Crowded house

By Aaren Madden, September 2012

Tara Ehrcke on why education in general, and class size in particular, needs to become an election issue next spring.

It’s September, and another school year is about to begin. Usually this season puts people in mind of fresh starts and the exciting potential represented by all those sharpened pencils and crisp sheets of loose-leaf. For teachers in BC, though, it will mean a return to the same issues they have faced for years and fought for in tumultuous contract negotiations and job action through most of the last school year. The implementation of Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act, in June forced a temporary settlement, effective until June 2013, at which time the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation may or may not be a different government’s problem. 

Tara Ehrcke, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, was a member of the BCTF team that took part in those contentious collective bargaining negotiations. While the government’s net zero mandate swept salary negotiations off the table, Ehrcke says Bill 22 will actually magnify teachers’ greatest concerns: class size and composition. Many teachers will return to even larger class sizes than last year. “That is going to have a very real and immediate impact on teachers and students this school year. By the time we are bargaining in March, those issues will be at the forefront, because we live them every day,” she says. 

Ehrcke lived them for eight years as a teacher of mathematics and information technology at Vic High and Spectrum Community Schools before becoming president of the GVTA. She has had many different roles there and in the BCTF and blogs at Staffroom Confidential, bringing insight to public education and describing her many activities as one of its champions. Always interested in social justice, she took part in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999. The election of the Liberal government focused her attention to the provincial landscape. “I was pretty active in a lot of the union and social movements, protesting in the early days of the Campbell government,” she recalls. She also speaks at Board of Education meetings, to media, to politicians, and in various lobbying capacities to draw attention to what she feels is the erosion of public education in BC.

Ehrcke connects some dots in that regard. When the BC Liberals implemented massive corporate tax cuts, it led to major provincial revenue losses—to the tune of at least $7.7 billion over the last decade and $8.8 billion more by 2015, according to the BC Federation of Labour. Social services and education have starved as a result, says Ehrcke. 

As Education Minister from 2001 to 2004, Christy Clark repealed contracts previously signed with the NDP government and imposed a collective agreement on teachers, along with a number of other changes to education delivery which were problematic. Specific to class size, well, it was no longer negotiable. Ehrcke adds, “In 2001, with the first legislated contract, there were wage increases at about inflation—2.5 percent—but those weren’t funded to the districts so they had to make cuts in order to meet their budgets. The most current budget was net zero; there was no acknowledgement of inflationary pressure on school boards. So when you see their response to this, programs get cut, services get cut, and class sizes get larger.”

What’s a few more kids? “Just doing the math helps people picture what it’s like,” says Ehrcke, true to form. “We have 80-minute blocks with students. If we spend 20 minutes reviewing homework from the previous day and another 20 or 30 minutes for the lessons from that day, we have 30 minutes left. If you have 30 students, that’s one minute per student. If they get stuck on a problem or need something explained to them over again or in a different way, that’s the amount of one-on- one contact time that you actually have. That’s where class size really makes a big difference,” she explains.

Keep in mind, 30 students is no longer the limit. In a move derided by teachers as “cash for kids,” Bill 22 removes class size limits for grades four and above while financially compensating teachers for additional students. “You don’t want to create a financial incentive for a poor learning environment. Teachers have always said it’s not about getting paid extra for extra kids; it’s about having the right number of kids so we are able to actually teach in a way that’s going to be meaningful and provide a good learning environment for those students,” she argues.

School boards, Ehrcke predicts, will find it hard to resist further increasing class sizes because it will be cheaper for principals and superintendents to, say, hire two middle school teachers at higher pay to teach 45 students than it will be to hire three teachers for 30 students each. “When you have a school board that is facing budget issues combined with Bill 22, a net zero increase in budgets, the logical result of that is going to be larger classes,” she says. 

Before the snowball started rolling, class limits were 28 students. If more than two had learning disabilities or another type of special need, the overall number was reduced. Since cuts began, there are 700 fewer special education teachers in BC. What used to be two hours per week per student of specialized help has become 15 minutes. 

Here’s how that plays out in a classroom. During the strike, teacher and writer Cheryl Angst blogged about her 2010-2011 teaching year. Nineteen of her 30 students had some sort of specialized education plan. “I didn’t teach last year; I performed triage,” she wrote. Ehrcke says in a five-year period, one in ten teachers will be off on a stress-related medical leave. That’s one teacher per elementary school; five to ten per high school.

It ultimately costs students, Ehrcke says. “There is a very real and significant outcome on children who may, for instance, get diverted into having a leaving certificate instead of a full degree when they graduate. Not because the child isn’t able to finish grade 12 with a Dogwood [certificate of graduation], but because we are not providing the additional supports they need to get there,” she says. It can mean the difference between success and a life of struggle personally, socially and economically.

“That’s why, for ten years, we have been fighting through the courts and by going on strike to try and have the ratios returned,” Ehrcke says. She doesn’t expect—or really desire—further job action, though a meeting in late August will decide that. She plans to focus her energies in anticipation of the election this spring. By the time these words are on the page, she will have met with NDP MLA Robin Austin to find out how they plan to solve the problem.

“We need some kind of comprehensive examination of the tax system, of putting corporate taxes back to where they were a decade ago, because that’s how we fund these services. I think that is the big conversation that needs to happen, and I am hoping that during the election those things come on the table and that the different candidates put forward a platform and a position on those issues.” Now that would be a fresh start reminiscent of an early September day.

Aaren Madden is grateful that, despite it all, so many teachers deeply value their profession and get joy out of teaching her own and other peoples’ children.