Provincewide strike sees two million Ont. schoolchildren out of class
TORONTO -- For the first time in 24 years, all four major teachers unions in Ontario are on strike the same day, shutting the province’s public education system and leaving more than two million school children out of class.
The unions, representing nearly 200,000 teachers and education workers, are calling on the government to back down on cuts to education.
Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the students should be in school instead.
“They (unions) had a choice. They could have continued to negotiate as we speak to provide finality to the population so that kids could be in class and they choose to escalate to a full withdrawal of service,” Lecce said.
“The decision point to escalate rests with the teacher unions, who have made the decision to escalate against each and every premier over the course of the past 30 years,” Lecce said.
"Parents are losing patience with the union-caused disruption in their lives, the inconsistency in their children's education and the financial impact of scrambling for alternate care."
Lecce has repeatedly said the key sticking point in negotiations with high school teachers is compensation, with unions demanding a roughly two-per-cent wage increase and the government offering one per cent.
Charles Pascal, Ontario’s former deputy education minister, told CTV News Channel that the Lecce has “not been negotiating in good faith,” and that he “misrepresents the facts,” adding that he believes Lecce bad-mouthing unions publicly during negotiations is disrespectful.
The unions, namely the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (EFTO), the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) and Association des Enseignantes et des Enseignants Franco-Ontariens (AEFO), are angry that the government announced last March it would increase average high school class sizes from 22 to 28 and require students to take four e-learning courses to graduate.
“When you increase class sizes, you reduce teachers’ ability to adapt to the individual differences of very diverse students, and we need to ensure that education quality is protected,” Pascal said.
The government has partly backed down on both issues with Lecce offering instead to increase average high school class sizes to 25 and require two online learning courses.
With a provincewide class size average of 22.5, the move to increase class size has already led to schools offering hundreds fewer courses.
Ontario teachers have been without a contract since Aug. 31, and talks with government stalled Dec.16.
Pascal called the strike action on Friday “a pretty impressive display of commitment,” on the part of teachers and allies. Although he believes that a resolution could be found quickly if the teachers’ concerns are addressed, he said it was possible that “this could blow up into something that’s more sustained.”
“Right now, public opinion is strongly on the side of teachers and the parents,” Pascal said.
OSSTF President Harvey Bischof believes the same.
“What we hope to do is make this government finally listen, not just to the frontline educators, but also to the parents, who have told this government over and over again they don’t want bigger classroom sizes, they’re not interested in this mandatory e-learning,” he said.
“They want the supports that education workers bring to their children, including kids with special needs and students at risk.”
Bischof said his union is prepared to negotiate.
“The context goes back to March 15, when they (Ontario government) unilaterally went to a podium and announced their intention to slash one-out-of-four high school teachers, thousands of education workers and impose a mandatory Alabama-style e-learning programme on our students,” he said.
“We want status quo to the quality of education we were able to deliver just last year.”
Unions are asking for wage increases of around two per cent to keep up with inflation, but the government passed legislation last year capping wage hikes for all public sector workers at one per cent for three years. Unions are challenging the law in court.
EFTO president Sam Hammond said the government’s budget allocation for education was “shameful.”
“When we’re talking about revenue, the dollar amount that’s on the table, I think what the public needs to focus on is the $230 million this government is prepared to spend to break green energy projects in this province, the $1.6 billion they’re prepared to provide for corporate tax breaks in this province and they can’t put $90 million dollars on the table for students in this province, that’s shameful,” Hammond said.
EDUCATION MINISTER CLAIMS ‘FAIR DEAL’
“The fact that two of the teachers' unions we were negotiating with last night and the fact that one said that they were productive talks, I think underscores my point,” Lecce said.
Lecce claimed his government was offering a “fair deal” and more funding for education. The provincial government says an extra $1.2 billion for education is a net increase, but critics have argued that students now face a $50 cut per student in grant funding.
“We spend 80 cents in the dollar on compensation; I’d like to see more money flow into our kids, not into expanding entitlements and wages and benefits for educators,” Lecce said.
“When they want six, seven per cent in benefits, we’re talking about costing a $600 million sector-wide impact to taxpayers. Parents of this province want me to stand firm, but they also want me to get a deal, I’m going to try to do both in this negotiation.”
Lecce said Ontario teachers are the second highest paid in Canada and after 10 years service they become the best paid teachers in Canada.
TEACHERS NOT BACKING DOWN
Elementary teachers say their key issues include guaranteeing the future of full-day kindergarten, securing more funding to hire special education teachers and maintaining seniority hiring rules.
Joy Lachica, an executive at the EFTO, said they won’t back down.
“We have a single message and that’s for Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce and that’s to listen to parents, listen to education workers, listen to students in Ontario, no more cuts to education,” she said.
“We want to get back to the classroom as quickly as possible, but that depends on this government getting back to the table to bargain for a fair deal for our students, for our schools in Ontario.”
Liz Stuart, president of the OECTA, said her union had some meaningful conversations with the government, but refused to elaborate.
In Toronto, teachers have chosen to picket the provincial legislature at Queen’s Park, with unions predicting as many as 30,000 people attending.
STUDENTS SPEAK OUT
CTV’s Your Morning interviewed two students in Grade 11 at Toronto’s Northern Secondary School on Friday, to hear how they are affected by the strike.
“A lot of students, at least at our school, have got attached to teachers and we’ve lost a lot of them,” Cooper McCrory said.
“We lost around 20 last year and with each one of them we lose a six-course course load.”
McCrory said he’s seen “drastic class size increases.”
“Now we’ve found that a lot of ones like maths and English, the ones that are necessary, they’re getting larger and larger. It just feels less personal,” he said.
Fellow student Noah Sparrow said the provincial government is “demonizing teachers, creating a culture of fighting rather than creating an equitable solution that helps students.”
Sparrow believes “less fortunate” families may struggle with the proposed e-learning component because not every student will have uninterrupted wifi access.
AN ISSUE BEYOND ONTARIO
Meanwhile in B.C., teachers have been dealing with stalled contract talks but have not resorted to strike action.
Deani Van Pelt, a senior fellow at Canadian research institution Cardus, highlighted that almost 1,400 independent schools in Ontario are open today.
“Ontario is very different from the other five large provinces,” Van Pelt told CTV’s Your Morning.
“The other provinces recognize that it isn’t only government schools that deliver education, the independent school sector in all four western provinces and Quebec receive some government funding.
“Up to 13 per cent of students in those provinces attend independent schools. Ontario relies much more heavily on public schools.”
She said around seven per cent of students in Ontario are educated in private independent schools.
“If we look at the three other largest provinces, B.C., Alberta and Quebec, they achieve higher PISA (programme for international student assessment) scores, they have larger class sizes.
“Other provinces recognize that there can be more innovative ways to deliver education, we can do it through the independent school sector, through schools that have more autonomy, more freedom to design around different religiously defined schools, there’s just more opportunity in other provinces for diversity in education.”
With files from The Canadian Press