Op-ed: Time for premier to set a new tone with teachers

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By John Horgan, BC New Democrat Leader

Tuesday should have been the first day of school in our province. Instead, it brought another day of frustration and disappointment for children and their families.

Premier Christy Clark and her education minister have tried to say the things they think people want to hear — such as that they are willing to meet 24/7, and that class size and composition issues are important — but their actions speak much louder than words. The premier’s only actions as the education labour dispute came to a head this week have been to inflame the situation further and show disrespect to our province’s teachers.

I wrote to the premier this week to urge her to stop standing on the sidelines pointing fingers and take a direct role in solving this dispute.

When the premier announced a press conference Wednesday, my hope was that she would give her negotiator a new mandate: to put all issues on the table, rather than just the ones the government has cherry-picked, and work as hard as possible toward the goal of getting kids back in school.

After months of absence from this issue, the premier could have taken a powerful first step toward reaching common ground and starting a better dialogue. Instead, where an olive branch was needed, she brought a club.

She inflamed and blamed, reiterating her government’s tired rhetoric, offering no productive ideas and accusing teachers of unreasonable demands that aren’t even on the bargaining table. Her government remains unwilling to negotiate on the vital issue of class size and composition until teachers give in to the government’s position on wages and benefits.

Every day that kids are out of school, the lives of 500,000 children and their families are disrupted. That struggle affects not only these families, but their communities and the productivity of our economy.

If ever there was an issue that deserved the premier’s undivided attention, it is this one. Yet the premier continues to support her ineffective minister on a destructive path, and involved herself only to inflame tensions.

This is a very different premier than the one who proudly proclaimed her involvement in settling the truckers dispute at the federally regulated Port Metro Vancouver. Although providing a high-quality public education to young British Columbians is even more important to our future economic success, and despite the disruption to productivity this dispute is causing throughout the province, the premier has failed to make getting a resolution with teachers a priority.

Parents know that in her days as education minister, Clark was directly responsible for unconstitutionally stripping teachers of the right to bargain class size and composition, making it harder to teach a whole generation of B.C. students. It is past time that she begins to make amends for her record of disruption and decline in classroom quality.

To move forward, we need the B.C. Liberal government to recognize this crisis for what it is and take action to get classrooms open again.

We need government leadership that listens to parents, the public and the courts about the importance of addressing class size and composition, and recognizes that this will require better resources for our schools. The B.C. Liberals’ funding freeze is unrealistic and counter-productive to achieving their stated education goals and reaching an immediate settlement.

And we need a premier who shows that she cares more about reopening classrooms than scoring political points. It’s time for this government to stop posturing and obstructing, and get to work doing everything it can to get kids back in school where they belong.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Times-Colonist on Sept. 6, 2014.