreed. Further, she explained the unnecessarily convoluted and overly complex set of legislation and regulations that govern the post-secondary system in BC which, when coupled with chronic underfunding, leads the institutions to compete for very limited resources.
It certainly was concerning to hear that the share of GDP directed to post-secondary education in BC is less than that in all other provinces in Canada except Ontario. Additionally, much of the funding that does come in has specific strings attached and those strings do not necessarily match the core academic mission. Moreover, there has also been an increasing reliance on private funding, with a corresponding decline of nearly ten percent in government grants between 2006 and 2020. Annabree shone the light on the fact that this decline has led to risky decisions to seek varied sources of private dollars, which in turn has deprioritized the academic mission in favour of sponsored research. Additionally, it has fed the phenomenon of a burgeoning administration rather than a much needed increase in faculty to keep pace with the growth in student enrollment. Further, Annabree pointed out the folly in relying on revenue from international students to bolster budgets, as was made abundantly clear when the COVID pandemic diminished that revenue stream.
As part of the funding review, CUFA-BC has published Funding for Success: Post Secondary Education in BC, an excellent series of briefs outlining the problems and proposing solutions. Despite the significant challenges, Annabree expressed a hope that the funding review and the lessons learned during the pandemic, including the importance of a stable, well funded post-secondary system, will help to bring about much needed change. She also stressed the importance of developing strong alliances between the K-12 and the post-secondary sectors, and wisdom of well funded and well supported education at all levels and for all students.
Andrée began her presentation by referencing the work of Sam Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University. The prevailing conditions for privatization that he identified are at play in BC today, including the impossible expectation that public schools continue to do more and more with less and less, the commercial mindset in managing public education, the bureaucratic pathologies, and the cultivated message that there is a crisis in education independent of the impact of chronic underfunding.
While successive governments in BC have frequently claimed funding is at the highest level ever, the fact is that the percentage of GDP spent on public education has been in significant decline. In 2001, BC allocated 2.8% to public schools while by 2021, it had reached an all-time low of 1.7%. Had the percentage even just remained steady throughout this period, there would have been an additional $2 billion more in school board budgets. Excessive cost-cutting, as Andree stated, is baked into the current structure of the funding model. We see this at play in yet another round of budget preparation this spring as numerous school boards are considering cuts once again, a reality that was simply not addressed in the provincial budget tabled and touted by the province in February.
Andree reported that the BCTF recently surveyed its members-the public school teachers and associated professionals in BC. A staggering 40% of respondents said they’d leave teaching in the next two years, citing exhaustion and burnout attributed to the absence of supports, the overcrowding in classes and lack of meaningful in-service. Teachers also spoke about the health and safety issues they face and the impact of so many impossible challenges on their mental health.
Of particular note, Andrée stressed, is the fact that the government’s commitment to inclusive education has yet to be matched with the requisite funding. Boards of Education have had to spend more on special education than they receive from the province and the austerity pressures have led to rationing of special education services and an inadequate level of specialist support. What’s urgently needed is a funding model that addresses the diverse needs of students, schools and school districts along with a funding paradigm based in a strong collective vision of what public education should be. Returning to the issue of privatization, Andrée was clear- we can’t separate the funding crisis from privatization trends, trends that will only serve to undermine our valued public school system.
Tracy spoke further about the support required to meet students’ complex learning needs. She was very clear that the current lack of adequate support leads to exclusion not inclusion. She has direct experience with the issues and, in her role with BCEdAccess, has spoken to many parents who feel their kids are not welcome in public schools. Due to underfunding and lack of appropriate supports, many students are being excluded from public schools and the full and appropriate range of learning experiences that should be available to them. BCEdAccess has been tracking incidents of exclusions and now has four years of data to illustrate the impact on students and their families, including the finding that students with multiple marginalized identities are much more likely to be excluded. Linking back to the issue of underfunding, Tracy shared that the exclusions are also more likely to happen when unmanageable conditions, lack of support and burnout prevail. None-the-less, she stated emphatically, “Our kids have a right to quality, inclusive public education.”
Additionally, Tracy reminded the forum participants of the changes to the special education category designations made by the provincial government in 2001 and never rectified. These changes resulted in the removal of supplementary funding to support the many students with identified high incidence needs. While the number of designations then dropped markedly and the supports diminished, the students’ special or diverse learning needs did not, of course, leaving many educators unsure of how to best support these students and without the appropriate means to do so.
Tracy was clear about the steps that need to be taken. The government needs to urgently address funding levels and support for all students and our public schools. She stressed that there should be a more holistic approach and coherent links between pre-school, K-12, and post-secondary education. We need to amplify the message that a quality, accessible and inclusive public education system is of great worth to our society as a whole. It should be valued and supported independent of the needs of the marketplace. “There are kids for whom a job may never be a possibility,” said Tracy, “but that does not mean that education is not valuable to them, and that the system does not gain value from having them there.”
Annabree, Andrée and Tracy clearly struck a chord with everyone in attendance as the discussions continued well after adjournment. IPE/BC is very grateful to each of them for their thoughtful and informative presentations and for fueling a renewed commitment to supporting our public schools.
Moira Mackenzie is a member of the Board of IPE/BC and long time advocate for quality, accessible, inclusive public education. She taught in BC public schools for many years at the primary and intermediate levels, and as a Resource & Learning Assistance teacher. Moira, who is now retired, also served in a number of elected and appointed roles within the teachers’ federation.