Education minister's year of learning
He believes the challenges of providing the best education for B.C.’s children – on a limited provincial budget – remain unchanged.
But Education Minister Peter Fassbender says he’s “an eternal optimist” who believes that improvements are possible – even with the current job action and evident philosophic rifts – given the underlying commitment of teachers, support staff and school boards around the province.
At an informal media lunch at his constituency office Friday, the Surrey-Fleetwood MLA reflected on a year in office, and almost a year in his portfolio.
Fresh from an earlier meeting with Surrey school trustees and other area MLAs to discuss local needs, Fassbender said he is committed to being an advocate for schools in his home riding, but it’s a responsibility that must be tempered by his oversight of the education system provincewide.
Inevitably, the BCTF’s current ‘Stage 1’ job action by teachers, launched April 23, in which teachers are not providing supervision of students outside the classroom, figured in his look-back over the year. Teachers contracts expired last June and BCTF president Jim Iker has said the withdrawal of “non-essential services” is part of an escalating job action in response to slow negotiation over wages – the union claims its members earn lower salaries compared with teachers in other provinces – and the need for smaller class sizes.
Fassbender said he sees the current action as “disruptive” for families, and he admitted the government is currently “pushing back” against BCTF wage demands he said would see a 20 per cent increase over three years.
“The ‘ask’ the BCTF has put on the table is out of step with every public sector union we’re settled with,” he said. “We’ve already put an offer on the table, but we have not seen a commensurate response – we’re kind of at an impasse.”
Fassbender said he has tried to build a better relationship between the education ministry and teachers since being appointed minister last June.
“We’re really trying to take the negativity out of the relationship – although we’re accused of doing the opposite,” he said. “I absolutely respect the importance of education to the future of the community and the nation, and I respect the role of teachers, I respect the profession. I care about kids and the future, and that’s not at the expense of teachers having a good living and an assured future; they’re not exclusive (goals).”
However, Fassbender said he doesn’t believe teachers are underpaid, adding that they have “a great benefits package” and “teach 188 days out of the year”.
He also disputed BCTF claims that class sizes average at 30 pupils, citing ministry figures that peg the average for the province at 19.4 students.
Fassbender said he would like to see the province move toward more “personalized” education and said the current provincial initiative toward more skills training and apprenticeship programs as indicative of “a real sense of urgency to reorganize the education system to meet the demands that are coming.”
“It’s an awesome responsibility, but exciting,” he said.’
Fassbender said his past experience – as a City of Langley mayor, councillor and Metro Vancouver representative – prepared him not to be surprised by the challenges of his portfolio.
He also said he has been impressed by the “dedication of people who work in the system.”
“I don’t see a lot of… bureaucrats who sit there and push paper around,” he said. “It’s the same thing in the schools – I see so many dedicated teachers working really hard for the sake of the kids.”
The basic challenges of apportioning resources for education throughout B.C. remain the same, he said, even though the demands seem to be more intense.
For every area where population growth is exploding and enrolment projections are still being adjusted, there are other districts where enrolment is actually declining, he said.
Even in a single district like Surrey (which serves both Surrey and White Rock), demand is far from consistent, he said.
“White Rock doesn’t have the same growth in students that Surrey has,” he noted. “I’m not sure you will ever solve these kinds of school planning problems. Projecting growth is an imperfect science.”
While he said he well understands the appetite for more investment in education, he must respect the limits of taxpayers.
“The thing I get all the time is that ‘we just need more money’,” he said. “That’s easy to say, and it may be true, but where does it come from?
“The only way a government generates resources is through taxes. The other way is by cutting back. If you want us to put more money into education, where would you like us to take it from? Governments on a local, provincial and federal have all had to make hard choices when it comes to balancing budgets.”
Fassbender also made it clear he opposes deficit spending on principle.
“A lot of people have said ‘why don’t you run a bigger deficit?’” he said. “It’s like you just print more money. But if you look at Greece, Portugal and Spain, they ran their economies into the ground; they’re facing 40-50 per cent unemployment and their pension plans are decimated. One day, you’re going to have a reality check.”
The importance of B.C. retaining a triple-A credit rating through balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility is avoiding spending millions in higher borrowing fees – money that would be better spent directly in such areas as health and education, which now account for more than 50 per cent of the provincial budget, Fassbender said.
“I’ve had teachers say to me ‘just tax businesses more’,” he said. “But if you increase taxes to the point that you put people out of business, how does that help people? All of these things are linked and interdependent on one another, and we have a responsibility to make this work.”