Ontario government climbs down on high school class sizes, dropping target to 23 students

Ontario government climbs down on high school class sizes, dropping target to 23 students

Education Minister Stephen Lecce says his government now wants to boost high school class sizes from last year’s average of 22 to 23.

That would roughly mean the status quo, given this year’s average secondary class is about 22.9 students. The new average would take effect this fall.

Lecce is also promising to restore some special education funding grants, as well as allow an easier opt-out for teens who don’t want to take the two mandatory online courses the government is planning to implement this fall — another issue that has also proved unpopular among parents and students.

Previous education minister Lisa Thompson had said the province would move to an average class size of 28, but after a continued outcry from students and boards, dropped that to an average of 25. Lecce has now reduced it to 23.

Lecce’s comments came about half an hour after the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association issued a statement saying that despite what he and Premier Doug Ford have been saying about compensation and benefits being the key sticking points, OECTA agreed “well before Christmas” to a one per cent salary increase, and more recently a one per cent increase in benefits.

“I can only speak for our association, which exclusively represents elementary and secondary teachers in publicly funded Catholic schools. But for us, the pathway to a deal has been clear for months,” said OECTA President Liz Stuart.

“Since well before Christmas, the OECTA provincial bargaining team has informed the government that while we strongly object to their unconstitutional wage restraint legislation, and retain our fundamental right to challenge it through the courts, we are prepared to accept the salary they have offered at the bargaining table, in order to bring stability and certainty into our schools for our students and parents.”

She also said it “will work within the funding amount for health benefits the government has proposed at our table as recently as last week,” or one per cent.

Lecce’s announcement on class size was made as the province continued “exploratory talks” with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, their third day.

The province has been sporadically holding talks with teacher unions, and all of them are engaged in work-to-rule as well as strikes.

All Catholic and French board teachers will be off the job this Thursday, along with a handful of public high school teachers, including in Toronto. All three unions are planning a mass rally at Queen’s Park, anticipating a crowd of about 15,000.

School boards were already reeling from the increase from last year’s average of 22 for secondary schools moving to just under 22.9 this year — which led to the loss of hundreds of teaching positions and the loss of a few thousand classes and course options for teens.

And because those are averages, class sizes can actually be much larger, given a number of classes have to offset smaller, specialized courses.

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, spoke to the Star on Monday about class size, saying “we support last year’s 22 — the closer we can get to 22 to 1, the better it is for kids. That’s the bottom line.”

In the last few weeks, a number of boards have reached out to the ministry about class sizes as well as the need to reach deals with teacher unions as soon as possible.

Some boards have put off fall staffing and course decisions until they receive some clear direction from the province, given moving toward the 28 average is still officially on the books.

The Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, which represents the province’s two million public school students, said there is a lot of uncertainty right now for teens and it is advocating for a return to last year’s 22.

She said teens do not want a repeat of last year, where many schools scheduled classes, and then had to redo timetables, because of changing government proposals.

In the legislature on Monday, Government House Leader Paul Calandra said “the minister and the government and the crown have been negotiating with our union partners for over 200 days, and we would expect that over that time period we could come to an agreement. That’s what parents want.”

He added that “at the same time, parents have told us they want better results for the money they put into education. Teachers have told us the exact same thing.”

The Avon Maitland public board has written to Lecce, saying for a small, rural board, “the higher class size average ratio is devastating to our programming options and will continue to have harsh implications within our system.”

The Halton District School Board said moving to an average of 24.85 this year meant 189 fewer teaching positions, 500 fewer high school classes and that “the number of classes with 35 or more students almost quadrupled.”

“As a growth board, the higher class size average ratio is devastating and will continue to have harsh implications within our system,” the letter from Chair Andrea Grebenc said.

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A survey of parents in Halton — a Conservative stronghold — prefer the 22 class size average.

The Trillium Lakelands board in the Lindsay/Peterborough area, wrote that moving up from last year’s average posed “significant challenges for us in our ability to support our students and offer a reasonable menu of core and optional credits.”

Moving to 22.9 this year “has already proven disadvantageous for our students by liming course selection options,” wrote the Renfrew County District School Board.

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