In the February 2007 Throne Speech, the BC government announced plans to amend the School Act to allow the Education Minister to create provincial schools to “offer new choices in curricula, new course content, and new demonstration schools better tailored to unique student needs.” An existing provision in BC’s School allowed the Minister to operate provincial schools to deliver “specialized” education, but this provision had not been used since segregated special education was disbanded decades ago in favour of inclusion. The amendment, introduced in April and passed into law a month later, removed a clause limiting the use of provincial schools to delivery of “specialized” education. Effectively, this change gives the Education Minister sweeping powers to establish, for any purpose, stand-alone schools that operate outside of existing accountability and governance frameworks provided by local School Boards and the Inspector of Independent Schools.
Media reports that the Minister planned to establish two such schools in
Over 70 participants attended the public forum, held at the Vancouver Public Library on May 2, 2007. Four panellists were invited to discuss specific aspects, followed by a moderated open mike session. The four panellists were:Carol Simpson, parent of two sons on the autism spectrum, outlined her family's ongoing battle with the public school system, the enormous personal, emotional and financial toll of the failures they have experienced, why she gave up on integration, and what she believes needs to change to allow successful education of students with autism.
Nancy Perry, Associate Professor, Faculty of Educational and Counselling Psychology and Special Education at UBC, discussed the needed ingredients for successful education of students with unique learning needs in any school. She noted that resources are lacking in many schools and districts in BC to meet the needs of exceptional learners and also cited a need for better teacher training in special education.
Catherine Evans, Chair of the BC Society for Public Education, discussed the mandate of public education to create successful citizens and the crucial role it plays in supporting a democratic society. Despite the overall success of the public system, she said some students are being failed, largely as a result of under-funding.
Public Forum: Key Themes
Comments from presenters and participants reflected inadequate funding as a key theme. Many saw this as a central reason for failures in special education and other shortcomings in the public system. Parents and teachers argued that integration has never been adequately funded and this is why it is not working for many. Perry said budget cuts in recent years have and continue to disproportionately target special education teachers, whose role is critical. This has led to erosion of expertise at a time when special education enrolment is increasing. Participants stressed the need to understand inclusion as encompassing a broader continuum of models from full integration to instruction in separate settings, in order to meet diverse needs. Also stressed was the heterogeneity among students with special needs, even those who share specific diagnostic labels—so there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
Accountability was another key theme. Inadequate oversight of special education services and outcomes in the public schools was cited as a problem, from the Ministry right down. Standardization and accountability systems based on standardised high-stakes tests have worked against the interests of students with unique needs, it was suggested. Policies like Bill 33, passed in 2006 to address class size and composition concerns, have had unintended negative effects on students with special needs, parents said. In general, participants cited a need for more understanding, leadership and commitment from leaders and administrators at all levels. Laitsch warned, however, that the provincial school governance model could further erode accountability and transparency, by side-stepping locally-elected School Boards, with their requirements for public meetings, etc. While noting that very little has been explained about the Minister’s plans, Laitsch also warned that the new provincial school governance model has implications far beyond special education, given the broad powers now granted to the Minister to establish such schools, without local public oversight, for any purpose.
Other reasons cited for current problems in special education included inadequate teacher training, restrictive contract provisions and difficulty in hiring and retaining qualified special education teachers. The results: public schools are failing many students with special needs. Parents and teachers spoke emotionally of the devastating and potentially lifelong costs to students and to society in general, and of unbearable stresses on families and teachers.
Meanwhile, it was also noted that BC’s public schools face significantly higher expectations from a new generation of parents who have watched their children make unprecedented progress thanks to costly intensive preschool behaviour intervention therapies. These parents are now demanding that such treatments be continued when children enter the K-12 system. The resulting clash between higher demands and declining resources is fuelling an erosion of confidence that now gravely threatens the public system itself.
Proposed solutions included new inclusion models. Simpson proposed a “gentle” school model that would truly welcome all students. Also suggested was an Australian model of satellites supported by a base school. Both offered a range of choices within the public system, from fully separate classes to supported partial or full integration, while serving as a focus for district expertise and best practices. Participants also called for more training of teachers and administrators at all levels, more specialist teachers and involvement of parents in teacher education. Adequate funding to cover the real costs of special education was repeatedly cited as a critical need. There were also appeals for more advocacy support for families and a call for families to unite to support each other.
While most felt that solutions could or should be offered as part of the public system, one proponent urged support of a provincial school as an experimental model, arguing that the public system was never intended to cope with current incidence rates of autism. Others, however, questioned the efficacy of placing students with autism together, and urged more effort to learn and build on what’s working well or not working well in the public schools. One parent noted that a long list of potential benefits attributed to provincial schools simply reflects all the things that parents have been urging the Minister to fund in the public schools. Several expressed concern that a return to provincial schools for students with special needs would simply lead to warehousing, with reference to a lack of political will, the history of abuses and one teacher’s alarming description of how such schools are currently operated in
Scepticism over the motivation for creating provincial schools was another recurring theme. One speaker said she had never seen a proposal move so fast, and with so little discussion, towards approval and implementation. Several questioned the wisdom of trusting that the political will exists to do a provincial model school right. As one participant noted, it is the same leaders who have chronically under-funded special education in the public schools who are now promising to deliver in provincial schools what they have consistently failed to deliver in our public schools.
The need to generate political will and how to do that was also emphasized. Advocacy groups were urged to get active and to start working together, and one speaker urged participants to write letters to share their concerns with MLAs.
In terms of next steps, there was a call for a more measured and transparent process to develop a more careful and thoughtful response to the specific needs being addressed. There were also suggestions to use the outcome of this forum to support further collaborative action.
Compiled by Dawn Steele, May 2007