When Ontarians voted in a right-wing Conservative government in June 2018, it was only a matter of time before public services, including education, became a target for deep cuts. Ontario’s experience may well be a roadmap for Albertans under the Jason Kenney UPC government.
A year and a half later, damaging cuts to public education by the Ford Conservatives have led to strike actions by all four education unions after four months of fruitless negotiations. The latest polls indicate that more than 57 per cent of Ontarians are standing with teachers and education workers against the cuts. That hard-won support was built by the actions, outreach and high-profile public campaigns of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and other unions.
Premier Ford’s opening salvo against public education began with an intended rollback of Ontario’s 2015 health and physical education curriculum in an attempt to pander to a minority group of social conservatives. The previous Liberal government had introduced a curriculum update (in the works since 2010) that included content on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning (LGBTQ) relationships as well as sexting, online bullying and information about consent.
To protest the curriculum repeal, students organized demonstrations in the summer of 2018. ETFO followed up with a rally and galvanized mass public support that fall when it sought an injunction against the government to stop the repeal. In its decision, the Ontario court ruled that teachers have the ability to meet and exceed curriculum expectations, enshrining the professional judgment rights of educators to establish inclusive learning environments.
That same fall, the government embarked on education “consultations” with the public on everything from math “back to basics” to cellphone use in schools, standardized testing and STEM subjects. There were two main problems: no education stakeholders, including unions, were involved in preparing these consultations, and the results of the consultations have never been fully released to the public. It was evident that politics would trump pedagogy in any approach this government would take to education.
In March 2019, the Ford government announced significant cuts to public education, including unilateral increases to average class size in grades 4 to 12 and the introduction of mandatory online learning in high schools. If fully implemented, these changes would mean that upwards of 10,000 teachers would not be replaced in the K–12 system through attrition over a four-year period.
Public elementary schools have seen larger classes, a decrease in per capita student funding for 2019–2020 and the loss of teachers, including those in special education. Government proposals to increase average secondary school class sizes from 22 to 28 students and make four e-learning courses mandatory for high school students created further public resistance, even as the government proposed revising its position on average class sizes to 25 and mandating two e-learning courses instead of four.
In June 2019, just before bargaining with teacher unions began in earnest, the Ford Conservatives introduced Bill 124, which proposed a cap of one per cent on compensation and benefits for public service workers. The bill, which became law on Nov. 7, was a direct attack on free and fair collective bargaining, and in December, Ontario’s four educator unions launched charter challenges against the government.
Despite 20 days of bargaining between August and December, there was little face-to-face negotiation on key issues tabled by ETFO. ETFO had proposed more supports for students with special needs, class size reductions and protection of Ontario’s full-day kindergarten, which features a teacher-designated early childhood educator team in classrooms. Government negotiators said they had little mandate to address the issues and seemed focused only on cuts, including a further $150 million cut to public elementary education.
Following work-to-rule actions centred on administrative duties, ETFO launched one-day rotating strikes across the province on Jan. 20 of this year. Neither ETFO members nor the public have been fooled by Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s continuing pronouncements that negotiations have stalled because educators “want more money.”
ETFO members care deeply about the protection of Ontario’s full-day kindergarten program and about classroom conditions that are being negatively impacted by class size, lack of supports for students with special needs and increasing incidents of violence in classrooms. That has been evident in their unwavering solidarity, and their signs and interviews with media on the picket lines. Parents have come out in droves to support picketing members. In fact, a recent poll showed that parents support our members two to one over the government.
Rotating strikes and public pressure may prove to be the key factors in forcing the Ford government to back down on public education cuts and arrive at a fair deal that meets the needs of students and teachers. ❚
Sam Hammond is president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.