BALDREY: Tough test coming for NDP in teacher contract talks

After 16 years of claiming the K-12 education system was starved for proper funding, the B.C. Teachers Federation was no doubt somewhat ecstatic to see the end of the B.C. Liberal government.

However, there are signs that it may not be all that pleased with the NDP government’s performance when it comes to education policy, and that may not bode well for upcoming contract talks.

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As a result, the possibility of another strike by B.C.’s teachers when its contract expires next June cannot be discounted or minimized.

Several potential trouble areas have come into view: total education funding, a new funding model and teachers’ salaries.

The current issue of the BCTF magazine Teacher provides some clues about the BCTF’s thinking on these issues and shows how wide the chasm between the union and the NDP government may well be.

A key article that was co-written by BCTF president Glen Hansman expresses considerable alarm about the new education funding model that is currently being crafted.

Danger! Government Considering New Funding Model screams the headline on the article, which says teachers should be “worried” and “alarmed” about what may lie ahead.

Hansman’s chief concern is whether or not the funding model for students with special needs is turned on its head, and is switched from the current “identified needs” model to a “prevalence and predictive” model, which is a statistical model that would reflect special needs rates of the general population.

The authors worry a predictive funding model could lead to less funding and fewer students getting much needed help (from what teachers tell me, I can’t think of a more pressing classroom problem than ensuring students with special needs get the services they need).

“The idea of decategorizing students’ identified needs has been part of educational discourse for many years,” writes Hansman and his co-author, Michael Rozworski, a BCTF staff member. “However, now a new funding model could help make it a reality. And it could turn out to be a funding model that your union strongly disagrees with.”

They warn a predictive model will lead to rationing of funding, adding: “No targeted funding means kids lose out and teachers burn out.”

The government is indeed considering changes to class composition issues (which capture the special needs issue) but the ministry insists any changes will be positive, improved ones. We shall see.

The magazine also contains a graphic that purports to show the salary gap that exists between teachers in B.C. and those elsewhere in the country. According to the BCTF, B.C. ranks 12th when it comes to the minimum starting salary and 10th on the maximum.

Matching the salaries in, say, Saskatchewan would require a salary increase of 15 to 20 per cent. Given the BCTF will be offered what every other public sector union is being offered – an annual two per cent increase for three years – one can see just how wide a gap there will be at the negotiating table when it comes to salaries.

The BCTF and the government’s opening position on contract talks is generally a wide chasm. I expect this round of talks – scheduled for next spring – to be no different, which is why the chances of a strike or some kind of job action cannot be discounted.

The NDP government claims in this year’s budget that it added an annual $376 million to the education system, the single biggest increase in decades. Yet that appears not to be enough to appease a number of BCTF members.

Even with the addition of several thousand new teachers to the system, Hansman insists it is still short at least 400 teachers.

And the Surrey Teachers’ Association, for example, recently tweeted a letter to Education Minister Rob Fleming from a New Westminster teacher who insists the system remains vastly underfunded (particularly when it comes to addressing special needs funding). In it she predicts that many teachers may stop donating to the NDP as a result (she’s also upset the FSA tests are still being conducted).

Given the trouble that may lie ahead, losing some political donations may be the least of the NDP government’s problems when it comes to the BCTF.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca

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