On Jan. 23, members of the community assembled at UVic for a panel discussion on signs and potential dangers of schools in B.C. moving to privatization and commercialization. The panel was co-hosted by the Victoria Chapter of the Council of Canadians and the Social Justice Committee of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association (GVTA), and represented by speakers Jessica Van der Veen, Donald Gutstein, and Tara Ercke. The speakers addressed the issues behind B.C. education moving toward privatization, and the effects this has on the teachers, students, and the communities involved.
Van der Veen, founder of Let’s Agree to Not Dispose of Schools! (LANDS!), a Victoria-based group committed to stopping the sale of public school properties in B.C., started the discussion looking at the cuts to public school funding in B.C. in recent years. She said that these “unnecessary” and “unjustified cuts” are the first symptom of a move toward a lack of commitment to public education.
“I think that so many of the things that we’ve watched over the last few years . . . indicate a determination to undermine our confidence in the future of public ed,” she said. Van der Veen believes that this undermining is fuelled by false information that is spread in the form of justification for cuts to funding: that B.C. can’t afford public education, that student enrolment is quickly declining, and that the cuts are helping to reach a “debt-free B.C.”
According to the panel, cuts to funding are not the only things undermining public education, however. Gutstein, an adjunct professor from Simon Fraser University School of Communication, talked about B.C. education, the goals of the ministry, and their similarities to the goals of Pearson PLC—the largest education company in the world. Gutstein says that education is going in the way of personalized learning through technology which, he says, is something that the ministry is moving toward and also happens to be Pearson’s business plan.
“Replacing teachers and administrators with Pearson’s patented software and programs is a strategy,” he said. “This is why personalized learning using technology is so crucial to the company strategy.” One example that Gutstein gave was the future use of Knewton software—in partnership with Pearson—in online classrooms in B.C. Gutstein says that not only will this move “make every teacher and every student into a potential customer,” but it also poses a risk to face-to-face education and teacher jobs. “The corporate news release assures readers that teachers will still be needed—but where?” Gutstein says that some of the ideals of the education ministry—such as the emphasis on more choice for students and family about where and how learning takes place—promote the move to private schools and online learning, and, seeing how Pearson has dominated the education product industry in the U.S., B.C. is in danger of having the same thing happen.
This emphasis on more choice for students and families can even have a negative effect on the classrooms and the teachers who preside over them, according to Ercke, president of the GVTA. “In many ways, we have two school systems,” she said. “If you’re white, if you’re female, in French Immersion, if you live on the right side of the tracks, if you have parents who choose what school you attend, you probably have a very different school experience than many children who are in very different-looking classes.” This uneven makeup of classrooms, she explains, leads to a situation such as a majority of boys, who she says can be much more difficult to deal with, or a clustering of special needs students with only one special resource teacher. With a lean toward private schools, education is being more consumer-driven, wherein parents “go shopping” for the perfect school. “It’s a very individual-centric view of schooling that your role as a parent is not to, you know, participate with others in your community by making schools great for everyone, it’s about protecting the interests of your individual child.”
This panel discussion was concluded with an audience question and comment session, during which several members of the community, many of whom were teachers themselves, discussed the issues at hand and posited ways to make a change. Ercke said, “As advocates of a public system, we’re well-positioned to actually work with others to start in a conversation about, how do we get to a place where we’re actually talking about the wonderful things that we can be doing with the school system and with our children, instead of how to keep what meagre bit we have left.”