The Progressive Conservative government is watering down its demand for larger class sizes in Ontario high schools, but adding a “poison pill” that the teachers’ union warns it cannot swallow.
As contract talks heat up, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the Tories are willing to lower the proposed classroom average from 28 students to 25.
But that remains higher than the existing average of 22.5 and will still eventually cost 5,000 teaching positions — down from 10,000 with the higher 28-student figure.
It will also mean fewer course choices for high school students across the province.
Lecce said Thursday that the government is being “reasonable” by reducing its proposed average and urged the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation to do the same.
“If that spirit is not matched, then unfortunately a voluntary deal probably cannot be reached,” he said.
“It takes two to tango, folks.”
The government has introduced legislation to limit annual public sector raises at 1 per cent while the teachers are seeking cost-of-living increases equal to about 2 per cent.
OSSTF president Harvey Bischof said “the proposal that we received this morning is, in fact, worse than the Ford government’s original plan to hike average class size ratios to 28:1.”
That’s because the government wants locally enforceable caps on class sizes to be removed in exchange for its concession.
“It is a poison pill to an already poisoned offer,” said Bischof. “There would essentially be no limits on the size of classes into which Ontario students could be squeezed.
“This fall we are already seeing the chaos that this government’s class size policies are creating in Ontario high schools,” he said, pointing to students being unable to get their courses and teachers’ positions being eliminated.
“To the degree that any semblance of order has been maintained, we have the class size caps in our local collective agreements to thank for that. An agreement on our part to remove those caps would be an agreement to undermine the learning environments in our schools.”
Bischof said teachers, who will complete their strike votes by Nov. 15, “cannot and will not accept the government’s proposal on class sizes.”
However, he emphasized “there’s lots of time to negotiate between now and then” and that contract talks are continuing.
Ontario Public School Boards’ Association president Cathy Abraham said while “we are encouraged that … Minister Lecce demonstrated flexibility on the class-size issue,” problems persist.
“We remain concerned with the government’s most recent proposal to set the average class size at 25 students. Such an increase would still cause a number of challenges for students,” she said.
School boards bargain alongside the province in central negotiations with the education unions.
Abraham noted the Tories’ decrease to a 22.5 average from 22 as of last month “led to significant challenges for students and school boards.”
“We expect that the situation will only get worse if it were to move to 25:1,” she said.
“As the funded average class size increases, a school’s ability to continue to offer courses with smaller class sizes will be diminished. Schools will either have to cancel courses or, in order to retain them, combine courses together into larger classes, resulting in less suitable support for students.”
NDP MPP Marit Stiles (Davenport) blasted Lecce for “using Ontario students as bargaining chips.”
“He is telling Ontarians choose between bad and worse,” said Stiles.
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In an interview with the Star on Thursday, Premier Doug Ford emphasized that he wants to reach a negotiated settlement with education unions.
The government has already announced it is boosting class sizes starting in Grade 4.
Ford’s administration also wants to introduce four mandatory online courses in high school.