This week, Doug Ford did what no parent or politician should ever do to students who look to adults for leadership: He diminished and disrespected them.
More than a teachable moment, Ford gave high-school students a life lesson in how Ontario’s “Government for the People” treats young people.
On Thursday, more than 100,000 students walked out of schools across the province, not to cut class but to protest class cuts. They rallied against $851 million in foregone funding, which will force students into larger classes as thousands of teaching positions are eliminated by late 2022 — supplemented by more online courses than anywhere else in North America.
How did our premier answer their legitimate protest? He borrowed from the Donald Trump playbook: badmouth your critics, and smear those who serve the public.
“This is about the union bosses telling the teachers and the students what to do,” Ford announced in the legislature before the protests had even begun.
On the radio that afternoon, he went further, blaming “union thugs” for the protests.
Calling elected union leaders “bosses” is a common put-down among people who wilfully distort the democratic process by which teachers and other union members elect their leaders in secret ballots. “Bosses” is bad enough, but “thugs” — a word that refers to violent criminality?
Yes, teachers’ unions are perfectly capable of using students as pawns, as they have in pointless strikes during past contract negotiations — you can look up the criticisms in previous columns. In truth, virtually all strikes by public sector unions — exercising their constitutionally protected rights — unavoidably use some members of the public as pawns.
But there are no negotiations now, and no strikes underway. Only Ford’s runaway rhetoric.
Thursday’s protests were organized solely by high school leaders who rallied their fellow students of their own volition, spreading the word in person, on social media and via mass media. There are no credible reports of teachers leading the charge, of their unions secretly fomenting rebellion, of parents exhorting their kids to skip school.
Politicians tell tall tales all the time. They exaggerate to the media, they misrepresent to the opposition, they overpromise to voters.
But we are grown-ups. We are trained to take it.
What’s unprecedented is for an elected premier making it up while taking down young people for merely standing up for what they believe in.
Perhaps the premier believes he has a good case for replacing in-class teachers with computer screens for remote learning. Possibly he can explain why he never disclosed this hidden agenda in last year’s election campaign, nor consulted parents or teachers when he sought public input this year.
More probably, he cannot bring himself to tell the truth: That he overpromised on tax cuts and so must now under-deliver on services, shortchanging our students who must now pay the price — to the tune of $851 million and 3,475 lost teaching positions by late 2022.
In fact, his government is raising average class sizes in high school from 22 to 28 students — forcing school boards to eliminate special classes with low enrolments, and pushing enrolment in core subjects to as high as 40 students. But Ford shamelessly recasts these cutbacks as improvements.
“We will have the lowest class size in the entire country,” our premier proclaimed with Trumpian certainty in the legislature.
Where are the numbers to back that up that unsupported claim?
Confidential, according to Kayla Iafelice, a spokesperson for Education Minister Lisa Thompson. Can’t tell you.
And yet British Columbia’s government website notes its average class size is 22.9 for grades 8 to 12. Alberta’s government website shows an average of 23.2 students for grades 10 to 12.
How would these numbers put Ontario in the forefront in future? Ah, but there is one area in which this province will lead Canada and the continent: Ford’s “Government for the People” is taking people out of the classroom. As my colleague Kristin Rushowy has reported, Ontario’s plan to impose four mandatory online credits is without equal.
Online learning has its place, especially when supplementing (not replacing) teachers, but where is the evidence to show that Ontario is adopting best practices rather than cheapest practices? Far from cutting edge, cutting back teachers while adding computer screens will cause us to lose our edge.
Ford owes it to all Ontarians, parents and students, teachers and voters, to level with them about how he will remake the education system. And to do so with insightful answers, not inciteful rhetoric.
Rather than berating teachers and belittling students, why not level with them? Instead of insulting the intelligence of parents and voters, why not share the statistical evidence?
Talk is cheap. But cheap shots only devalue his office.
Teachers’ unions know enough not to wait for Ford to withdraw his words. But students deserve better from our premier.
It behooves him to stop belittling young people merely because he has a bigger megaphone. He should talk to students instead of talking past them.
Starting with an apology — a precedent worthy of our premier.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn