Half a million schoolchildren are being denied an education in BC. That’s clearly a terrible failure—but what is its cause?
Is it Toxic Teachers?
Some who have not taken the time to study the issue are quick to blame the teachers—but they repeatedly point only to differences over pay and benefits, which are within easy reach of bargaining.
The Premier wants us to blame the teachers, while refusing to acknowledge that the strike is not really about pay. At a picket line in Victoria teachers told me the causes of the strike were 5% pay, 95% class size and composition. Almost unanimously, teachers say they are striking because it has become intolerably difficult to do their job properly in classes that contain so many children who have special needs. They want smaller classes, and more support for children with health, learning and behavioral disorders.
BC invests $1000 less per student than the national average. We have the worst student-educator ratio in Canada and far fewer specialized teachers, despite more designated students needing support. So no, it is not the teachers who are toxic. They are striking to uphold the public good, and the needs of our children.
Is it Toxic Government?
There are many pointers in this direction, dating to the day in 2002 when Education Minister Christy Clark brought in legislation that stripped teachers of the right to negotiate the very thing that mattered most to them—classroom size and composition—thereby saving $275 million a year.
By spending $1,000 a year less per student on education than a province such as Ontario the government is saving $500 million a year. Coincidentally, that’s the same amount that the government has foregone by reducing the rate of corporate income tax, so when they say, “we can’t afford it,” what they really mean is “BC’s corporations are more important than BC’s children.”
The evidence continues with the Premier’s choice of Peter Fassbinder as Minister of Education, knowing that he dislikes both unions and public education, and would rather BC had a private system of education financed by vouchers, following the rather dubious American model.
Even the BC Supreme Court, as well as deeming the 2002 legislation unconstitutional, found that the government acted in bad faith and has been attempting to force a teachers’ strike in the hope that the public would turn around and blame them. So yes, the strike is a direct response to the government’s toxic approach to education, teachers, labour unions, special needs children and class size.
Is it also Toxic Chemicals?
That might seem like a very bizarre question—but why do so many children have special needs? 57,000 students (10% of BC’s children) are classified as having special needs, of whom 25,000 are eligible for supplemental funding. These include those who are dependent handicapped, deaf or blind; those who have intellectual disabilities, chronic health impairments, or are visually or hearing impaired; those who are autistic; and those who need intensive behaviour intervention or have a serious mental illness.
The remaining 32,000 have other special needs, including learning disabilities, but they get no supplemental funding. In addition, there are many other students who clearly have special needs, but have yet to be classified as such. A further 10% of students are learning English as a second language, and may not be able to understand what their teacher is saying.
In an example quoted by the Vancouver Sun, “Susan Teasdale, a Vancouver resource teacher, said that she taught an extremely challenging inner-city kindergarten class several years ago. There were seven students with severe learning disabilities and only one support worker to help her. She said one child had autism, three others were not designated and had young single mothers who did not believe their children had learning disabilities, two little girls had severe depression, and another was receiving counseling outside of school.”
Amid all this, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is apparently so common that it does not win designated status or funding unless accompanied by other multiple challenges.
So back to my question: are toxic chemicals also to blame?
Take autism. Back in 1975, one child in 5,000 was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. By 1995 the number had risen to one in 500; by 2007 it was one in 86, and by 2013 it was as high as one in 50. These are really alarming numbers: they tell us that there are 10,000 children in BC suffering from autism whose parents and teachers have to cope with this very debilitating condition – and that until we agree on what’s causing it and take rapid action to eliminate it, the numbers will only grow.
The US-based Centres for Disease Control (CDC) thinks half the increase may be due to better diagnosis, but that still leaves a 5000% increase in forty years. Researchers have failed to identify a single cause, but there is evidence that points towards a pregnant mother’s exposure to pesticides, diesel fumes, cadmium and mercury; at a shortage of folic acid or selenium in a pregnant mother’s diet, due indirectly to non-organic chemical farming; at high fructose corn syrup, which reduces a mother’s ability to absorb zinc; and at antibiotics, which destroy bacterial microbiome in the gut.
“Classrooms Full of Hyperactive and Impulsive Kids”
Then there’s ADHD. The CDC has pinned the level at 11% of all children aged 4 to 17 (20% of boys, 10% of girls). In BC’s school population of 500,000 students that’s an additional 55,000 children who have ADHD, none of whom is recognized as having special needs by the government, but all of whom require special attention from their teachers.
Up to 30% of AHDH sufferers have anxiety disorder, and many are affected by sleep disorders. Studies show that 60% of children with ADHD have a learning disability, and 60% will go on to develop another mental illness by the time they are 19. To quote TIME Magazine, the evidence “hints at classrooms full of hyperactive and impulsive kids.”
So what’s causing the increase? The disorder —which the CDC says has increased by 15% just since 2007—has been linked to a mother’s exposure to pesticides, and to perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), a class of highly toxic chemical used to make a variety of consumer products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics used in carpets and furniture, nonstick cookware, microwave popcorn bags and Glide dental floss. Research has found a strong connection between impulsive behaviour and the level of PFCs in the blood.
The evidence also shows that mothers who have a high level of brominated flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies during their second trimester of pregnancy have children who have a higher rate of hyperactivity, lower IQ, and who score poorly on mental and physical development tests. Fire retardants are developmental neurotoxins, and yet they can be found in car seats, bassinet mattresses, nursing pillows, high chairs, strollers, and other polyurethane foam-containing products designed for newborns, infants and toddlers.
A State of Collective Denial
This tells me three things: first, that we are in a state of collective denial about the rise of autism spectrum disorder and ADHD and their chemical origins; next, that we are expecting parents and teachers to cope with the increase as if nothing was happening; and finally that by failing to control these everyday toxic chemicals both levels of government are failing to protect our health and our children’s health.
If you take this nasty brew of toxigenic diseases that are causing so many children to live distressed and difficult lives; add a government that hasn’t a clue about what’s going on in the classroom and would prefer to make education private; and add teachers who really DO care about what’s happening, and who want to be able to give their best to all the students in their classrooms in spite of a stubborn, ignorant government, then yes, you’ll get a teachers’ strike.
Once the diagnosis is clear, the solutions are clear. Reclaim the $500 million a year that the government is forgoing on corporate tax breaks and put it back in our public educational system; give teachers the support and assistance they need to teach their students properly; put massive pressure on the federal government to face up to the chemical industry’s corporate interests, ban PFCs as a precautionary measure, and systematically monitor babies’ blood for the presence of toxic chemicals; and ramp up Canada’s scientific research to pin down the causes of autism spectrum disorder, so that we might eliminate it.
There’s a lot of suffering out there, and we need to increase not decrease the support we give to our teachers, both morally and in the classroom, since it is they, along with parents, who are on the front-line of the biochemical disaster that these disorders represent.
Guy Dauncey is an author, speaker and organizer who works to develop a positive vision of a sustainable future, and to translate that vision into action. He lives near Ladysmith, British Columbia. His websites are EarthFuture and The Practical Utopian.