As public outrage over the Quebec Liberal government's attacks on public education has grown, so too has the movement to surround schools in human chains on the first day of each month. Oct. 1 saw this movement not only grow to over 300 schools throughout Quebec, but also include a significant number of schools in the province’s English school boards which were participating for the first time.
The aim of this action was to send a clear message to Premier Philippe Couillard and his cadre: parents, teachers and support staff are united against the government's attempt to balance its books on the backs of students. Of particular concern are proposals to remove limits on class size and cut a whole range of supports for students with special needs.
While the potent symbolism of community after community uniting to form a human chain in defence of their schools was not enough to persuade the government to change course, it did at least force the minister of education to publicly defend his actions.
His comments were disturbing to say the least. When asked why he would not restore funding for support for students with special needs, Education Minister François Blais stated that given Quebec's current budget situation, such an investment would be "maladroit." The minister was essentially saying that to leave in place existing supports for students with special needs would be “awkward” or “clumsy.”
A government of sociopaths?
Blais’ choice of words has left me with a serious question: Is Quebec's Liberal government a government of sociopaths?
Oxford's Dictionary defines a sociopath as "a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme anti-social attitudes and behaviour, particularly a lack of moral responsibility or social conscience."
I don't ask this question to be insulting or hyperbolic. I ask this question sincerely because I honestly cannot understand how a normal human being who is capable of experiencing empathy could say and do such things as the Liberals do.
The government’s proposed changes will have dire consequences for students and teachers alike. To begin with, the government plans to remove the weighting system that ensures that a higher proportion of students with special needs in a class means the class size is dramatically reduced or a childcare worker is provided to assist the teacher. Getting rid of this weighting system while at the same time eliminating limits on class size is a combination that will be absolutely toxic to the learning conditions of students.
In addition, the government is removing budgets for resource teachers. Schools use these additional teachers for a variety of reasons, such as to staff resource rooms where students can go for one-on-one help. Some high schools also use these teachers to reduce class sizes in grades seven and eight, which are crucial transition years. Without additional teachers, the only way schools will be able to keep resource rooms open is by over-sizing other classes to free up a teacher. Without a well-staffed resource room, students will have nowhere to turn for one-on-one help.
Bad for teachers, bad for students
I am a teacher, and like all teachers in Quebec I have witnessed firsthand the bitter frustration of students with special needs when they don't receive the support they need. Such frustration not only produces a whole range of disruptive behaviours for teachers and fellow students to deal with, it also has the potential to scar the student's academic confidence in a lasting way. Whatever academic potential the child may have had is snuffed out by frustration and self-doubt.
Conversely, like most teachers in Quebec, I have witnessed the joy and confidence that comes when students with special needs receive the support they need and are thus able to overcome their challenges. To help such children succeed and flourish provides an enormous sense of fulfillment for teachers, which is why most of us routinely devote our evenings and weekends to unpaid work for our students.
Such experiences have led me to conclude that investments in supports for students with special needs not only improve the learning conditions of all students (less frustration means less disruption, which means a better learning environment for all), they also effectively reduce the real suffering of our most vulnerable children by offering them a real chance to overcome the challenges they face.
For this reason I wonder about the government's sociopathic tendencies. It is not merely tinkering with policy. It is proposing an aggressive overhaul of the system, which will remove services from the most needy children while eroding the quality of education for all. The government knows full well this will cause children to suffer. Thanks to the hundreds of human chains that have surrounded Quebec's public schools, it also knows full well that the public is overwhelmingly opposed to its actions. Yet it goes ahead anyway.
What's more, like true sociopaths, the liberal ministers promoting these policies deny any personal responsibility for what they are doing. They seem to live in an imaginary world where there is no choice but to harm the vulnerable. Following his statement that it would be “maladroit” to reinvest in supports for students with special needs Blais explained that "balancing the budget would have to take priority." This statement is remarkable for two reasons. First, it clearly indicates that for this government the cold fiscal policy goal of a balanced budget is more important than the real human suffering of large numbers of children. Second, it suggests that government has no alternative.
Is there an alternative?
Indeed government has plenty of alternatives that would allow it to achieve its goal of deficit reduction while avoiding drastic cuts to social services. For example, the Liberals could role back their 2010 cut to the capital gains tax. This single tax cut has deprived the Quebec government of $1.9 billion annually since it was implemented. This tax cut did almost nothing for small business and little to stimulate the economy. The corporations that benefited most were banks as they have the largest proportion of their revenues being generated by investments (capital gains). By reversing what amounts to a recurring $1.9-billion gift to the banks, the Quebec government would in one fell swoop eliminate almost two thirds of Quebec's current deficit.
This is just one example, but there are others. The government could also reduce a number of other tax cuts enacted over the last decade that have disproportionately benefited the rich to an enormous degree. There is also the possibility of reducing the deficit in a more gradual manner that doesn't risk harming public services.
When the government says it has no choice but to take services away from needy students, it is therefore lying. It has plenty of choices. The Quebec Liberals have chosen to balance their budgets on the backs of students rather than asking the most affluent members of society to make due with a little less. This is not just a political decision it is a moral decision. They have chosen to take away services from our most needy children rather than ask the wealthy to pay their fair share.
So to recap:
Extreme anti-social behaviour: Ignores families, teachers and support staff forming over 300 human chains in defence of their schools.
Lack of moral responsibility: Claims to have no choice when in fact several much better alternatives exist.
Lack of social conscience: Prefers to harm vulnerable children rather than ask the wealthy to pay their fair share.
Quebec's Minister of Education Francois Blais is a professor of philosophy. He of all people should know what a moral issue is and on which side to stand.