The Ford government is fooling no one with its cuts to education
Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives relied on a variety of slogans in last year’s Ontario election campaign — from buck-a-beer and the six-million-dollar-man, to fixing hallway medicine and the ubiquitous “for the people.”
Is it possible, then, that we missed a few?
Vote PC for bigger school classes, for example. Or, elect Ford for fewer teachers.
For those are the placards that should have been held high during the campaign to justify the changes the Ford government is now making to Ontario’s education system.
But no one was marching around with those signs and the election was not fought over the crisis in our education system, for the simple reason that there isn’t one. Or at least there wasn’t until this government got elected.
Despite Education Minister Lisa Thompson’s repeated statements that the Liberal government “failed our students,” that’s simply not the case.
Under Liberal governments the on-time high school graduation rate in Ontario rose from a dismal 56 per cent in 2004 to an all-time high of 80 per cent in 2017.
But never one to let facts get in the way of trashing anything associated with the Liberals, the Ford government unveiled plans last Friday to “modernize” education.
Inexplicably (from an education standpoint anyway), that includes increasing average class sizes, particularly in high school, to the point that education experts predict some 10,000 teaching positions in the province will disappear.
What makes that “modern” is anyone’s guess.
This — the biggest change in Ontario’s education system in a decade — was mentioned in passing, down page, in the government’s announcement, which gave top billing to banning cellphones and overhauling sex education and the math curriculum.
Going back to basics in math, banning cellphones (sort of) and rolling back sex ed are questionable to downright terrible ideas. But they at least have the merit of having actually been mentioned in Ford’s election platform.
Cutting an estimated $1 billion from education over four years was certainly not mentioned. Nor was some broad crisis in education that paradoxically could be remedied with far larger high school classes and less teacher attention for every student.
The crisis, such as it is, is a financial one manufactured by Ford and his finance minister, Vic Fedeli.
Through a series of accounting changes they inflated the provincial deficit from $6.7 billion under the Liberals to the current claim of $13.5 billion. That, coupled with Ford’s ridiculous boast about how easy it would be to find $6 billion in savings, is what these changes to class sizes are really about.
Most of the money spent by the province goes to health care and education, and so that’s where Ford’s “efficiencies” were always going to be found.
Ford is not fixing education; he’s fixing a budget problem of his own making.
Or, as the government puts it, he’s seeking “to better balance student success and system sustainability.”
Ford and Thompson are busy pretending that cutting so many teachers from the system with “no involuntary job losses” means that it somehow doesn’t count. But people won’t be fooled by that sleight of hand.
Increasing high school classes from 22 to 28 students on average means six more raised hands for every teacher to get to or, as will inevitably be the case, not get to. And since 28 is the new average, the number in some classes could be considerably higher than that.
Strong students will probably be okay in larger classes, but many others won’t. And these changes are also bound to mean fewer course options, which will make for a less interesting school experience, hurting both the very best students and those on the fence about even being there.
As usual, there is still much we don’t know about this plan because the government rolled it out without the necessary details. Those are to come in April and beyond.
But it’s already clear this will amount to less critical thinking and fewer choices in schools. It will also make it more difficult for students to succeed with less teacher attention and quite possibly more distractions, when students with autism arrive for classes without the supports they need thanks to another terribly misguided program overhaul by this government.
Even trying to claim that adds up to student success takes an advanced degree in politics far more than anything to do with education.
No wonder Thompson stumbled through a CBC Radio interview on Wednesday, suggesting that more hardship for teens during their high school years would make them more resilient when they hit the workforce.
So the government’s plan to modernize education is really about returning to the school of hard knocks?
This is just the first of many knots the government will tie itself into trying to pretend that something they’re clearly doing to save money will somehow benefit students.
The truth is it won’t.