Premier Doug Ford says his government has made “massive, massive moves” in its contract offer to teachers, but the opposition accused it of making a “hot mess” of education and only now proposing changes because of a huge public backlash.
“The Ford government is frantically backpedalling in the face of overwhelming backlash from parents, teachers, students and school boards, all of whom have rejected the premier’s short-sighted and reckless classroom cuts,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Wednesday.
Her comments came a day after Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the government now plans to boost the average high school class size to 23 students from last year’s 22 for the duration of any contract it reaches with teachers, as well as create an easy opt-out from mandatory online courses.
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the government’s latest move does not propose any improvements to education, but merely scaled back the cuts it was planning.
He said moving to an average class size of 23 will cost 1,000 positions for teachers and 6,000 course options gone for students.
“It’s nothing but losses across the board,” Bishcof said. “In every single category, it is less than what (the system) had last year.”
Of the province’s four teachers’ unions, only the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association is currently in negotiations with the government. Its talks are set to continue Thursday.
Lecce also said the government will renew special education funding, and said full-day kindergarten will remain as is.
However, the government is insisting the teachers’ unions accept a one per cent wage increase — which is in line with recent salary-cap legislation — as well as an increase of one per cent plus inflation for benefits. It also still wants to modify a hiring rule that makes seniority on the supply list the main factor when principals hire teachers for new long-term contract and full-time positions.
“This is a good deal,” Lecce said. “It’s a program that’s going to help students succeed. It’s about time the teacher unions get to the table. Let’s get this done.”
Ford told the legislature that Lecce “confirmed the major moves we’ve made at the table — massive, massive moves so they can get the kids back into the classroom. It’s a deal that keeps class sizes low, invests in special education and math, maintains full-day kindergarten, ensures merit is part of hiring and keeps compensation increases reasonable.”
As well, Ford added, “will have a choice on online learning. I think that’s going to grow organically. The kids are going to want to go online, so let’s see what happens.”
But Horwath said the Conservatives “spent months and months pretending that they were being reasonable … Is the Ford government finally ready to admit that their failure to listen to parents led to the hot mess that we’re in right now?”
Bischof also warned that class caps must be maintained in local boards to help curb runaway class sizes.
The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association and the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association — which represents all two million public school students in the province — have welcomed the government’s changes, but continue to push for last year’s class size average of 22, as well as making online classes voluntary.
Lecce said making 23 students the average class size would be “effectively freezing” it, since the average sits at 22.9 students this year.
As a cost-saving measure, Lecce’s predecessor Lisa Thompson had announced average class sizes of 28 students. Leece reduced that target to 25 students shortly after taking over the portfolio.
Lecce said hard caps on class sizes “are decisions of local boards” and “if boards want to proceed with cap, we will work with them … it’s not going to be an impediment to a deal.” However, school boards would still need to maintain the overall average of 23 students per class, he added.
The change to 23 students means public boards like Toronto and Halton — whose average class sizes are already larger — will receive money to hire teachers, he said.
“I think we made a pretty big, bold, good-faith move at the table, which is consistent with what parents wanted us to do,” Lecce told reporters.
Leslie Wolfe, who heads the Toronto branch of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Association, said the Toronto District School Board currently has an average class size of 23.6 students in its secondary schools.
Getting there from last year’s average of 22 students meant 92 people lost their jobs, Wolfe said.
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“It’s still a cut — just one that isn’t as deep,” she added.
Lecce again urged the teacher unions to end their one-day and rotating strikes.
Some public high school teachers, including those in Toronto, will be picketing Thursday, as will all Catholic and French-board educators.