Labour mobilizing Ontarians against province’s education plan
The Ontario government says its changes to publicly funded education will “modernize classrooms” to “better prepare students for the demands of the future.” The unions representing teachers and education workers, however, do not agree with the government’s claim that it is bringing Ontario’s education system into the 21st century.
Calling the changes “destructive” and “devastating,” labour organizations say the plan represents a step backwards for students and for the quality of the public education system – and they’re working to mobilize Ontarians to help pressure the government to reverse the budgetary cuts.
The plan includes larger average class sizes in high school and in Grades 4 to 8, cuts in grants for various student needs’ programs, which labour says will hurt the most vulnerable students the most, and a requirement that all high school students take four online courses.
Teachers’ unions warn that larger classes – by an average of six students per class in high school – will reduce teacher-student one-on-one-engagement and lead more students to fall behind.
“Our deepest concern is that conditions are being created in which far fewer students will be able to succeed and thrive in Ontario’s high school system,” says Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation. “This will have a severe negative impact on individual students and on Ontario’s civic and economic future.”
The unions are also opposed to mandatory online credits in high schools, pointing to research showing students don’t learn as well without face-to-face instruction. “We have every reason to believe this e-learning plan is the thin edge of the wedge for the government’s intention to begin outsourcing and privatizing our excellent publicly funded school system,” says Bischof.
Many school boards in the province have already announced they will have to reduce course offerings next term, and have sent redundancy letters to teaching and other staff. Larger classes will result in the the loss of thousands of teaching positions, say the labour organizations, and they are not comforted by the government’s statement it can be done through attrition, without the need for layoffs.
“The minister and the premier continue to say people won’t lose their jobs. I have said to my members, just watch; that won’t be the case as the process unfolds,” says Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO). “School boards are already announcing cuts in support staff. They’re sending out redundancy letters now for the fall term, but they are certainly going to materialize as job losses, as well as loss of vital supports for students.”
“No cuts to education” has become the rallying cry of labour organizations for teachers at all school boards – English and French, public and Catholic – and for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents 55,000 education workers. These include education assistants, nutrition services workers, library workers, computer technicians, school secretaries, custodians, maintenance workers, social workers, child and youth workers, and speech language pathologists.
These employees are the “people who make schools work,” says Laura Walton, an education assistant and president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OBSCU). Walton says layoffs of library technicians, for example, can mean reduced access to the school library, which will disadvantage students without adequate computer resources and internet access at home. If custodians are laid off, she adds, health and safety standards can be compromised in schools, and loss of education assistants, already in short supply, will further erode supports for students most in need.
“What happens when there are fewer education assistants and the remaining EAs are stretched even further? Obviously, children with special needs don’t get enough support or attention; their boredom turns into frustration and their disruptive behaviours increase. There’s a greater likelihood of classroom violence, and suddenly the entire classroom is at risk.”
Labour organizations have strong allies in their campaign against the education cuts. On April 4, high school students across the province walked out of class in protest – and on April 6, parents and students joined the unions in a large Rally for Education at Queen’s Park.
Their message to Ontario citizens is simple: Contact your MPP and tell them that these cuts to education must be reversed. Smaller class sizes are needed to ensure student learning and achievement, and to improve, not undermine, Ontario’s world-recognized publicly funded education system.