Since 1975 with the enactment of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act in the USA, parents and educators on both sides of the border have addressed how best to create inclusive classrooms. No longer is it acceptable to exclude children on the basis of disability. This legislation was followed in 1990 by IDEA – Individuals with Disabilities Act which further defined the obligations for public schools with respect to providing educational opportunity appropriate for all children. The American legislation influenced Canadian public education, and Canadian parents have legitimately fought and continue to advocate for inclusive classrooms.
Educators have struggled with the expectations for inclusive classrooms since 1975. Teacher education programs did not adapt to provide the specific knowledge and professional preparation required to differentiate instruction in inclusive classrooms, and it was only recently that the BC College of Teachers (Teacher Regulation Branch as of January 2012) made it a requirement for teachers certified in BC to complete at least one course related to special education as part of their preparation to become a teacher.
The current “class composition” debate is just another manifestation of the continued struggle to retain inclusive classrooms and to compensate for the absence of specific and effective preparation for teachers. Restricting the number of special needs children per class to three does not address the real issues.
The current BCTF position which restricts the number of students with unique learning needs to 3 per class, is a "one-size fits all model" of a type the BCTF would normally vigorously oppose. For example, the need to differentiate instruction for a student with dyslexia is more challenging in English literature than in PE class. In addition, the BCTF approach is contrary to the underlying values that created the original legislation in 1975. And, while appearing to be an inclusive model, it is best described as a model that excludes, because it excludes all but three special needs students per class regardless of the unique learning needs and regardless of the subject being taught.
So why does the BCTF seem so committed to this approach and why did the teachers union reject the $165m offered by the Minister of Education to fund special education assistants? Two possible explanations come to mind:
- Class size and composition are what are referred to as “staffing clauses”. They permit a union, through bargaining, to exert control over staffing and thereby to increase the number of members in the union. For example, to meet a requirement that all classes are a specified size and that no classes have more than 3 special needs students, School Boards across the province would have to hire significantly more teachers.
- If the issue truly is addressing the unique learning needs of students with special needs, why not agree to the additional funding offered? Is it because the BCTF wants to control staffing? Special education assistants are not part of the BCTF, they are members of CUPE.
As with the real story behind contracted pay increases for teachers, parents and other stakeholders need all the facts before making a judgment about the current labour dispute. The fight over class composition is not only about the well-being of children, it's about turf.
– post by Carol Gibson