Kaylee [not her real name], grade 5 and eldest of four, is having difficulty with math and reading. Her mother, struggling to manage the household on her own while her husband is at work, makes a valiant effort to work with Kaylee but is unable to dedicate the time Kaylee needs to improve. There are tutoring facilities available, but their household income for a family of six in Vancouver’s East Side is $42,000 a year. Money and time to take her are both a stretch for her parents. Kaylee ends up doing without the tutoring she needs to keep up.
Her school is on the chopping block. Kaylee’s father uses the family’s only vehicle all day for work and he starts too early to drive her to school. If her school closes, Kaylee’s exhausted mother will have to take her by bus, with three younger children in tow.
Kaylee’s is an increasingly common story.
BC has been falling behind on public education funding levels compared to its provincial cohorts since 2004 and the effects are noticeable. Overworked teachers struggle to keep overcrowded and under-resourced classrooms functional while after-school programs that would have helped children like Kaylee are being starved out of existence. More and more parents are finding the need to fill in the gaps with private programs – programs that families can afford to highly varying degrees.
Special Needs Programs are in dire straits while adult literacy programs and lunch programs are being sliced paper thin. Schools in poorer areas fare the worst, but even wealthier areas like North Vancouver have been forced to cut programs over the years. The primary role of many Parent Advisory Committees appears to now be fundraising for the school. It is commonplace for parents and teachers alike to donate thousands of dollars a year to keep their schools functioning – a slap in the face amidst tax cuts to the province’s wealthiest tax bracket.
De-funding of public education is likely to continue if we fail to object to the intentional shift of incentives towards the private education system. As public education continues to suffer, families will scrimp and save in order to afford to pull their children out of public schools and place them into private schools with increasing frequency. Parents will be increasingly misled to believe that public education cannot be an effective choice for their children, while the public will be made to believe that it’s not worth funding. Decreased enrollment and “poor quality of education” will be used as justification for further cuts and closures while funding is diverted to private schools.
If public schools are closed, sale of the land will soon follow. Government repurchase in the future, if expansion is later required, will become extremely expensive and difficult. Private schools will predictably fill the demand and the process of privatization and the development of a tiered educational system will continue.
Children of less fortunate families already have a substantially more difficult time succeeding in life than the children of more fortunate families. This is no small issue in a province where 1 in 5 children live in poverty.
Universal access to good education is supposed to provide an equalizing effect. By taking away equal opportunity for academic success we are only adding further barriers for children to grow into successful adults. Even putting empathy aside, this is simply bad for the economy and the province long term.
A downward spiral for the public school system is imminent and yet completely preventable with proper funding levels and a correction of provincial priorities. Unless something drastic changes we can expect to see the gap in academic achievement between the rich and the poor widen exponentially -- and with it, worsening inequality, a stifling of our economy, and greater depth of poverty across our entire province.
We must be willing to view expenditures on public education as a long-term investment and abandon the province’s current obsession with forcing school boards to balance budgets at all costs. This current unsustainable model of cutting taxes and then in turn cutting basic services like K-12 education will result in the ruin of our social fabric. We are mortgaging our children's futures (which indeed are our own futures) for what amounts to little more than a tidy financial balance sheet. A substantial investment in public education will pay dividends in the future when we have managed to produce generations of capable, successful young adults who in turn become the drivers of a strong and successful economy. Our children are worth it and our province is worth it.