Out of sight from parents and the general public, school teachers and administrators are waging an increasingly tense battle over children with special needs—and the outcome could influence the future of public education.
IT'S DISCOURAGING. It’s depressing,” says Julia Christianson, a special education teacher at Cedar Hill Middle School. “I have many parents cry on my shoulder. And many times I ask myself, ‘What else can I do?’”
Now, like many teachers, Christianson is protesting publicly. And it’s not about pay, benefits, or holidays; it’s about “class size and composition.” Just a fuzzy phrase to outsiders, it’s gradually become a flashpoint for public education.
In 1987, BC held a Royal Commission into class size and composition. In the 1998 collective agreement between the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) and NDP government, no salary increases were included, but class size concessions were. (Kindergarten classes were limited to 20 students, and Grades 1-3 to 22 students.) In 2001, the Liberals ripped that agreement up. Then in 2006 they created Bill 33 to deal with class size and composition. Many say that “solution” is creating a crisis.
Bill 33 establishes recommended class size limits for all grades. The Greater Victoria School District (GVSD) has very few classes that surpass those limits, and most aren’t controversial. However, Bill 33 includes a related, more controversial provision: If more than three students with “special needs” and an Individual Education Plan (IEP) are enrolled in a class, the school principal and district superintendent must agree the class is still “appropriate for student learning.” And they must at least “consult” with, but not necessarily obtain the consent of, the teacher involved.
This is the “composition” component of the class size issue. Special needs students can vary from a child with poor hearing to a severely learning-disabled child with chronically disruptive behaviour. When a child is tested and officially “designated” with specific special needs, the teacher develops an IEP. Then, that child may or may not be eligible for some extra support from some kind of teaching assistant.
Obviously, many children with special needs don’t require a lot of extra help or cause problems in class; nevertheless, the numbers and types of special needs can often make a significant difference in how challenging a class is to manage, depending on how much extra support the teacher gets.
Tara Ehrcke, President of Victoria’s BCTF local, illustrates: “Imagine a class with one student three years behind in reading comprehension, two more one grade level below in numeracy skills, a gifted student, two students with English as a second language, a child with a learning disability, and one diagnosed on the Autism spectrum... Each child requires materials, lessons, strategies and assessments tailored to their unique learning needs.”
Christianson describes one of seven Cedar Hill classes for which she was the only secondary support last year: Ten students requiring no extra interventions, eight requiring moderate amounts of learning or behaviour intervention, and nine requiring serious, ongoing learning or behaviour interventions.
“That teacher was just unbelievable; I bow to him,” says Christianson. “And this is Cedar Hill; this is not inner city. We are not considered a high needs school.”
According to 2009 BC Ministry of Education statistics, in grades 4 through 12 in Greater Victoria, there were 318 classes with four or more students with an IEP—meaning about 21 percent of all classes were breaking Bill 33’s recommended class composition limit.
That’s slightly worse than the provincial average, but no one thinks this problem is unique to Victoria; it’s epidemic.
Although the BC Liberals have made “highest funding ever” their buzzword for education, that fact disguises the truth.
The provincial education budget remained fairly steady from the 1980s to 2000 as a percentage of BC’s gross domestic product (GDP) and overall tax base, at around 4.8 percent of GDP. Since the Liberals came to power, the education budget has dropped to 3.7 percent of GDP, while GDP growth itself has slowed. So the overall dollar amounts have indeed gone up but, between rollbacks, inflation and commitments to teacher salary increases the Liberals made, the net negative impact on school boards’ operational budgets has been dramatic. And since special education staff are technically classified “non-essential,” like librarians and counsellors, they’ve borne the brunt of cutbacks.
Simultaneously, the province has largely eliminated targeted special needs funding, and instead expects school districts and principals to figure out ways to help special needs students from their main operational funding stream.
In that context, funding for special needs students has become impenetrably complicated. Although individual teachers can see how much support specific students are getting, there’s no clear way to calculate how much funding is going into special education across the district, in individual schools, or to disability subgroups.
Currently, for example, autism designations automatically kick in some extra funding and assistance; learning disabilities do not. So one school may put an autistic child with two learning disabled children, expecting the autistic child’s educational assistant to help the learning disabled children in her downtime.
Christianson broke down the numbers for the classes she served last year: apart from their normal classroom teacher, students identified with special needs were receiving on average a miniscule 18.6 minutes per week of extra support.
Many local teachers report that’s not atypical. “It’s hard,” says Christianson. “It’s hard working with the parents who’re saying, ‘Please, how can you help my kid?’ And I’m saying, I don’t have any [educational assistant] help for your kid. I don’t have anything else I can give your kid. Children with special needs are not getting the education they’re entitled to.”
Compounding all this, there’s another 10-15 percent of students considered “grey area”—they’re stuck on expanding waitlists for testing or don’t have one specific, identifiable special need, but in practice, they’re still having, or causing, problems in classes.
Consequently, many teachers feel overwhelmed and spread too thin. “When the needs of special needs children are not being met,” explains Christianson, “it has an effect on the entire classroom.”
Twice yearly, all this comes to a head when Greater Victoria School District superintendent John Gaiptman reports on class sizes and composition to our elected school trustees for their stamp of approval.
By that time, Gaiptman will have consulted with teachers and principals as Bill 33 requires him to, and personally permitted as “appropriate for student learning” every class with four or more students with IEPs.
How is it done?
“We don’t discriminate,” Gaiptman emphasizes, aware that Bill 33 runs uncomfortably close to legislating prejudice against children with special needs—a reason many parents dislike it. “We don’t turn away students from a class just because they have an IEP.”
Victoria has a Bill 33-exempted, segregated school for children with special needs, but most parents and educators prefer integration. That, though, puts pressure on schools to provide extra supports throughout their programs. So Gaiptman, the principal, and the teacher involved pore over the class list, and the question becomes, “Does a specific class with certain students with certain needs require any extra teaching support?”
“We work very, very hard to do, within our budget, the best job possible. This isn’t one side versus the other. What everybody in our school district wants is the best possible education for all students,” explains Gaiptman. “I want to make sure that each class is a good learning environment. And I know it is subjective.”
“Subjective” may be a diplomatic way of summarizing the differences.
Last October, special ed teacher Christianson gave an impassioned speech to the trustees ahead of Gaiptman’s report.
“Not one of my classrooms in my opinion was appropriate for learning,” says Christianson. “Every single one of them in my mind had too many kids that had some really, really important needs in order to get a fair education, and no extra assistance except for their teacher.”
And Christianson’s only the tip of the iceberg. Gaiptman concedes “the vast, vast majority” of teachers he consults with disagree when he concludes they don’t need extra support.
Victoria’s BCTF president Ehrcke highlights teachers’ frustrations: “I am not aware of a single principal in this District ever saying a class was not suitable for student learning. Yet hundreds of teachers do... In four years of this process, I am only aware of a single example where an extra class was added in response to a consultation meeting.”
The BC School Act provides for the Education Minister to appoint a special administrator if a school district is apparently not complying with the class size provisions. Last year, against a backdrop of litigation and political tussling, appointed arbitrator James Dorsey reviewed 1,622 class size and composition grievances from teachers around the province. Significantly, when grappling with his mandate, Dorsey cited the union’s criticism that Bill 33 didn’t define what “appropriate for student learning” even meant. However, Dorsey generally sided with the employers’ argument that this ambiguity was deliberately intended to allow principals and superintendents to effectively decide whatever they wanted “without any restrictions or criteria.” (Consequently, Dorsey focused strictly on issues of legal process in a small, representative sampling, and found that in about 25 percent of cases principals and superintendents did not even conduct reasonable consultations with teachers.)
Small wonder, then, the situation is polarizing.
So Christianson gave her presentation hoping the trustees would reject Gaiptman’s report, and instruct him to revisit problems. She also hoped the trustees would follow the Vancouver board of education.
Vancouver trustees recently submitted a budget to the province that illegally ran a deficit, telling the Liberals they simply could not provide passable education services with the money they were being given. In the highly publicized struggle, a “special advisor” was parachuted in, the elected board was nearly replaced by government appointees, and a tug of war began about how to make up the shortfall.
Of Victoria’s nine trustees, though, only stalwart Catherine Alpha (who’s also a teacher in Sooke) took the political risk and voted against accepting Gaiptman’s report.
“I would like to have seen all the trustees vote against it, but then refuse to send the superintendent back to make it work,” explains Alpha, clarifying that her intent was to take the fight straight to Minister of Education Margaret McDiarmid. Describing the situation for special needs kids in her own class, her voice breaks; but then Alpha gathers herself: “Our programs are so tooth and bone that it’s beyond what is educationally sound.”
Christianson gives a blunt assessment of most of the rest of the board: “I don’t think they care. I think they care about the bottom dollar.”
Are we being told the truth?
For his part, Gaiptman reveals skepticism about the teachers’ and union’s positions. “I think that it’s important to know that there’s also a feeling out there [amongst teachers] that says, ‘If we agree [that our students don’t need more support], then we’re never going to get more money for education,” he remarks. “So there’s strategy behind it, too.”
Dorsey similarly noted some school boards felt the BCTF was deliberately jamming “the true spirit of consultation” to put pressure on the government. But Dorsey concluded he saw “no evidentiary basis” for asserting teachers weren’t speaking their own minds.
And Gaiptman does acknowledge he sees a real problem. “I’m not going to be honest with you if I don’t say, if I had more money, would I use it on class size? Yes.”
Still, parents, and the general public, aren’t hearing this message very strongly, or very often. Why?
According to Ehrcke, one local teacher recently tried to publicly protest his class composition, and “the board threatened to discipline him.”
The union won’t breach confidentiality, and Gaiptman bristles about the topic, but it doesn’t take much investigating to see the outlines of what apparently happened.
Last year, the BC Teachers Federation drafted a template letter for teachers to send to parents if, after the usual “consultation,” the teacher still had concerns about the class size and composition. The letter informed parents that, despite the opinions of the principal and superintendent, the teacher felt his or her class was “not suitable for student learning.” It advised parents they could raise concerns with the principal, superintendent or trustees.
The British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) representing school boards countered with a template letter for principals and superintendents to give to union reps and teachers.
The BCPSEA’s letter explained that publicly challenging the opinions of the principal and superintendent would “constitute a breach of the teacher’s legal duty of loyalty towards the district as his/her employer” and inappropriately “undermine public confidence in the public education system.” The BCPSEA letter continued threateningly, “I trust that you will rescind or amend your intended correspondence... to ensure that you do not unnecessarily put your members at risk with respect to their employment...”
Reasonable or not, it throws the taxpaying public into the dark. And it’s particularly concerning when its intent is to conceal the truth. The minutes of that October meeting, for example, couldn’t be clearer about what the GVSD board actually feels about class size and composition: “Trustees thanked teachers, principals and the Superintendent for doing the best that they can within the guidelines of the Bill 33 legislation. There was overall agreement that the provincial government is failing the public education system by not providing adequate funding...”
In this light, the perspective of BCTF’s Ehrcke takes on heightened import: “We feel very betrayed by principals, trustees and superintendents for not speaking out and acknowledging that many of these classes are not appropriate for student learning.”
“The information has to get out and we have to save public education,” says Alpha. “Because when you don’t have equal access to quality education, then you don’t have equal access to your democracy.”
So how much are our most vulnerable children actually being harmed? No one knows. Gaiptman concedes there’s no statistical tracking of education outcomes for special needs children going on.
Christianson, the special education teacher, sees this as part of the mounting problems in our education system. “It’s come to the point that nobody wants anybody to know what the truth is,” she says.
Rob Wipond has been a freelance writer of magazine features, news articles, political commentaries, social satires, theatre and performance art for over two decades.