OF SPECIAL CONCERN
School funding review creates worry
Proposals to significantly change how public K-12 schools are funded in B.C. are to be released in the next week or two, at a pivotal time for schools as they grapple with services for special-needs children, hiring more teachers, and contract negotiations with teachers.
“Problems and frustrations with the (current funding) model have accumulated over time, particularly among special-needs students: underfunding, long waiting times, those are the things we heard,” Education Minister Rob Fleming said this week.
After the NDP’s election in 2016, it created a seven-person panel to collect opinions from school boards, teachers and other school staff, and parents’ groups about whether there is a better way to spend B.C.’s $6-billion education budget. The group produced a report earlier this year with recommendations for change. Fleming delayed making the report public, but says it will be released before the Christmas holidays.
However, a short summary released in May by the panel has raised tensions among some parent groups, who are concerned about recommendations to change how special-needs students will be funded.
“It is a huge, huge concern for our families, not knowing what’s coming and not being able to prepare for it,” said Tracy Humphreys, founder of BCEdAccess, a support group for B.C. families with special-needs children that has more than 1,600 members.
“Parents are worried because there are rumours, there is speculation. There is nothing that has been clearly stated. There is a general anxiety.”
The B.C. Teachers’ Federation also has concerns, not only because of uncertainty over how any changes may affect resources for vulnerable kids, but also because changes could potentially set back victories the union made in a hardfought Supreme Court of Canada battle.
That 2016 ruling forced B.C. to reduce the number of specialneeds children taught by any one teacher, to make the composition of classrooms more manageable.
“There is the question of how can we ensure the students that we work with actually get the services they need and how our members can support their needs without drowning,” said BCTF president Glen Hansman.
TEACHERS’ CONTRACT EXPIRES IN 2019
Although the BCTF has supported the NDP government, this is a delicate time because bargaining starts in the new year for the next contract. The current one expires in June. It was signed in the fall of 2014 after a bitter labour war with the previous Liberal government that resulted in teachers reducing extracurricular activities and students losing many days of class.
Although pundits have predicted this simmering issue over the funding review could create tension at the bargaining table, both Fleming and Hansman took a conciliatory tone this week, saying they would approach contract talks with a positive attitude.
“We are optimistic that we will get things done before the end of June,” Hansman said.
Another issue that will be central to these talks is the continuing challenge to hire 3,700 new teachers as a result of the court ruling, which demanded class sizes be reverted to the levels of 2002, when the previous government illegally stripped teachers of their right to bargain class size and composition.
A hiring spree has been underway for nearly two years, but there are officially still 400 jobs to be filled. This has been a concern for parents, who are happy about more resources for their schools, but frustrated when children are still waiting for a permanent teacher more than three months into the school year.
In September, there were 600 job openings, so there has been a reduction of 200 since then. However, the numbers continue to fluctuate, as between Saturday and Thursday of this week, 120 new posts went up on the province’s website that advertises teacher jobs.
Fleming played down the 400 openings, saying that was roughly the number of jobs available throughout 2015 before the court ruling. He also noted the ministry continues to recruit new teachers and created 176 new teachertraining spots at B.C. universities.
“There’s work to do on recruiting and training specialist teachers, which is what we are focused on,” he added.
1,000 TEACHERS STILL NEEDED, UNION SAYS
But Hansman argued the situation is more dire because in addition to the current openings, there are more than 400 people currently employed at B.C. schools who are not certified teachers. This was allowed when the province couldn’t find enough qualified teachers to take these jobs over the last two years, but those people also need to be replaced, he said.
“We still need probably 1,000 more individuals in B.C. just to address the current need,” he estimated.
Hansman has said this shortage could be partly alleviated if teachers’ pay is boosted in the next contract, because of the union’s oft-repeated complaint that B.C. salaries are among the lowest in Canada and also to offset high real estate prices here.
Money is a common denominator in many of the school-system challenges faced by parents and teachers.
In February’s budget, the NDP promised to boost education spending in the 2019-20 fiscal year by about two per cent to $6.24 billion, which is just above the rate of inflation.
None of the system’s insiders interviewed for this story thought the province planned to enlarge the pot of money available for schools in this funding review. Rather, they said, it is likely an exercise in how to redistribute current dollars, such as for special education, which in 2017-18 had a $517-million budget serving more than 29,000 students. Fleming stopped short of promising more money, but said he “wants to enhance what the special education envelope doesn’t include today,” such as more support for children in care, Indigenous youth and children from low-income families.
In its summary released in May, the funding review panel, which includes representatives from four school boards, a provincial bureaucrat, a businesswoman and a UBC official, said submissions from district administrators raised concerns about finding and keeping enough teachers.
“Virtually all school districts cited challenges with recruitment and retention of staff. Barriers included high costs of housing in urban and metro areas and lifestyle in rural and remote districts. Specialist teachers are difficult to attract to small, rural, or remote districts,” the report said.
It is a huge, huge concern for our families, not knowing what’s coming and not being able to prepare for it. TRACEY HUMPHREYS, BCEdAccess
Others who provided opinions to the panel spoke about issues such as targeted funding for Indigenous students, the increasing reliance on schools to deal with socioeconomic issues such as poverty, mental health and addictions, and a new way to fund resources for special-needs students.
HOT-BUTTON ISSUE: SPECIAL-NEEDS FUNDING
It is this last item that has generated the most controversy. Nearly everyone agrees that change is necessary, as many of the 350 education insiders who provided submissions to the panel said some school boards were dipping into their own operating budgets to supplement special-needs spending and also that some students who required special-needs support weren’t receiving it.
In the current system, the amount of money each school board receives for special-needs funding is based on the number of students with diagnoses for specific conditions: These range from intense behaviour problems or serious mental illness ($9,610 annually) to autism and other serious conditions ($19,070) to physically dependent or deaf and blind students ($38,140).
Some school boards complain this is a complicated system that requires spending as much as 20 per cent of special-education funding on paperwork and administration; relies heavily on medical assessments that often have long waiting times, causing delays in students getting services and can create stigma for students.
The panel has recommended a different model that would remove funding by diagnosis and instead go the route of provinces such as Ontario, which predicts the number of students with special needs in a school district based on the percentage of people with certain conditions in the general population.
“A number of districts suggested moving to a prevalence model based on the incidence of special needs in the population as an alternative to the current assessment and reporting driven funding model,” the panel’s May summary paper says. “While concerns were raised about data sources, all agreed that this approach would reduce the administrative burden and provide districts with more time and resources to deliver services to students.”
Until Fleming releases the specific recommendations for change later this month, exactly how this new system would work is still unclear. He is optimistic, though.
“We hope (the prevalence model) will improve services for special-needs students,” he said.
Parents groups like BCEdAccess, though, are concerned that relying less on the assessment of students could mean some students fly under the radar. Parents who support the diagnosis system say it ensures access to resources for students who have been designated as vulnerable. However, the group also acknowledges in its submission letter to the panel that there are long waiting times for these assessments and there is an inequity caused by parents who jump the queue if they can afford to pay for private assessments, which cost about $3,000.
The bottom line, said Humphreys, the group’s founder who lives in Victoria with her three special-needs children, is a solution likely requires more funding. “Without an increase in the amount of money, it is really just shuffling.”
PARENTS OF DYSLEXIC STUDENTS WORRIED
Cathy McMillan, founder of Dyslexia B.C., is opposed to the panel’s recommendation that school districts need to spend less time on “administration, paperwork and assessments.”
That’s because dyslexia has not been one of the conditions for which boards receive provincial funding since changes were made in 2002 by the previous government. Therefore, dyslexic students, like McMillan’s two children, are given less priority in the cash-starved system than children with other conditions who receive additional funding, she said.
The Port Moody mother argues the assessments and other work being done through schools must at least be sustained, if not increased, or “these kids will get completely lost . ... Assessment is necessary to drive instruction and remediation for these students.”
Her daughter Tannis, who has severe dyslexia, is a shining example of how investment in these children can pay off: The Grade 12 student just signed a full-ride soccer scholarship with a U.S. college. But she achieved that by going to a local private school because McMillan couldn’t get sufficient help for her at a public school.
Her son, who has moderate dyslexia, remained in the public system, but with the help of expensive tutors, computers purchased by his family, and lobbying from his mother for additional time to write tests. He is now a UBC student.
McMillan would like the government to give a $4 test to every kindergarten student to assess whether they have dyslexia. “But I am definitely not holding my breath.”
Like McMillan, the Vancouver Secondary Teachers Association expressed concern to the panel that testing students was considered a wasteful use of administrative time.
“A move from funding based on individually identified needs to a model in which funding is determined by provincial averages would make it harder to target funds to specific students. Districts, such as Vancouver, which may have a higher proportion of students in need of extra supports would likely receive less funding,” the union said in its submission.
VICTORIA SUPPORTS CHANGE, SURREY DOESN’T
But several school districts expressed some interest in changing the funding model. Greater Victoria, for example, said the current model leaves behind students with issues such as deficits in memory, language and cognition.
“Other jurisdictions have successfully adopted the profile funding model,” Victoria’s submission said.
On the other hand, the Surrey school board chair, Laurie Larsen, reported to her board on Nov. 21 that while the current funding system is not perfect, her large, growing district is worried about potential changes.
“We are specifically concerned that any significant changes in how funding is allocated to districts without also increasing the total amount of funding being allocated may have very serious negative impacts on the Surrey school district. We would want to be assured that any adjustment to the funding formulae would not result in winners and losers,” Larsen said.
The teachers’ union has said doling out funding based on a provincial percentage of special needs could hurt large districts, such as Vancouver and Surrey, which have disproportionately high numbers of children with diagnosed conditions because of the availability of health and specialist services in those cities.
The BCTF has also cited a study into the Ontario system that says breaking the link between funding and a diagnosed student means it isn’t obvious to teachers or parents what resources are available to a certain child in need.
Hansman wrote an article last month for the union’s Teacher Magazine, headlined: “Danger! Government considering a new funding model. A disaster for kids with special needs?”
In an interview, he lowered the rhetoric a bit, saying the union would have to be “shown why ” the proposed new model is better than what we have now.
Sheila Curran’s son Sam was medically removed from his Burnaby school in September 2016 after he acted out against a counsellor; eight months later he was diagnosed with autism, but he is still waiting for the necessary paperwork to be readmitted to a regular classroom with specialneeds support, so for now is attending an alternative program in Vancouver.
“Basically my child has a Grade 4 education, but is in Grade 7 now,” she said.
She doesn’t know if the funding changes will make things better for her 12-year-old son, just that change is needed.
“We need more help, more support, more stability, and also the transparency to know what’s available and how is it filtered from the ministry to the parent,” Curran said.
Sheila Curran’s 12-year-old son, Sam, has been diagnosed with autism, but they are still waiting for a classroom spot with special-needs support.
Tannis McKay of Burnaby overcame severe dyslexia to obtain a U.S. soccer scholarship, but only because she got extra help in a private school, says her mother Cathy McMillan, founder of Dyslexia B.C.
Tracy Humphreys of Victoria, founder of BCEdAccess and a mother of three special-needs children, says without more funding from the province to assess and educate such kids, “it is really just shuffling.”