Ontario’s new education minister says he’ll learn by listening — to students, to parents, to teachers, to support staff.
But is he willing to consider a different school of thought? That’s the question on the mind of the students as Stephen Lecce settles into what will soon be the hottest political seat in the province.
From mandatory e-learning to fewer teachers and bigger classes — all issues students have huge concerns about — “it would signal to us that he is listening if he takes action,” said Amal Qayum, president of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, which represents all two million of the province’s public school students.
Smaller class sizes are what students have clearly said they want, she said. “And we’ve already seen the results of so many course cuts happening because of larger class sizes” as the government phases out thousands of teaching jobs over the next four years.
The association has just wrapped up an unprecedented online survey of students on the province’s plan for four mandatory online courses “and right now, there are clear results — students feel very clearly on one side of the topic,” Qayum said, adding “we are more than happy to share our results with the minister.”
The 32-year-old told the Star he comes to the job “with no bias” and wants to hear everyone’s ideas — so it’s too early to say what his plans will be. But he said he will look at any proposals, and “how those concepts could be implemented within the fiscal realities” of the province.
But Lecce’s first challenge is to reach contracts — and obtain labour peace — with teacher and support staff unions so students’ upcoming school year won’t be disrupted.
As the youngest education minister in recent history, Lecce said he has always advocated for youth.
“My motivation for public service was generational leadership,” he said in a recent interview with the Star. “The cause of young people should be at the table and we need to fight to ensure young people achieve their full potential.”
He said he’s heard from students that their most pressing issue is finding a good-paying job in the future.
Youth have higher unemployment rates, so Lecce said it’s important to get them “monetizable skills that they can apply in the workforce” — in particular, an emphasis on the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math, leadership development and financial literacy.
“It means embracing technology and innovating within the classroom. And I have a lot of confidence in our teachers, and I have a lot of confidence in the system.”
Aware of the controversy — and concern — over reforms to the sex-ed curriculum, and on the other side, the intolerance of gender identity and LGBT issues among strident social conservatives, Lecce said “we consulted widely, and I think I’m an inclusive parliamentarian. I think my position on this is well-known.
“You know I participated, very proudly, with the premier here in York Region, in the Pride parade,” he said at the recent Ford Fest barbecue in Markham.
“I want to make sure that every student knows they are respected … we’ve consulted and we’ve landed in a place that I think ensures that those fundamentals are being taught in an age-appropriate way. I plan on moving forward making sure that inclusion, respect, tolerance continues to be at the centre of the classroom and the centre of curriculum for all students in Ontario.”
He brings his own personal, family experiences to the position — and he was sworn-in as education minister just weeks after his mother passed away.
Lecce said his parents faced discrimination immigrating to Canada from post-war Italy. “Stories of hardship and my grandmother’s visible emotion, to this day, are etched in my mind forever,” he said.
“It simply does not matter what ‘differentiates’ us — be it faith, heritage, sexual orientation, or place of birth,” he said. “My aim as minister of education is to celebrate Canada’s pluralism and unite our students around our common values and love of this country.”
Seeing his own family struggle with mental health issues, addictions as well as the recent loss of his mom, should indicate to students to “know that my past experiences facing adversity in life, and sense of understanding of that difficulty, strengthens my resolve to bring compassion, hope, and humanity to the table — and to be a champion for mental health supports in the classroom.”
But the weeks ahead will not be easy. His ministry will have to tackle contract negotiations summer as contracts expire at the end of August, as boards will be starting the school year with fewer teachers, support staff and other budget cuts because of provincial changes.
While the government is spending $700 million more on education, that is largely because of increased enrolment, the new child-care rebate and a fund to help prevent involuntary layoffs of teachers. Per-pupil funding has actually gone down.
“He’s going to hear from students about how if (high school) classes go up to an average of 28, kids will actually be sitting in classes of 40 to 50 kids,” said Amin Ali, student trustee for the Toronto District School Board.
“He’s also going to hear from students about how they are just in an environment of stress — the government is creating an environment in these schools of stress, and inadequate support.”
Lecce, he added, needs to pause class-size changes and online learning and “actually consult, actually listen … nobody thinks it’s a good idea.”
Qayum said she is hopeful, given Lecce’s early outreach, that students will have a say in what the province plans for them.
She agreed that teens are worried about finding jobs — but said education can’t just be STEM.
That term, she added, has fallen out of favour with her generation. “It’s STEAM,” she added, which incorporates the arts, humanities and social sciences.
While right now the jobs may be in engineering and science, and there’s a shortage in the skilled trades, that won’t necessarily always be the case — and students need to be prepared for the future and to have the opportunity to find and develop their strengths, she said.
“Our encouragement is not only expanding the trades and sciences, but also placing importance on the arts,” she said.
And, she noted, “political science falls into the arts.”
Lecce attended a Catholic elementary school and then St. Michael’s College private school in Toronto. He later went to Western University, where he was student council president and also headed a fraternity.
After that, he worked for the Stephen Harper government and eventually served as communications director before running to become MPP in King-Vaughan last year.
Despite his private school education, he is an “unapologetic defender of publicly funded education in the province of Ontario,” he told the Star. “My mission is to defend the system — Catholic and public, English and French.”
Lecce replaced Lisa Thompson as education minister, who introduced the controversial host of education reforms and budget cuts, clashed with teacher unions and even student groups and was roundly criticized for justifying larger classes by saying the move would improve teens’ resiliency.
So far, Leece has shown “a genuine caring for the next generation,” said Ali of the Toronto board, noting his outreach and social media postings, saying he is hopeful that will translate into students having a stronger voice at the table.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy