This week should be the first week of school. For students and their teachers, it's supposed to be a time of excitement and anticipation. But instead, it's a time of frustration and uncertainty.
I am not happy about where things currently stand. Throughout this dispute, everything we've tried to do is to have schools open on time and reach a settlement. But the BCTF (B.C. Teachers' Federation) leadership has refused every path to a fair deal. They won't even let teachers vote on suspending pickets while an agreement is mediated.
The BCTF is asking for nearly twice as much as what other public-sector workers have achieved. They also insist on a $5,000 signing bonus. They need to get realistic about wages and benefits so we can get on with negotiating class size and composition. I worry the BCTF is actually counting on government to legislate an end to this strike so they can avoid having a difficult conversation with their members about what is realistic and achievable.
Our government has been very clear that we have no plans to legislate. That would only keep us on the same dysfunctional treadmill we've been on for the past 30 years. As hard as it is, we intend to stand firm and hope the union leadership drops its unrealistic demands so we can negotiate a fair agreement.
It's clear that wages remain one of the big stumbling blocks -- and led veteran labour mediator Vince Ready to declare that mediation is not possible at this time. But a prolonged strike will not change the basic fact that the best possible deal for teachers is an affordable negotiated agreement.
I am sure many British Columbians are still trying to understand what's at the heart of this dispute. For the past year, the BCTF has been saying funding has been cut, the education system is in trouble, and that students are struggling.
The truth is dramatically different. We now spend nearly $1 billion more each year than we did 13 years ago - and that's at a time when we have 70,000 fewer students to serve. Per-pupil funding is up by 38 per cent since 2001.
All of the data shows B.C. students are doing better than ever. Graduation rates are up and a range of recent international studies show that B.C. students are, quite simply, among the best in Canada and the best in the world.
In fact, the very students the BCTF claims are struggling are actually those who have made the most dramatic improvements. Since 2000-01, the completion rate for students with special needs is up
76 per cent; for First Nations, it is up 42 per cent; and for English-language learners (ELL), it is up 11 per cent.
Teachers deserve credit for the success our students are achieving. They deserve a raise. But any salary increase has to be affordable for taxpayers and fair to the other 150,000 public-sector workers who have already signed agreements.
The other key issue is class size and composition. It is government's number one priority at the table. Despite the BCTF's claims, B.C. does not have large classes. Average class sizes are near historic lows. The student-to-teacher ratio (18 to one) has been stable and is the same today as it was in 2001.
Government's approach on class composition is to help students with new resources, more teachers and educational assistants. We need to focus on what does the most good, and while we need to make progress on this issue, we can't ignore how far we've come.
Over the past 13 years, we've seen dramatic improvements to how we support students with special needs and the results speak for themselves. We are not going to put these gains at risk by going backwards to a factory model with rigid ratios on class composition that the BCTF is proposing because they don't work for students and never did.
To help teachers and students succeed, BCPSEA (B.C. Public School Employers' Association) is proposing flexible approaches that target resources to where they can make a real difference. The offer on the table would guarantee a minimum of $375 million over five years to address complex classroom needs, and a stronger role for teachers in deciding how to spend these funds. And whether it's more BCTF or CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) members -- it doesn't matter -- because students' needs should come first.
I have grandchildren in the public school system. Like everyone else, I want this dispute to end.
In fact, my sole purpose as the Minister of Education is to transform our system to make sure B.C. kids get the best possible education for the future. I look forward to negotiating a resolution to the strike so we can get on with our overarching goal: Developing capable young people ready to thrive in a rapidly changing world.
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