On January 25, 2015 the Vancouver Board of Education unanimously voted to accept the Interim Long Range Facilities Plan recommending the closure and/or repurposing of up to 20 schools. The Ministry of Education, which not long ago promised to seismically upgrade unsafe schools, recently introduced a new ultimatum: ensure 95% enrolment across the district of Vancouver (and this applies to other districts too) or we will not agree to repair or replace unsafe schools’. The VBE trustees said they felt they had little choice but to agree to the plan. Indeed, no one wants our children, teachers and parents in unsafe schools, and it may be time for larger, older schools to be replaced. But is the Vancouver Board of Education getting played by a privatization agenda?
There was a moment of solemn unity among the trustees at the January 25 board meeting, as Trustee Joy Alexander named the consequences of voting for the plan, even as she agreed to do so: the future of adult education, special needs education, arts and music programs and community uses of school space such as childcare are all now in jeopardy. This is because these school programs are not recognized as legitimate school use of space; they do not “count” toward the 95% enrolment.
After the trustees voted to accept the Long-Range Plan and begin deliberations on school closures, Trustee Janet Fraser proposed a motion stating that the Vancouver Board of Education is working toward achieving 95% capacity as a Ministry requirement, not because it believes this requirement supports its education mission.
Suffice it to say that this proposal was not well received among a few trustees who were worried such a motion would damage the ‘new positive relationship with the Ministry of Education’. When Trustee Fraser Ballantyne calmed down, he said he was sure that the 95% number could be negotiated with the Ministry. After all, no one is quite sure what data or rationale support it.
Another possibility is that it is no accident or oversight at all that the 95% capacity in VBE schools excludes adult education, special education and arts and music programs. In fact, tying seismic upgrading to school closures and ‘erasing’ programs fits neatly with the policy of ‘radical efficiency’ promoted by the Ministry of Education’s corporate partner, Global Education Leadership Program. The relationship between GELP and the BC Government was described in an article on the corporatization of education in BC by Katie Hyslop of The Tyee in 2012. Hyslop drew on the work of educator Tara Erkhe, who found a case study of GELPs work with the BC Government on the GELP website. (The study is no longer there, but it can still be accessed in the Tyee article). In 2015, GELP affiliates were among the guest speakers at an invitation only ‘learning forum’ sponsored by the BC Ministry of Education. GELP motivates for a smaller role for government in the delivery of public services, including education, and a larger role for private sector partners, who they argue are better endowed with expertise and innovative ideas to improve the quality of public services while ‘saving money’.
In the context of the new ‘95% capacity or no seismic upgrades’ policy it’s worth taking another look at radical efficiency as explained by GELP affiliates Hannon, Patton and Tapperly in their Cisco-funded white paper:
“In examples of radical efficiency, erstwhile users of services frequently assume a more active role in their delivery, which serves to enhance the benefits of the service for these and other users and to reduce the costs of provision. Cost benefits come in the form of short-term savings arising from a reduction in the number of interventions made by professionals, as citizens take more of a role in managing their own solutions. Where services are delivered in the community rather than in expensive public buildings, decommissioning of space can provide opportunities to save money too” (2011, p. 8).
We have already seen in the ABE tuition policy and Vancouver Board of Education’s recent cuts to adult education that philanthropy groups, volunteers and other ‘erstwhile users of services’ are being asked to step in take ‘a more active role in delivery’ of public education. ‘Services’ such as adult education and arts and music education are being ‘moved into the community’ to ‘reduce the costs of provision’. And of course, this and persistent cuts to other areas of public education has had the effect to ‘reduce the number of interventions made by professionals’. The status of special needs education in the new BC education curriculum has been a concern for educators since 2012, when Rod Allen, former assistant deputy minister of education stated:
There will be ‘no labels and no medical model. In a 21st century personalised world, I’ll tell you what a special education looks like if you can tell me what a ‘normal’ education is.
Very compelling, no one likes labels or stigma. But read alongside the Ministry’s exclusions to the ‘95% capacity’ requirement, the seismic upgrade ultimatum seems the perfect lever to continue to enforce the ‘decommission of space’ and other ‘radical efficiencies’ on the public education system. Or it may not be. Whatever is actually happening, this is a time for public education’s most vulnerable stakeholders, including adult education, music and the arts, and special education, to stay united and pay very close attention.