When Premier Gordon Campbell took to the airwaves in a rare prime-time televised address last month, he had previously announced several key cabinet changes. One of the changes was to usher in George Abbott, formerly minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, to the post of Minister of Education and to move Margaret MacDiarmid, former Minister of Education, to the post of Minister for Tourism, Trade, and Investment.
Politically, this cabinet shuffle is viewed as an attempt to revitalize Campbell’s embattled Liberal government but whether it signals a change in education policies is an entirely different matter.
One thing is certain: Margaret MacDiarmid had become a liability, if not an embarrassment, for the BC Liberals. Her portfolio change will be viewed by many as a demotion.
In her brief stay as education minister, MacDiarmid was well on her way to becoming one of the most unpopular ministers — besides Finance Minister Colin Hansen — in the Campbell government. The fifth education minister in a revolving door of ministers since the BC Liberals were elected in 2001, MacDiarmid, with her aggressive and unpredictable manner, had become a lightning rod for growing discontent within the education community.
During her very public four-month budget fight with the Vancouver School Board, she was described by retired Superintendent of Schools Geoff Johnson as ”a provincial bear, now well and truly in attack mode." MacDiarmid was responsible for selecting Comptroller General Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland to review the VSB's financial situation. The choice of Wenezenki-Yolland as opposed to Auditor General John Doyle, who was provincially empowered to undertake an independent, arm’s-length financial review, was greeted with skepticism by many within the Vancouver education community. The lack of credibility of the Comptroller General’s $200,000 report was underlined when she declared that the VSB had “a large surplus" - a finding that even Liberal supporters on the board greeted as “a preposterous assessment.“
MacDiarmid routinely fronted for the BC Liberals in their ongoing and dubious claim on the adequacy of “the greatest ever’’ per-student funding allocation, even in the face of a first-time-ever statement from BC Secretary-Treasurers' that there was a documented shortfall of $120 million in funding for boards across the province.
Ignoring the fact that, in a number of school districts, provincial underfunding led to cancellation of key programs and services, loss of hundreds of teaching and non-teaching positions, increase in parental fundraising, deferral of school repairs and maintenance, shortages of school supplies and materials, closure of schools, and shortening of the school year, MacDiarmid repeatedly dismissed pleas for added funding and support, claiming that Victoria was “protecting public education.”
Her response to the cutbacks to provincial sports funding was widely ridiculed - she advised teachers to have their students “walk, dance, and play in the parks" instead of participating in formal team sports. She also dismissed growing concerns about school board uncertainty concerning stable funding with a curt “this government has its priorities straight.”
It’s fitting that the new education minister had the word reconciliation in the title of his previous portfolio, because that is exactly what is needed in the wake of his predecessor’s confrontational legacy in dealing with various education stakeholders. MacDiarmid, in her short stint as education minister, leaves a legacy of alienation and distrust that will require considerable fence-mending.
Replacing MacDiarmid with a cabinet heavy-hitter like George Abbott is an admission by Gordon Campbell that he is in deep trouble with the education portfolio.
Abbott will need to take a long, hard look at existing education policies of this government. In particular, he will need to re-examine the BC Liberals’ dysfunctional funding formula, the systematic and surreptitious downloading of expenses on to school boards, and the restrictive provincial educational practices and policies, not to mention the outdated one-size-fits-all approach that has created so much grief.
To ensure quality public education for every child in BC, while valuing fairness and equal opportunity for all, a fresh and equitable approach to our K to 12 public system is urgently needed.
It remains to be seen if George Abbott is up to the task.
This article appears in the Nov/Dec issue of BCTF’s Teacher newsmagazine.