When teachers strike, the issue stops being simply about a dispute between a union and the government. When teachers strike, their absence from the classroom puts pressure on teaching assistants and administrators and leaves parents in the dark about their children’s progress. Students are the most negatively affected and are left in an unstable, unreliable and inadequate learning environment.
Since negotiations started in March 2011, which included 78 face-to-face sessions, there hasn’t been significant progress towards an agreement. Unfortunately, confrontations aren’t unusual for the BCTF. In the last 30 years, the BCTF has managed a negotiated settlement just one time.
Bill 22, The Education Improvement Act, is intended to mitigate the negative impact of the job action that has been going on since September. Using legislation to resolve stalled negotiations is never ideal, but after seven months, it simply isn’t acceptable to maintain the status quo in our classrooms.
My colleagues and I appreciate the great work B.C.’s teachers do. That’s exactly why we’re eager to pursue meaningful talks with them.
First, for a constructive debate to happen, it’s important to separate fact from fiction. Bill 22 suspends the current teachers’ strike action, fixing a “cooling off period” during which an appointed mediator will facilitate bargaining.
Contrary to what some have said, there will be no imposed contract – the current contract will simply be extended over the mediation period. In the event that the BCTF and the government do not come to a settlement, the mediator will issue a report in June – with non-binding recommendations.
All issues will be on the table and subject to negotiations, within a net-zero mandate. This means that we need to work within our current fiscal resources. 130 agreements, and agreements-in-principle, which cover 75 per cent of almost 300,000 unionized public sector employees have already signed contracts under this mandate.
In fact, since the government announced the net-zero mandate, the only major union that has refused to accept it, and failed to advance, is the BCTF.
Another rumour I’ve heard is about class sizes. For the record, Kindergarten classes will stay at a maximum of 22 students and grades 1-3 classes will remain at 24. These caps cannot be exceeded. For grades 4-12, a class maximum of 30 students will be put in place.
Some classes, such as band and theatre, will be allowed to have more students, since larger sizes are beneficial in these subject areas. However, every exception to the maximum cap will have to be agreed to by the school’s principal and signed off by the district superintendent.
Bill 22 provides for additional compensation for teachers when a class size exceeds the maximum. In these cases, teachers can choose to receive compensation in the form of increased salary, additional preparation time, professional development funding, or increased classroom materials.
Bill 22 attempts to create a more collaborative process for the allocation and management of special needs resources by removing arbitrary limits on the number of special needs students that can be in a single classroom.
Instead of driving class organization decisions through an arbitrary formula, Bill 22 allows teachers, administrators and district staff to collaborate so that every class is designed to best support the individual needs of every student.
To help improve the allocation and management of special needs resources, Bill 22 implements a $165 million Learning Improvement Fund. This fund is in addition to the $866 million in supplemental funding already provided to support students with special needs and will be targeted to classrooms with complex class composition issues.
Finally, the BCTF’s demands for a $2 billion increase to wages and benefits are completely unreasonable given the current economic reality. The government will not place this additional burden on taxpayers and will not deviate from the net-zero mandate which has been signed by virtually every other public sector union in the province.
I am fully confident that Bill 22 gives all parties an opportunity to re-engage in much-needed dialogue with cool heads. We need to find a solution that works, so that students can get back to learning and reaching their fullest potential in the classroom.
Visit Ben’s website at www.benstewartmla.bc.ca