Opinion: The wide gulf that divides

There is a fundamental difference in the way the two sides believe education should be run in this province.

Any hope that Chilliwack students would soon be back in school ended Wednesday with the duelling press conferences of Premier Christy Clark and BCTF president Jim Iker.

The reality of empty classrooms and quiet hallways in what should be the start of a new and exciting school year failed to soften the intransigence demonstrated by both sides in this dispute.

To say they’re not on the same page would be generous. They’re not even in the same book.

That this dispute will lurch to some kind of conclusion is certain. The question is what that reality will look like.

There is a fundamental difference in the way the two sides believe education should be run in this province. It is a rift that dates back to 1998, when then NDP Premier Glen Clark gave the BCTF control over class size and composition in exchange for wage concessions. It was a deal struck between the government and the union – and one roundly denounced by school boards across the province because, they argued, it deprived them of authority to manage their own school districts.

The agreement set rigid caps on teacher-student ratios and class composition. But what might sound good on paper, trustees complained, meant that a new teacher had to be hired if a classroom exceeded the limit by even one student. Making matters worse, there were insufficient funds provided by government, leaving school districts with no choice but to gut their non-instructional staff to avoid a deficit (something they cannot do).

So when the Liberals swept to power, one of the first things they did was strip that language from the contract. If decisions about class size and composition were to be made, they argued, they should be done at the local level and with a degree of flexibility that kept those decisions manageable.

What they failed to check was the legality of the move.

The issue remains unresolved after the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the government had acted unconstitutionally.

It’s still before the courts. However, what’s in question is the way government removed the provision from the last contract, not that it can’t be renegotiated in a future contract.

So here we sit, with the BCTF unwilling to surrender a contract gain its members paid for (and the courts have said was constitutionally valid), and a government unwilling to return to a position it believes was fundamentally flawed.

Granted, there are a host of other issues that are keeping the two sides apart. But the biggest is the ideological shadow over who should control classroom conditions: the employer, or the employee.

And an amicable agreement on that is unlikely to come any time soon.