Excerpt from the Official Report of


April 30, 2007

Remarks on Bill 20, charter schools, and supporting vulnerable students

S. Simpson: I'm happy to have an opportunity to add a few comments to this discussion around Bill 20, the School (Student Achievement Enabling) Amendment Act. I am particularly interested in discussing this in terms of how I've increasingly come to view the role of education, first and foremost as it affects my constituency of Vancouver-Hastings.

Certainly, it has impacts throughout Vancouver, as an urban area, and I know that there are impacts that would be felt in other constituencies and throughout school districts across British Columbia. What we know about our schools is that they face a range of challenges in addition to those that would be seen as purely academic. The kids in our schools face a whole range of issues that are more than just those that are academic.

I know when I look at my community, at my constituency and at the schools in my constituency, I see kids who have particular challenges. The comments of the previous speaker talked about kids who are vulnerable, and I certainly have an abundance of those children who live in Vancouver-Hastings.

We know that the most recent available statistics show that one in four children lives in poverty in this province, and what we know from that is that kids don't get poor by themselves. Poor kids are the result of poor families.

The reality is that those are the kids that are in schools, and it's been suggested to me by academics that while we look at numbers that suggest that one in four children — certainly in the lower mainland area — is vulnerable in some way, shape or form, in my community the number apparently, experts tell me, looks more like one in two kids is vulnerable. That's an incredibly high number, and it's an incredibly serious situation. I know it's very serious for me, and I believe it's also serious for the minister and for people on all sides of this House.

We have our vulnerable children. We also have an abundance of ESL children. About 40 percent of the people who live in my constituency of Vancouver-Hastings are Chinese-speaking; either Cantonese or Mandarin are their first languages. English as a second language is a big challenge, so we have those pressures. And we have an abundance of children with special needs.

All of these are issues that add to the complexity of how our schools work, what their objectives are, what their challenges are. I know the minister understands this. I've had the opportunity to have this discussion with the minister in her estimates, and we had a good discussion about those challenges. I think we agree on a number of issues related to how difficult it is in every school district because every school district faces these challenges, some of us a little more than others. It's certainly not unique to my constituency or to Vancouver. It's a situation that is reflected across the province.

When we look at how we're going to meet those challenges and we look at legislation that gets put forward and at Bill 20, we have to ask ourselves: does this piece of legislation help us to meet the challenges that those kids and those families are facing in Vancouver-Hastings and in constituencies across the province? Does Bill 20 support the school board — the democratically elected school board — in its efforts to meet those challenges? Does it support parent advisory councils and those who are interested and committed to education who are working in those districts across the province, trying to meet those objectives?

I don't believe that this bill does advance those issues that are important. I don't believe it begins to address those issues in a way that we would all hopefully want them to be addressed. I'll talk about that a little bit more as we go on.

The second issue around Bill 20 that raises some concern for me, really, is the issue of accountability of our education system. We all know, and I certainly know, as the parent of a 15-year-old…. I've had an interest in education for a long time. My interest in education became somewhat more acute when my daughter went to school, and I got involved in the parent advisory council at my daughter's school and stayed involved in it until I came and got this job here. I know that my focus on education as a parent, obviously, was much more acute than it was when I was an observer outside of the system.

I know from that that I paid much more attention to my school board. I would look at the minutes of meetings when I was interested in issues that were in front

of the board, when the board was talking about budget matters and funding for special needs, and inner-city or community school issues, and the funding debate would go on. I would be very interested in that, and I would go to PAC meetings. We would have those discussions at the PAC meetings.

There was a fairly large group of parents who wanted to be part of that discussion and were always prepared to go to the school board when those issues came up on the agenda — to speak about those issues and impress upon them the concerns we had as parents about spending decisions or program decisions.

Locally elected school boards offered us that accountability. They certainly offer the ability to do that, to have those discussions and to talk about the priorities of spending. That is the democratic nature of the elected school boards. It's a critical thing, and it's something that we need to ensure that we protect.

The question that I think comes out of a number of the initiatives that are in Bill 20 here is: are we in fact protecting and are we enriching the democratic process at the local level through Bill 20?

We always hear that the closer you get to the voters — whether it be local governments, municipal governments, town councils or school boards…. The closer you get to the voters, arguably, the more accountable governments are because they are more accessible.

I think there is certainly some merit in that argument. So the question we have to ask is: are we enriching that democratic process through the initiatives that are advanced in Bill 20?

Sadly, I'm not so sure we are. In fact, I don't believe that Bill 20 advances those causes and arguably — and we've heard the comments of a number of the previous speakers, and I'll speak a little bit about this as I move on — we are eroding or taking away from the democratic processes, and taking away from those local school board authorities. When we do that, we hurt that transparency, and we hurt that accountability.

Let me talk about a few of the key aspects of Bill 20 as they relate to those two objectives. That broad objective that I spoke about, of meeting the challenges in schools and particularly — though not exclusively, by any means — meeting the challenges for those kids who have unique or special interests, whether it's kids who are vulnerable, ESL kids, special needs kids, the whole range of children in those categories…. Also, the key objective around whether this enhances and enriches the democratic process for our schools as they relate to taxpayers, to parents and to others in our communities….

The key objective of the bill, and it's certainly incorporated into the name of the bill, is student achievement. It's identified as student achievement. Now, as we know, what Bill 20 tells us about is that achievement contracts will be the tool for this. They include a whole range of things that we're going to see from achievement contracts that are to be what school boards are to look to attain with these contracts. It talks about standards for student performance, planning for improved achievement in the district, literacy, early learning, some targeting for aboriginal students and other matters as ordered by the minister as being key aspects of this.

What we know is that we now have these four special superintendents of achievement, or as one of my colleagues called them, the über-supers of achievement. They are going to have the responsibility to enforce these contracts of achievement, ensure that they're in place, that they're being adhered to and that they're meeting the objectives of the minister — and, presumably, of the deputy on behalf of the minister.

These four superintendents, who will be provincewide, won't be reporting to the duly elected trustees in districts. They'll be reporting to the deputy minister, presumably on behalf of the minister, and that's where their accountability will be — not to trustees, but to the deputy and through the deputy to the minister.

They'll administer these achievement contracts. They'll have the ability under this legislation to overrule elected school boards, should they believe that's necessary. They'll have the ability and the authority to work and to go into schools, to inspect records, to do interviews and to impose themselves quite literally on school boards in terms of the agendas of school board meetings and being able to make direct recommendations to school boards about what they should or shouldn't do.

They have this nebulous ability called, I think, other duties as assigned by the deputy. We have no idea what other duties as assigned by the deputy will necessarily mean, but it can be pretty broad-ranging, I assume. So we have these four senior officials working directly for the minister, for this government. What they're essentially doing is they have this authority to overrule duly elected boards and to drive what happens with duly elected boards.

Part of the challenge here, of course, is that the ultimate hammer sits with the minister, as well, and that is the ability, should boards challenge these superintendents of achievement, challenge some of the discussion around these achievement contracts, make the case or be resistant to complying because they believe that there are other things that better represent the interests of the district…. Of course, the minister has the ability to name a special trustee to dismiss the board, to name a special trustee if the board doesn't adhere to the minister's wishes, and that special trustee — an appointee, not an elected person — would then take over the responsibilities of the board.

I've talked with parent advisory councils in my constituency and parent advisory councils in Vancouver, and they're concerned. They have a relationship with the school board; they have a relationship with trustees. They certainly don't always agree with the school board and with the trustees, but they know how to have that discussion. They certainly don't always agree with the local superintendent, but they know how to have that discussion.

They value that ability to debate what should and shouldn't be the priorities of the Vancouver school board as it reflects their schools where their children attend and their desire to have the programs reflect both the system of the education system and their values too. Generally, they think it works not too badly. Everybody likes some more money, and we'll talk about money in a little bit, but they do believe that this would not be a step forward.

They are concerned that these achievement models may not reflect local realities and the local challenges that they're facing in the schools that their children attend. They're concerned about achievement models where they don't have a voice that they believe exists today with local boards. They're quite clearly leery about anything that they believe erodes a local authority that already is a little bit shaky and that begins to impact democratic accountability. That's a concern around the achievement model that gets reflected to me.

The other matter here is that we know one of the other issues is that we're now going to no longer have school boards. We're going to have boards of education. These boards are being renamed. They're being given other responsibilities. Others have spoken about early childhood responsibilities and literacy responsibilities. Part of the concern is that certainly in the legislation there is nothing explicit in this piece of legislation that assures there will be the additional resources there to support those early education and literacy programs. This is a problem.

It's a problem with the boards that are already facing budget pressures, already facing a myriad of demands on the resources that they have, and now they will have additional demands on them and additional expectations through Bill 20. They're not sure, quite honestly…. Parents and others in the district that my constituency is in are concerned about whether they're going to have those resources to be able to make those programs work.

On the one hand, they have these responsibilities, and then on the other hand, they lose some of their authority that has already, over the years, been eroded in some ways. They lose that authority in a few ways.

We know that there is the issue related to school fees. The bill does bring back a model around school fees. There may very well be arguments made for where those fees need to apply and why it's appropriate to have fees in some circumstances. The problem with this is that it isn't a decision that will rest with those boards of education now. It will rest with school planning councils. I want to talk a little bit about that.

The government introduced school planning councils awhile back. What we know about them is that school planning councils are basically a three-person body. In many schools the school planning council membership is, by default, filled by parents and others who are not necessarily being supported enthusiastically by other parents and their peers.

They're not necessarily being filled…. They're certainly not being filled by people who are active, necessarily, in parent advisory councils, where much of the grass-roots parent representation comes from. They certainly don't have the authority of an elected school board. Nobody elected those school planning councils in the way that they elected their school boards. Nobody can challenge those school planning councils' decisions in a way that they can challenge their school board. That's a problem, I believe.

I think it is a problem that these decisions around fees…. It's not even so much the decision that there will be fees. There may be arguments made for fees. But the concern is where those decisions around fees will rest and that those fees will rest with school planning councils instead of with duly elected boards.

The other issue…. I know the legislation talks about hardship allowances. Colleagues of mine who have spoken to this bill before, I know, have talked about some of the hardship issues. My experience, certainly, when I think back to when my daughter was in elementary school at Hastings School in my constituency…. It's a very large elementary school of 600-plus kids and a very diverse school in terms of the demographics, the incomes and the wealth of the people whose kids went to the school.

There were those of us who were middle class and had our kids there and certainly had no problem in paying fees for things when that was needed. It was never a big deal to have to put up 20 bucks here or 20 bucks there. But for a large number of the people at Hastings School, for parents at Hastings School, it was a totally different matter. Putting up $20 here or $20 there just wasn't an easy thing to do. Sometimes it was an impossible thing to be able to do.

I know the challenges and difficulties around ensuring that there were measures in place that guaranteed that those kids were able to participate without having to identify them, without having to oblige their parents to come in and make special requests, without having to put the mark on their forehead that they were poor, that they couldn't afford this.

It was a challenge, I know, for the school to find those ways that worked best, where those children felt that they were welcome and invited into those programs, and money wasn't the issue. It was the desire to participate, the desire to be part of a program and the desire to be engaged in the program. I think it is a more challenging thing to do.

So I do have a concern that, while the legislation references hardship, that it really does need to be very explicit about how you protect the interests of those families and children who aren't going to be able to afford to participate in these programs.

I want to talk a little bit, too, about provincial schools. This is another area where local school boards potentially lose some of their authority. What we know is that under the provincial schools portion of this, the legislation is not explicit in saying what those provincial schools will be for, for specific purposes. The door is open to something much broader than that.

This raises concerns. The concern has been raised to me by those who are advocates of public education and of accountable education, and advocates of the role that school boards play in education, that this is taking us down the road towards a charter school model. They do have concerns about that charter school model, that that's what we're looking at as a provincial structure of charter schools.

We know, of course, that the Deputy Minister of Education is a very knowledgable person in the field of education and that part of his previous reputation before coming to British Columbia was in Alberta, where he actually played a significant role in the modelling of charter schools there. So it's certainly a model that is very familiar to the deputy, and one that past evidence would suggest that he has been an enthusiastic supporter of.

We now see this provincial school model that looks very much like the start of a push for charter schools. We know that these schools won't be accountable to local school boards. While there may be certain aspects, certain times, when it makes sense to put unique programs in place, you have to ask yourself whether in fact provincial schools are the answer.

I know when I look at some of the people who are identified as proponents of provincial schools…. I look in my own constituency at an organization that I've had the opportunity to visit a number of times, the Learning Disabilities Association. They're a very important organization that works extremely hard for the parents and for the kids that are members of that organization. I know that they have expressed some support for a provincial school model around their children.

But I also know from discussions with a number of those parents and activists in that area that that support for some other model is, as much as anything, the desperation they feel that they're not finding the resources within the current system, within the current schools and within the other areas of social services, education services and children's services in government to meet the needs of their kids.

As a consequence, they're looking for anything that will help get them where they need to go with their children. I'm sure they're looking and saying: "If a provincial school gets us a little farther down the road to meeting our children's needs, then the provincial school it will be." But their concern, as they've said to me at different times, is that this has to do with the frustration about not meeting their needs today. It doesn't have to do with necessarily embracing this model as a model that they think works particularly well for them.

We have a number of issues that I think are critical in education today. There are issues around vulnerable kids. How do we begin to meet the needs of those vulnerable kids? Are the current funding formulas — the way we support schools and the way that we support our districts — the best way to get at the needs of our vulnerable children?

I think there's a sincere interest to do that, but quite frankly, I don't think we're there yet. I think we have a lot of work to do to decide how to meet those challenges. I think that's where we should be putting the emphasis of our attention. I don't think Bill 20 does that.

We have a concern about the reduced enrolments that are happening around the province and the impact that they have in terms of school closures. What's that impact going to be? How's that going to affect how education works in our districts? What's the role of the provincial government to support districts to be able to deal with and support those issues? I don't think that Bill 20 begins to get at or to deal with those questions, and I think that's a matter that we should be discussing.

School funding models. I talked about it around poverty. I know that funding is a complex thing in schools. We have a model that's largely driven by the per-pupil funding. I understand that model. I respect and appreciate why that model's there. I don't think it deals with the broad and increasing complexities of our school system. I think we should be discussing those things, but I don't see that discussion happening or being addressed in this legislation.

The other thing around that is that we have a whole issue around the consultation that went into this. I'm just not convinced that parents, in a broad sense, have been talked to about the issues and solutions that are raised in this piece of legislation. I'm not sure that school trustees have been adequately consulted around these models, whether these are the solutions that they think will work, whether administrators have been consulted around these models. I know that administrators I talked to in my district…. Their priorities and the support that they require certainly aren't reflected here. Their issues and their priorities are very different. They don't see that being reflected in this piece of legislation either.

I do think that we need to get back to looking at how we deal with those questions, how we deal with that equality of opportunity and how we deal with enhancing the democracy of our school districts, not eroding the democracy of our school districts. In making those districts more accountable…. I think you give people the authority to make the decisions, and then you hold them accountable. I fear that this model holds them accountable but takes the authority away for making those decisions. I don't think that's wise.

I won't be supporting this bill, but I do look forward in committee stage to having a discussion around the legislation and, hopefully — either me or through my colleagues — being able to explore some of these issues more directly with the minister as she has an opportunity to explain more clearly her support for a number of the aspects of the legislation


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