Moral Victory, Baby Steps, or Just the Staus Quo? Class Size and Composition Legislation (Part II)

The debate on Bill 33 (see, April 28th post) continues with some parents strongly objecting to what they argue is a discriminatory action against students with special needs. While disagreement exists over whether Bill 33 is a small positive step or a major negative step, there is agreement that the previous models that were part of several BCTF local contracts were significantly better than the current model proposed in Bill 33. The previous models ‘double-counted’ students with ministry designations and, as one S.O.S. parent pointed out it:

  • applied to any student requiring extra support, not just students labeled “special needs”.
  • automatically generated extra provincial funding to address the cost of additional classroom teachers, special programs and/or supports required.
  • included firm measures to avoid unfairly penalizing any student who ends up finding themselves on the wrong side of class caps.

What this debate reveals is a very serious problem with our public education system. The REAL ISSUE, for me, is how do we provide effective learning opportunities for all our children without overwhelming the people who we ask to do that job? The class limits are not, at least in my mind, a case of infringement of civil rights (see previous post on VCPAC BCCPAC resolution). They are an attempt to manage a problem that has persisted for many years. Perhaps we, as a society, don’t quite understand the implications and cost of a fully inclusive and accessible education for all. Up until the 1950s exclusion in BC’s education system was race and class-based. That is, only whites and those with economic means really were able to take advantage of completing a high school education and/or post secondary education. In the years following WW2 the combination of public pressure, political action, and changing economics forced the expansion of the public education system to include more and more different types of people and to actually try and create learning opportunities for them.

As more and more students from all walks of life become ‘integrated’ into BC schools we saw the rise of inclusion movements for students with learning disabilities, physical disabilities and a host of other special needs. This seemed to fit the spirit of the times as governments, up until the late 1970s, remained willing to simply increase budgets rather than deal with problems.

But as we have seem over the course of the last two decades or so governments, and the publics that put them in place, have grown considerably less interested in increasing budgets to solve problems. Yet, the solutions offered are still those that are governed, I would argue, by a monetary fixation. That is, as opposed to the earlier spend our way out solutions, today’s government’s (of both the left and the right) are focused on finding efficiencies and ‘delivery’ mechanisms that are rooted in reducing and controlling costs; not upon identifying approaches to teaching and instruction that actually meet learning needs. That’s why we get class size caps or student profile quotas. It’s easier to do it that way.

Ideally we would have floating class sizes and class composition that meets the particular local learning needs. From what I’ve read and seen in the research literature highschool classes for most subjects (and of course there are variations) of between 20 and 25 are optimum. But the key is really the number of adults required in that room. There are a great many students under the special education label that require an educational assistant but who don’t have one.

Let’s also consider the implication of changing the structure of instruction in the schools. In secondary schools teachers typically have 8 blocks which includes 7 instructional blocks and one prep. If you don’t want to decrease class size perhaps the number of instructional blocks per teacher should be cut back. How about 5 teaching blocks and three preps? There are jurisdictions globally where this is the case and and it appears to work well. Another option linked to this one is to support team teaching which allows for shifting and balancing a variety of needs in the classroom.

These are some of the measures that a government interested in effective pedagogy would consider and they are changes that would do far, far, more for all learners’ needs than the simple rule-based approach of Bill 33. So here we have it a codification of the status quo in the guise of major educational reform. Seeing the way the debate within parent circles has developed one might be forgiven for the cynical thought that the real objective of this legislation is to provoke meaningless conflict amongst parent groups and between parents and teachers in such a way as to undermine the solidarity that has grown and developed over the past year.

For readers’ information I have provided copies of parent statements opposed to Bill 33 below..

Statement Against Bill 33 by Dawn Steele, Vancovuer Parent

URGENT ACTION REQUIRED: B.C.’s Bill 33 violates rights of Students with Special Needs
The Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils has drafted a position paper, copied below, outlining important concerns for students with special needs in Bill 33, which has just been introduced by Education Minister Shirley Bond to address class size and composition concerns. The Bill will be debated in the Legislature in coming weeks and could be amended before MLAs vote on whether or not to approve it. The Victoria DPAC has also proposed a motion to the BCCPAC annual general meeting (May 4 – May 7) opposing limits on students with special needs in any classroom.

Bill 33 could have serious consequences for students with special needs, as noted below. Additionally, it fails to address other key factors, such as ESL demands, and root causes of class composition concerns. It assumes that all students with special needs are challenging students and that they are the ONLY challenging students in the classroom, which is a gross mis-characterization of the problem. So it is urgent that parents read the following concerns and, if you share the concerns, then:

1) Contact your school’s PAC and DPAC ASAP, urging them to support Victoria’s Resolution #20 (copied below) at the BCCPAC AGM this weekend.

2) Contact your MLA, urging that they NOT support Bill 33 unless the following concerns raised by Victoria parents are addressed and the provincial initiative is amended to address the root causes of unamangeable classes.

Class size and composition need to be addressed, but in a way that respects and values ALL students. Bill 33 does not do this. It treats students with special needs as “the problem” — i.e. the source of all the trouble for teachers and other students, instead of as the victims of inadequate special ed services.
* This is NOT about whether students should be integrated or not. All students have the right to placement choices and classroom supports appropriate to their needs. Bill 33 would mean placement decisions based on what’s best for the teacher and the rest of the class, at the expense of what’s best for students with special needs.
* Students with special needs are NOT the problem. The root problem is is inadequate resources, training, supports, effective organization, lopsided accountability (i.e. no accountability for meeting special needs) etc, to adequately and effectively meet the needs of ALL students. Bill 33 will do nothing to address the root causes of class size and composition problems.

Dawn Steele

Copy of position paper from the Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils:
Bill 33 Violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Bill 33, the Education (Learning Enhancement) Statutes Amendment Act, 2006 proposes to limit the number of students with special needs permitted in any given classroom. We contend that this is discriminatory.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Subsection 15(1) states, “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability”.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines discrimination as “the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than individually”.

As the potential here is to deny a person access because he or she is identified with a group label, it fits the definition of discrimination. Even more insidious is the fact that to obtain required services, the student must first obtain the label, thereby enabling the discrimination to occur.

In reviewing the position papers presented to the Learning Roundtable and the minutes posted on the Ministry of Education website, we find that all education partners with the exception of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) were opposed to these limits. The BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC) actually refers to the issue of discrimination in its position paper. It quoted recommendation 13 from the 2000 publication “A Review of Special Education in BC” as follows: “The Minister of Education should ask employer and employee organizations to identify clauses in existing collective agreements that might adversely affect students with special needs or contravene the rights of such students under the School Act, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or provincial human rights legislation, and to undertake steps to eliminate such clauses from future agreements”. It further states, “Subsequent legislation addressed these concerns and we do not support the re-introduction of potentially discriminatory language on class composition”.

When the rights of one group are to be limited for the benefit of another, the reasons must be clear and compelling. When limiting a right guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, this burden is much higher indeed, a point made successfully by the BCTF in its court case regarding the right of free speech.

Notwithstanding our statements to this point, let us examine the benefits to be obtained.

To do that, we must project a vision of what the outcomes might be if the legislation passes. To analyze the possible outcomes for our district (Greater Victoria, SD#61), we must first do an environmental scan.

  • There is no new funding attached to this proposed legislation. In our own District, we currently have a structural deficit that is expected to get worse over the next couple of years.
  • There are many classes with more than 3 students with individual education plans and at the same time there are even more that have less than 3 such students.
  • Due to declining enrolment, most schools have excess capacity making forced transfers to others schools unnecessary under normal conditions.
  • Most schools have numerous split classes, especially where student enrolment is low.
  • Students with special needs, like any other group of students, have a wide range of learning needs. It would be inaccurate to suggest that each group of 3 such students would amount to an equal increase in workload for the classroom teacher.
  • In each of our elementary schools, students with special needs (excluding gifted and ESL) average 3 or less per classroom. A number of these classrooms individually have more than 3. To comply with the new legislation, assuming no increase in the number of available classes, 14% of these students would need to be moved to other classrooms.
  • In half of our middle schools, students with special needs (excluding gifted and ESL) average 3 or less per classroom. Using the totals for middle school, the average is just under 3. A number of these classrooms individually have more than 3. To comply with the new legislation, assuming no increase in the number of available classes, 22% of these students would need to be moved to other classrooms in their school and a further 6% would need to be moved to other schools.
  • In our high schools, there is a vast array of core courses and electives and student numbers are primarily course related. Considerations related to course requirements and student preferences are the primary drivers.

Limiting the number of students with special needs that could participate in a particular class would simply remove that course choice from their options. There are many electives that are significantly lower than the class size average, with or without students having special needs.

We presume that the theory behind this limit is that more classes will result and workload per teacher will be more manageable. Given the lack of budget and given that there are other alternatives available to meet the proposed legislated requirements, here is what we suggest may be the actual outcomes:

  • In our elementary schools, 14% of students with special needs would be moved away, from the friendships they have established, into other classrooms.
  • In our middle schools, the same thing would happen to 28% of these students with a significant number being moved to other schools.
  • In our high schools, students with special needs would have fewer options and may find themselves in courses they don’t even want.
  • Since the total support dollars would not change, the problems, suggested by proponents of this legislation, would simply be moved from some teachers to other teachers.

  • Two students move into the same neighbourhood part way into the school year. The first one has special needs but the school is already at its limit. He is directed to attend another school a few kilometers away. The second student has no special needs and is admitted immediately.
  • Having a student assessed may result in a requirement to change classrooms or even schools.
  • Ultimately, if averages at any level approach or exceed 3, (which is already very close at middle school), there will be pressure to have segregated classrooms which may well contradict the spirit of Ministerial Order 150/89. Parents may find themselves being given a “choice”. Would you like your child in a segregated program in your neighbourhood school or an inclusive program across town? This choice may be further reduced if you happen to have limited financial resources.

Based on the analysis, it appears that the rights of these children will be limited with no resulting benefit to anyone else. We suggest, therefore, that not only has the burden of proof not been met, but also that the intended benefit will not be realized.

In the draft minutes of the April 21, 2006 Learning Roundtable, the BC School Superintendents Association (BCSSA) is credited with stating that the issue is “too complex for simple rules” and that “even students with same categories have greatly different needs.” We concur. In fact, this can be said of any grouping of students including the so-called “typical” ones. We recommend more comprehensive consultation and dialogue so that fair and reasonable solutions can be found.

Inclusion isn’t about “one size fits all”. It’s about “one right fits all”. Resources may need to be different, but the basic right to be there is the same. Certainly there are challenges in today’s classrooms, but adults need to solve their problems in ways that do not violate the rights of children.

There are issues that lend themselves to political expediency, but this is not one of them.

The Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils
May 1, 2006


BCCPAC Position Paper on Class Size and Class Composition (pdf file)