Exposing the class divide in education

The picket that was organized by Grassroots Women in front of St. George's Private School  to protest education privatization. PHOTO: AIYANAS ORMAND

Grassroots Women picket elite private school to protest education privatization

By: Aiyanas Ormond

On Tuesday, September 16, about 30 people picketed St. George’s, an elite private school in Vancouver.  The picket, organized by Grassroots Women comes after more than 2 weeks of school closures as teachers in B.C. have been on strike.

St. George’s is the most expensive private school in the province with tuition ranging from $15,000 to $20,000 for non-boarded students and upwards of $50,000 a year for boarded students.  The school boasts of its small class sizes, extensive supports and extracurricular programs, the exact things that public school  teachers are saying are under attack with declining funding in B.C. public schools.

Grassroots Women, a working-class and militant women’s organization active in Vancouver since 1995, called for the picket to expose the fact that St. Georges also receives significant public funding, and to make the connection between the increasing number of students enrolled in publicly funded private schools and the economic starving of public schools, especially in working class neighbourhoods and communities.

“We’re picketing this school because, even though the tuition here is more than the annual income of tens of thousands of B.C. families, this school is subsidized from the public purse,” said Grassroots Women member Martha Roberts.  “They receive 35% of the funding a public school would receive, per student enrolled – millions of dollars annually.  And yet the sole purpose of this school, which is evident in reading any of their materials, is to replicate the economic power and class privilege of the families who can afford to send their kids here.”

It also happens to be the school where B.C. Premier Christy Clark sends her son.  Her support for education privatization goes beyond her own personal preference though, British Columbia subsidizes private schools in the province to the tune of $300 million annually and has the highest number of children enrolled in private schools per capita of any province.  B.C. also has the highest child poverty rate in Canada.

On the morning of the picket, the Province and teacher’s union announced a tentative agreement in contract negotiations that have been ongoing since public school teachers were left without a contract before the end of the school year of June 2013. “The union mounted escalating stages of labour action starting last April in an attempt to get movement from the employer at the bargaining table. After three weeks of rotating strikes, teachers launched a full-scale walkout about two weeks before the end of the last school year,” according to the Canadian Press. Thus, being on strike since the beginning of the current school year.

But the picket organizers were very clear that the issues of school privatization will not be resolved by a new contract for teachers.

“The public funding for private education is going to continue after this strike,” said Grassroots Women member Suzanne Baustad.  “What we have is an increasing two-tiered system, one that is based on reproducing the next generation of bosses and bureaucrats on the one side, and workers on the other.  This conflict really isn’t about government and teachers – its a class conflict, and redistributing resources from public to private schools is an attack on working class women and children.”

The action was the target of a significant online backlash, both from St. George’s parents, as well as from public school teachers and supporters, who were worried that militant action would “damage the teachers bargaining position.” An interesting reminder of how taboo it remains to engage in class conflict outside of the mediation of the State or the carefully scripted and managed collective bargaining process.

The picket that was organized by Grassroots Women in front of St. George's Private School  to protest education privatization. PHOTO: AIYANAS ORMAND

The picket that was organized by Grassroots Women in front of St. George’s Private School to protest education privatization. PHOTO: AIYANAS ORMAND