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The Impasse over Public Education

Once again, a battle is underway between Ontario teachers and the Provincial government.

Students, parents and taxpayers are the immediate victims, but there are potentially wider longer-term consequences to society as the fear of disruptions to education, and of loss of quality, lead parents to seek alternatives to ensure the best possible future for their children.

If there is conflict between government and teachers leading to interruptions, or if class sizes or the lack of teacher support staff seem to be leading to insufficient attention for your child, a move to online instruction threatens their progress, or reduced course options limit their range of opportunity, you have a choice. You can fight the government with the teachers, or you can, if you can afford it, seek out private options, and leave those whose children are in public education to make the best of it. Nowhere is this risk more evident than in affluent communities like Oakville.

In countries where private education has become more prevalent (Australia, the UK and the US, where public schools in wealthy neighbourhoods are providing stealth private education), hereditary inequality has become entrenched.

In Ontario we take a fairly level playing field for granted. A society that understands incentives, while building and maintaining the institutions that provide the tools individuals need to excel, creates a community that enjoys social cohesion, peace, and safety.

Public education is the single most important component in an opportunity-for-all free society. Ontario has a tremendous track record, indeed one of the best in the world.

On the PISA (Program International Student Assessment) rankings, which assess 15-year-olds on Reading, Mathematics and Science, Canada is the highest ranked English-speaking country. We are only slightly behind some countries which do not have our challenges of English as a second language, and in which pressure on students would be culturally at odds with our society (Japan and the major Chinese cities for example).

Recent slippage on EQAO scores, which assess much younger children, is certainly cause for investigation, but not a reason to doubt that Ontario public education is something that works. We should clearly keep building on that success, and not challenge its fundamental soundness.

So, for short-term reasons and long-term implications, it is critical that both the government and the teachers understand they are partners in building a healthy society with opportunity for all by their continued commitment to a smooth-functioning public education system.

The Provincial government, faced with a growing debt that is now one of the largest sub-national obligations in the world, is looking to reduce spending in all areas. Education is an enormous part of the Provincial budget, so it too must share in addressing this real fiscal concern.

However, the measures proposed by the Province seem to strike at the heart of the success of the current system.

Larger Class Sizes

Larger class sizes can only mean less attention per student. This is a misunderstood issue. Legislating average class sizes to 25 may not sound like too many, but when you take into account that some laboratory course options can only support a few students owing to equipment limitations, the average of 25 can mean 35 in an English class: a number most parents find worrying.

Mandatory Online Course

Mandatory online courses are also a cause for real concern. While some students manage these well, studies from around the world have shown that without face-to-face teacher interaction a significant percentage of students perform much worse than with it. No other jurisdiction in the world has mandated online learning to complete a high school diploma. In Michigan, where it has been extensively tried, it has also been shown not to offer any cost savings.

Cap and Trade

At the same time, the Provincial government badly hurt the budgets of school boards for their physical plant by eliminating the cap and trade program which would have provided substantial funding to replace aging school infrastructure. In addition, a $100 million fund for school repairs was cancelled, a typical example of trading a financial deficit for an infrastructure deficit that will almost certainly cost much more to remedy in the future.

Indigenous Programs

Consultations for a new indigenous program, badly needed if we really want to create opportunity for all, were also cut.

These, and many other measures, are why teachers are resisting the government’s approach and taking strike action.

Teachers’ Pay

At the same time, teachers are well-paid. This is particularly an issue outside the GTA, where teachers’ salaries don’t seem to reflect the local market price for comparable talent. The government has proposed limiting teachers’ increases to 1%, while teachers want to keep up with inflation.

There are many who feel teachers, with their time off in the summer and school vacations, are vastly overpaid. Most teachers work many additional hours during school terms: preparing lessons, trying to find ways to reach children who are not grasping the material, marking homework, and coaching sports or running extra-curricular clubs that help to keep students engaged in school and receptive in the classroom.

Anyone who has any experience teaching also knows that the job is very stressful: keeping interest and control in a group of adolescents is not for the faint of heart.

It has long been understood that student success is driven more by the quality of the person in the front of the classroom than by any other factor that is in the control of the education system. Certainly, one of the reasons for Ontario’s educational success is that teaching is an attractive career option. Part of that is having a salary and the time to enrich their own education, which relates to what they bring to the classroom, and their ability to inspire students.

So, what should happen?

First, the Province should respect the teachers as professionals and seek their input before making curriculum and class size changes or introducing new technology in ways that support better educational outcomes.

Second, teachers should recognize that in the absence of market forces, all public institutions (or regulated private monopolies for that matter) become bloated and wasteful. They do not adapt quickly to changing technologies or economic reality.

Perhaps there are ways to incorporate online learning to reduce costs and even enhance teaching.

One thing they might consider to reduce the overall education budget over time is wage differential by region. In England, some sectors pay a “London allowance” to account for the cost of living in the capital city. Perhaps eliminating wage increases in places like Peterborough and Kingston, while maintaining inflationary growth in the GTA and other expensive urban centres, could eventually bring about a teachers’ salary structure that better reflects the labour market around the Province.

What is needed in this dispute is constructive dialogue between government and the teachers as equal partners in the education of our children and a sustainable fiscal approach that protects this key component of our society from arbitrary cuts.

Uncertainty, disruption, arbitrary cutbacks all can lead to parents voting with their pocketbooks which further fragments our educational system into private, home schooling and religious alternatives. This would weaken public education, pushing even more parents away from it in a downward spiral.

We are a long way from a government that could say, as Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have said, that there is no need to worry about state education because “our voters don’t use it”, but we must be vigilant not to head in that direction.

Teachers and the Province need to move away from adversarial bargaining and work together: both want great public education for children to be fiscally sustainable.

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