Column: Will this education impasse have parents eyeing alternatives?

Discussion, compromise, and willingness to give and take are needed to move forward.

It was economist Herb Stein who said that something that can’t go on forever, won’t. He might have been talking about the follies of economics but he could have been talking about public education.

The dysfunctional mess that bureaucrats and union leaders have placed teachers, parents and children in is something that absolutely can’t go on.

The entrenched and embittered standoff between the BCTF and the government already cost some students their graduating year last June and has cost all students in the province their first week in the new school year. Now it’s threatening to disrupt the academic year if this goes on much longer. Already there are suggestions the strike could go beyond October.

That is unforgivable. Both parties squandered the entire summer when they could have sat down and negotiated at least some of the issues and moved forward toward a solution.  Instead, they dug in, stalemated, and glared at the other to see who would blink first.  How, well, childish.

According to the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, every child has the right to an education. What happened to that statement in this dispute?

People are mad. Some parents have dumped the public school system and enrolled their children in private schools. Daycare centres are swamped, day camps are springing up, parents are taking kids to work or enrolling them in home school while others are opening their homes and providing care and educational activities for other parents’ children. Some kids are home alone. And some teachers have set up shop to offer coaching. That’ll get up the union’s nose. But bottom line: struggling teachers with no income are going to put food on the table one way or another. That’s priority one. The average teacher, like many wage-earners, simply can’t go more than a couple of months without a paycheque before finances start to pinch.

This standoff, which has actually been going on for over a decade, could be the catalyst for change. Parents may find there’s more than one way to educate their children and alternate ways to the public school system may have an appeal, especially after this gong show.

Distance learning, online courses, home schooling, private schools, and private tuition are catching attention. They aren’t for everyone but they are viable options and coming under more scrutiny given the current frustration. Online courses in particular have exploded in the U.S. According to author Glenn Reynolds in his book The K-12 Implosion, there are over 1.8 million K-12 students enrolled in online schools, most of them in high school.

Then there are the eclectic charter schools that receive public funding but operate independently. Alberta has some 22 charter schools that operate similar to those in the U.S. They have a greater degree of autonomy and are able to offer programs that may be different from regular public schools.

Premier Christy Clark gave a lacklustre news conference on Wednesday, urging teachers to suspend their strike, reduce their demands, and return to the bargaining table “with a proposal that is realistic.” It got the expected pushback from union leader Jim Iker. Basically, fat chance of that. It was more pointless rhetoric that irritated rather than resolved anything. But then, Clark is famous – or infamous – for her unique style of getting under the BCTF’s skin.

No one seems to have an exit plan. Both sides have an intractable mindset, each endlessly blaming the other as casualties in the rhetoric war. Fuelling the standoff is not the way to play the negotiating game. Discussion, compromise, and willingness to give and take are needed to move forward.

The greatest casualty in this mess is a child’s education.

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