Category Archives: Poverty

Fixing poverty would do much more than implementing Glaze reforms. Here’s how

I wrote the article below a couple of months ago for Aviso (pdf link), the Nova Scotia Teachers Union’s magazine. It feels particularly relevant in light of the Glaze Report, the Liberal government’s latest package of education “reforms.” Dr. Avis Glaze’s recommendations (including shutting down elected school boards, creating a new certifying body for teachers and forcing administrators out of the teachers’ union) all of which been accepted in “spirit” by education minister Zach Churchill, are straight from the textbook of the corporate-driven education reform movement imported from the U.S. This is the movement that bases all its policy decisions on standardized test scores and blames teacher unions for any and all problems in the education system. 

If the Liberal government wants to improve student test scores (and Glaze’s contention that our students are “left behind” is highly questionable at best) then a better solution would be to address child poverty. (Of course, we shouldn’t fix child poverty to improve test scores; we should fix child poverty because there’s no morally defensible reason that kids – or anyone – should live in poverty.)

avis-glaze
Dr. Avis Glaze delivers her report in January. Photo: cbc.ca

Recent numbers from Statistics Canada show that Nova Scotia has the highest child poverty rate in the country (tied with New Brunswick) at 22.2 per cent. That’s more than one out of every five of the kids who sits in our classrooms every day.

We’ve heard numbers like this before. We become numb to them as they make headlines once or twice a year, then disappear from the news.

The kids they represent, though, don’t disappear from our schools quite so easily. We slip them occasional lunch money, let them raid our pencil collections and push them to their fullest potential. But is there anything else we can do?

I believe there is. As individual teachers we of course strive to make a difference in each one of our students’ lives. But as we know from being in a union, we can accomplish much more through collective action.

During the past year’s labour dispute, teachers benefited from the support and solidarity of parents, students, and workers in other unions. Similarly, our union often takes a stand in support of other workers in the province, and teachers across the country or even around the world.

A logical extension of this solidarity would be for the union to be involved in fights for concrete policy changes that would improve the lives of the poorest Nova Scotians. Here are some easy examples:

A significant increase in the minimum wage. Ontario and Alberta are in the process of increasing their minimum wages to $15. Nova Scotia’s minimum wage, at $11.00 an hour (lowest in the country), is well below what is needed for a single person working full-time to live, let alone someone with children or other dependents. A “Fight for 15” campaign is getting underway to increase minimum wage in this province; our union should support it wholeheartedly.

Raising income assistance rates. Those people who, for whatever reason, cannot work, rely on income assistance to survive. Many of these people live with physical and/or mental disabilities, chronic illness, or mental health issues. Yet income assistance rates have barely budged in the past several years. The monthly shelter allowance for a family of 3 ($620) is well below market housing costs, and basic personal allowances are barely enough to buy food. A person’s illness or disability shouldn’t condemn them and their family to life in poverty; rates need to rise to bring families above the low-income cut-off (a.k.a. the “poverty line”).

Affordable, universal early childhood education. The cost of childcare for children below school age is prohibitive for a great many parents. For parents in low-wage jobs, working a job instead of staying home with kids can barely be worth it once daycare costs are factored in. For single parents (90 per cent of whom are women), the decision whether or not to work outside the home can be next to impossible. Election campaigns have have seen some parties promise universal child care programs, but these fizzle or are forgotten post-campaign (or the party that promised them fails to get elected).

Universal low-cost child care pays for itself with increased tax revenue coming from parents of young children being who can more readily enter the workforce. Programs like this exist in Quebec and several European countries and are more effective than tax refunds and benefits at ensuring access to quality care.

Rent control and investment in social and affordable housing. About a quarter of Canadians, and more than 40% or renters, spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs, a common measure of housing affordability. Rent control (whereby rent could not be raised more than a given percentage per year) and other policy measures can improve housing affordability for those who need it most. A stable living situation is perhaps the most fundamental piece of the puzzle of poverty: without a home, it’s hard to do much else.

These aren’t impossible ideas. They’re practical, feasible solutions to what is often viewed as an intractable problem. Furthermore, although many of these policies have a price tag, they ultimately benefit the economy by increasing the spending power of the poorest citizens – who, unlike wealthier folks, can’t help but spend the extra money in their pockets on necessities.

Many of these policies are already supported by campaigns led by other unions in the labour movement. It wouldn’t take much for a union like ours to plug in. Social media campaigns, letter-writing campaigns, rallies or other events can also engage more members to participate in their union.

For years teachers unions have argued, correctly, that child poverty is one of the main systemic obstacles to student learning in our classrooms. We’ve implored governments to fix the problem, but without always being clear about how they should do so. It’s time to be clear that not only is child poverty a solvable problem, but one which has clear, achievable solutions. These are things our union can help fight for.

Teachers unions can win. Let’s get to work

As teachers in Nova Scotia mull over their bargaining team’s third attempt at a tentative agreement in just over a year, here are a few observations about the dispute, and about teachers’ and workers’ power in general.

1) Teachers have a new idea of what is possible. Many of the issues teachers have raised over the last year – overcrowded classrooms, insufficient supports for students with special needs, excessive amounts of time spent on clerical tasks – have worsened fairly slowly over the past 10-15 years. Change happened gradually enough that opposition to it was weak, and a general sense of resignation slowly set in.

parents-for-teachers
Parents and supporters rally for teachers in downtown Halifax, February 5th, 2017 (Photo: Meg Ferguson via Facebook)

As the contract dispute has progressed, teachers have started to think big. Class sizes of 35-40 are no longer thought of as inevitable. (New Brunswick has class caps of 29 even in upper grades.) Teachers are speaking out against endless “improvement plans” and “accountability” measures that never seem to result in actual improvements or accountability. The impossibility of meeting the growing diversity of classroom needs under constant cost-cutting budgets has become a serious topic of discussion.

Governments for decades have sold us on the idea that “we can’t afford to do this.” Teachers are now sold on the idea that “we can’t afford not to do this.” Continue reading Teachers unions can win. Let’s get to work

Teachers and the fight for 15

Three public school teachers wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star last week on their support for the Fight for 15 and Fairness campaign.

The campaign centres on raising the minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour and securing basic benefits like paid sick days for all workers.

NS Fair Wage hi-res
Members of the Fair Wage Coalition protested for better wages outside McDonald’s on Spring Garden Road in Halifax on Friday, April 15th. (photo: David Etherington)

The teachers (Kate Curtis, Jason Kunin and Seth Bernstein) drew connections between the challenges they see some kids facing in their classrooms and the precarious, low-wage work available to those kids’ family members. Continue reading Teachers and the fight for 15

A tax credit for teachers is no solution

This post is also published at rankandfile.ca

It was sad this week to see Justin Trudeau’s promise to give teachers a tax credit for purchasing their own classroom supplies.

Not because it means teachers buying their own supplies is a new phenomenon, or has necessarily worsened. Teachers have always filled in gaps in K-12 education funding, sometimes to the tune of several hundred dollars a year, especially in the early years of their careers.

Rather, it’s because it legitimizes the notion that teachers should be spending money out of pocket to do our jobs.

school supplies

A fanciful comparison: what if we gave nurses a tax credit if they bought their own medical supplies, or paramedics tax incentives if they paid to get the oil changed on their ambulances?

Parties (but especially the Conservatives) are often criticized for their use of “boutique” tax credits. They tend to be targeted toward their own likely voters, and at their most cynical are unrolled right around election time.

More to the point, though, the tax-creditization-of-everything removes more and more responsibility from governments to actually provide public services.

I do know some teachers who were happy about Trudeau’s announcement, and I understand why. They’re happy someone acknowledged that so many teachers spend their own money on everything from classroom art supplies to bus fare for field trips.

But have we undervalued ourselves and our work so much that we’re happy about getting back 15 cents for every dollar we spend, for things our employers should be paying for?

As teachers we should be fighting for the funding that allows us to give our kids the education they deserve. That means smaller classes, adequate supports for kids with special needs, and the necessary tools to do our jobs.

Yes, I’m aware that education is under provincial jurisdiction. But the squeeze on education budgets at the provincial level is partly the result of the federal Liberals’ deep austerity cuts to health and education transfers in the 1990s. These cuts downloaded costs onto the provinces who responded by reducing spending on public services like education.

In this context, tax credits that encourage us to keep subsidizing our own workplaces aren’t helpful.

Be wary of quick fixes for Nova Scotia’s education system

With recent standardized assessment scores from Nova Scotian schools causing alarm, and education minister Karen Casey about to release her action plan to reform the P-12 education system, there are a few things that are important to remember.

Youth in Whitney Pier, Cape Breton's Boys and Girls' Club. Photo: Grade 8 students from the Whitney Pier Youth Club
Youth in Whitney Pier, Cape Breton’s Boys and Girls’ Club. Photo: Grade 8 students from the Whitney Pier Youth Club

First, there has not been any serious analysis that attempts to explain why test scores are down. Some commentators have said or implied that modern teaching methods are to blame. The idea here is that we need to get “back to basics,” that schools these days are full of warm fuzzies but not reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Drill the kids on their times tables, just like in old times, and all will be well.  Continue reading Be wary of quick fixes for Nova Scotia’s education system

Teachers’ unions need to keep close to our social-justice roots

Poverty. Racism. Democracy. Aboriginal rights. Climate change. Many of us explore issues like these in our classrooms. It’s our responsibility as teachers to see that our students become caring, engaged members of society.

Teachers in Burnaby, BC make the connection between social justice and education funding in 2012. (Photo: Burnaby Teachers' Association blog)
Teachers in Burnaby, BC make the connection between social justice and education funding in 2012. (Photo: Burnaby Teachers’ Association blog)

In our unions, we also advocate for progressive change on issues like these. One of the my own union’s core beliefs is that promoting quality public education for all requires working for social justice.

Overall, how are we doing with that?  Continue reading Teachers’ unions need to keep close to our social-justice roots

What is, and isn’t, in the minister’s report on Nova Scotian education

The panel reviewing Nova Scotia’s education system has released its report. Disrupting the Status Quo: Nova Scotians Demand a Better Future for Every Student makes 30 recommendations for overhauling P-12 education, based on an extensive survey completed by 19,000 people.

Photo via flickr.
Photo via flickr.

When I first heard about the plan for an education review, I got my guard up. In the U.S., education “reform” led by wealthy interests has wreaked havoc on public education for decades now, overemphasizing standardized testing, narrowing the curriculum, funnelling public money to semi-private charter schools, and generally creating problems when it purported to fix them. The six-person panel hand-picked to conduct the review didn’t set my mind at ease.

The report released in Nova Scotia last week didn’t fully follow the U.S. formula, which is a good thing. It contains some very positive conclusions, such as the acknowledgement of how teacher workload issues affect student learning, and the need to focus on students’ physical and mental health.

Some of the report’s other conclusions, however, are more problematic, as are some elements that are left out. Continue reading What is, and isn’t, in the minister’s report on Nova Scotian education