A good education is the strong basis of a good future for people; that is a fact that is not in doubt. We have empirical evidence that proves it time and again, that a good education leads to better health, social and economic outcomes for people. Generation after generation, we’ve seen the progress in education lead to progress in our society, making our education system something that many developing countries aspire to have. It’s also why First Nations here in Canada are continually pressing government to properly fund their education, because we see the clear results that come from the link of resources to outcomes.
With that general consensus out there, you’d think that education should be one of the least political things out there. You’d think that conservative and progressive legislators could agree on this point, but this is real life and that’s just not true. Over decades we’ve seen a cycle of conservative governments cutting corners and starving schools of funding, to be followed by progressive governments undoing the damage by re-investing and improving programs, resources and infrastructure. As someone who grew up in the 1990’s in Ontario, I felt the full brunt of the Mike Harris “Common Sense” Revolution on my education, right through to university. And while I wouldn’t call the McGuinty/Wynne Liberal years fantastic, they were better than the low bar that the Harris/Eves crew set.
With the election of Doug Ford and his Conservatives in 2018, one of the things put out there by his opponents was that he would go after the education system with budget cuts and teacher layoffs. Despite his promises that not a single civil servant would lose their job, we saw thousands of Ontario teachers get lay off notices last year, only to be followed by a scramble by the Ford team to try to undo their mess. To put it politely, things haven’t gone smoothly in education in this term.
For those of us who watch these things closer, while those tremors were rough, we were looking to the bigger shots to come down the road with the negotiation of new collective agreements for teachers and education staff. So far what we’ve seen is no progress on achieving an agreement and a government trying to pick a fight with the teachers’ unions. Education Minister Stephen Lecce has handled this file in a way that the Premier’s office is probably happy with; poking at the other side, making threats and offering scant solutions. Let’s face it, there isn’t a lot of good will here because of the Ford Conservatives approach to education, teachers and unions in general. But if there wasn’t enough reason for Ontario’s teachers to be suspicious of this government, the Toronto Star gave them more in spades with news that came out yesterday:
Folks, as someone who started his professional life in the classroom, I must admit that my jaw hit the floor when I read this Star story. The idea that this government not only went so far as to think out how to basically eliminate high schools and move everything online, but also thought of how to make it into a money generating endeavor, is mind blowing. What was also striking about reading about this scheme is that nowhere in the discussion was there any thought given to the actual outcomes for students, specifically if this would actually result in a good education. It’s something that puts the Ford Conservatives move to try to force high school students to complete two online courses in order to graduate in a new light as well.
But as shocked as I was, I must say this; the idea of having some course options online or in a remote set up is not controversial, new or even a bad idea. When I was in high school in the mid-90’s in Northwestern Ontario, I took a hand full of credits through a program called Contact North, which was basically a fancier conference call with computer slides sent in the mail on floppy disks. I did four OAC credits through the program, in both French and English, and it worked for me. It prepared me well for University and in a pinch, where the school I was attending was so small (student population 189), it allowed me an option to take classes I would get otherwise. In short, for a student who was going to university the next year and short of options, it helped me. But just because it worked for me doesn’t mean it is for everyone, or even most people. And it surely doesn’t mean it should be mandatory, not at all.
In teacher’s college, we were taught about how everyone learns in different ways and needs different methods to achieve their best. Some can do more independently, others need that hands-on instruction. Some are very visual learners, others not so much. The point is that one thing that the current education system does well (when well resourced) is help kids learn in the way that’s best for them. What the Ford Government is suggesting with mandatory online courses, with eventually more of them down the road, is a system that automatically puts a large number of kids at a serious disadvantage and hurts their education. Then add the fact that for hundreds of thousands of Ontario students simply don’t have access to the proper high-speed internet required to make e-learning a possibility. This is a bad idea that will hurt lots of kids in rural, Northern and low-income families and kids for whom e-learning simply can’t allow them to achieve their best.
And folks, it’s issues like these that are the crux of this dispute in Ontario; while the Ford Conservatives are trying to say that this is all about wages and money for teachers, it’s really all about the teaching environment and the future of the system itself. As the Star piece points out, this plan from the Ford Conservatives involves continuous deep cuts to Ontario’s education system while eating away at its foundations. That’s much more important than wages, and this is why we’re facing the first bits of wide-spread labour disfunction in Ontario’s education system in over 15 years.
When Mr. Ford and his team were elected in 2018, they said they were “For the People” and plastered that slogan everywhere. They said that no one would lose their jobs. They said that they would balance the books and make everything better. Needless to say, what has been delivered to date falls pretty far short of those promises when they were seeking peoples votes. Thousands have lost their jobs, programs have been shuttered, autistic children have seen their services scrapped, teachers are being attacked again and now we find out the Ford Conservatives are trying to undo one of the key pillars of our society as a whole, regardless of your political views. Education is key to everything we do, no matter what you decide to do with it. If you go into the trades, into medicine, into research or into business for yourself, it all starts with a good education that helps to get you there. That’s why I hope that Mr. Lecce, Mr. Ford and their government stops with the attacks on our teachers and gets to work on actual solutions. Ontario’s teachers are trying to offer those solutions right now and do what’s in the best interest of all the students they teach, regardless of how people vote. I’m standing with them, and I know I’m not alone in that.