OF SPE­CIAL CON­CERN

School fund­ing re­view cre­ates worry

Vancouver Sun - - NEWS - LORI CUL­BERT

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.

GERRY KAHRMANN

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.

ARLEN RE­DEKOP

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.

Glen Hans­man

Rob Flem­ing

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.”

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