TORONTO -- Ontario teacher and education worker groups raised concerns Thursday that the government's consideration of removing kindergarten and primary class size caps sets the stage for vast cuts.

The Progressive Conservative government met with education partners Wednesday to launch consultations on class sizes and teacher hiring practices.

A government consultation document poses questions such as whether hard caps on class sizes should continue, and if they were removed, what would be an appropriate way to set effective class sizes.

"The province's current fiscal circumstances require an examination of whether changes to class size would allow school boards to deliver better value for government investment," the document says, noting that educator staffing costs make up about 80 per cent of government funding to school boards.

The Tories are in the midst of trying to trim a deficit they peg at $14.5 billion -- though the financial accountability officer says it's closer to $12 billion. With both their inaugural budget coming in the next few months and teachers' contracts up for renegotiation later this year, some worry that major cuts are coming to education.

"When we walked away yesterday we felt like this was the first test balloon that was being put out," said Laura Walton of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 55,000 education workers.

"Definitely we do see this as the initial stages of what will be an attack on our students' education."

Currently, the kindergarten class size cap is 29 students, and the average of class sizes across any board can't be more than 26. For the primary grades the cap is 23 students, but at least 90 per cent of classes in any board must have 20 or fewer students.

Rebecca Belforte, a Grade 2 teacher in Hamilton, said it would be terrible if class size caps were removed.

"Every child is special and every child needs something," she said. "The more you put in a room, the less time I have to know how they're doing. Are they OK? Did they eat that day? Can they do what I'm asking of them? Have they had a bad day? I have less time to help them."

Kate Walker, whose five-year-old son is in a Toronto kindergarten class of 29 kids, said he is doing well so he already doesn't get as much attention as other children who have higher needs.

"For him it's not detrimental, but I also don't think he's getting the individualized attention that some kids might need," she said.

Sam Hammond, the president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, said government officials made it clear they need to work toward balancing the budget and some decisions would affect publicly funded education. He sees the consultation as a pre-cursor to the spring budget and negotiations for contracts that are up in August.

Moving from hard caps to a system based on averages "would be an absolute disaster," Hammond said.

Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, said students have diverse needs.

"Class size caps have been extremely useful and helpful and certainly for our primary teachers in enabling us to get to those students and make sure we can give all students the time they require," she said.

When the government starts consultations by asking if the caps are necessary, that raises concerns that cuts are on the horizon, Stuart said.

"I think we would have to view it that that's the path they're on," she said.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson said the Progressive Conservatives were elected to get Ontario's fiscal house in order. But no decisions have yet been made on class sizes, she said.

"It's premature to assume where we're going to land, because we've just literally kicked off our discussions," she said in an interview.

The questions about class sizes are being posed to get "input from the people who have their feet on the street, so to speak," Thompson said.

The Ontario Public School Boards' Association said student achievement and well-being are priorities of school boards, and they are committed to full funding and flexibility.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called for the kindergarten cap to actually be lowered to 26.

"Classrooms are often already crowded and if class sizes grow, teachers will be stretched even thinner," said Horwath. "Behavioural challenges will become harder to control. Meeting the needs of multiple learning-ability levels will become even more difficult."