After Clinton meeting, NDP Ed. Critic vows to bring concerns to Ford, Thompson - May 2, 2019
BY DENNY SCOTT
At the invite of local teachers and NDP supporters, NDP Education Critic and Davenport MPP Marit Stiles visited Clinton last week to provide a conduit for local teachers, board members, parents and students to the provincial government.
Stiles, during an interview with The Citizen prior to her speaking engagement, explained that she was invited by local teachers and NDP supporters to address the recent cuts to education.
She said her goal was to listen to the concerns, stories and suggestions of the teachers, students and parents at the event and take their concerns back to Queen’s Park because some felt that the government, and their own MPP Lisa Thompson, also the Minister of Education, weren’t listening to the concerns aired.
When asked what her paramount concerns are with the new education plan, Stiles said that the claims about no involuntary job losses were false. She said that, whether jobs are lost or eliminated, through attrition, those jobs will no longer exist for new teachers.
She also said that, with larger class sizes, students will have fewer choices for classes, as well as less one-on-one time, which is critical.
Stiles also said that the “average class size” was also a misnomer, stating that many classes will end up having 40 or more students, further compounding the issues she outlined with larger classes.
Online courses are also a concern for Stiles who said that, despite there being excellent online learning opportunities for students in rural and northern boards, teachers know that kind of learning isn’t right for every students.
“We’re hearing that students may need to take a fifth year to focus on these courses,” she said.
Stiles also addressed the $1.6 billion “retention fund” that was reposted on Thursday, just ahead of her meeting in Clinton, saying that the fund wasn’t really a new announcement, but had already been announced earlier in the month.
“It’s wrong to portray it that way,” she said.
Stiles said it was “awesome” to be in Huron-Bruce and Clinton and said that, while she was there to talk about education issues, she felt that an overview of the decisions made by the government was necessary.
She pointed to what she believed was downloading of public health responsibilities back to municipalities, saying it left Ontarians at risk of another situation like the deadly Walkerton water crisis or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreaks.
She called the changes to education “shameful” and said that this government was attempting to balance its budget “on the backs of children”.
Stiles went on to say that she felt the government was making most of the changes for older students because they may not be noticed as readily as those in younger classrooms, but she said that was a fallacy. As a result, people were frustrated with the government and the changes.
“We’re finding voters, even those who voted PC... saying this isn’t what they voted for,” she said.
Stiles welcomed everyone to share their stories and concerns and said she would take those messages back to Queen’s Park.
She also said that, as an education critic, information should be easily available to her about the changes, but explained the current government hasn’t been as forthcoming as previous ones.
“This government is not providing transparency,” she said. “School boards are making decisions without all the information because it’s not being provided.”
Stiles also fought back against claims that the NDP and unions criticizing education reform were fear mongers, saying that, without the aforementioned information, it was difficult for either her party or the unions to assume anything but the worst, claiming that the provincial government’s track record lent itself to that kind of attitude.
She also said that there will be a ripple effect felt from these reforms and jobs may be lost outside of the front-line educators.
Stiles then said that the government will only listen when large groups of people “shout loudly”, pointing to the Conservative government’s decision to backtrack on projects like opening the province’s Greenbelt to development and changes to autism funding.
To conclude her opening remarks, Stiles said that she is proud of the decisions that everyone involved is making when they speak up, especially students. She said the current generation of students isn’t asking, but demanding that action is taken. She said those same students will vote one day, giving her hope for change.
Former local NDP candidate and Bluewater School Board Trustee Jan Johnstone was the first to speak, lamenting the decisions made by the current government. She said that the changes that are being proposed will result in the education system spiralling, with courses, especially the humanities, being eliminated due to a lack of teachers.
This impact will be more significant in northern and rural boards, she said, which won’t be able to sustain classes.
Online courses were also a concern for Johnstone who said that access to technology is a concern, especially in rural areas with spotty or no reception for internet.
“How do we keep students graduating in rural areas?” she asked, citing the above problems as factors that could lead to significant increases in drop-outs.
Stiles shared those concerns, saying that, on top of drop-outs, there could be more students taking “victory laps” or fifth years to complete schooling.
One speaker said there will be a void of 10 years between the teachers who keep their jobs and the newest teachers who will be coming in, and he was concerned about graduates not finding jobs.
Stiles, in response, said that Premier Doug Ford’s goal with the changes is to divide the education system and pit groups against each other. She said that unions were being pitted against teachers, senior teachers agains their junior counterparts, boards against other boards and teachers against parents and that, if Ford succeeded, there would be too much in-fighting to stand against the cuts.
She said that, while Ford was taking advantage of the situation, former Ministers of Education under the Liberal government created the situation that allowed Ford to capitalize on it.
“We have excellent education in Ontario, but it’s thin,” she said. “There is very little meat on the bones, and that meat is the teachers.”
Another concern is the fact that classrooms aren’t built for modern education. In bygone eras, the speaker said, classrooms were built for 30 students at 30 desks in five rows of six, however, with new education ideas and technologies, desks aren’t always an option, especially for younger students.
Stiles said that classroom redesigns are an important issue, but one that likely won’t be tackled with the $16 billion capital repair backlog that already exists for the education system. She said the system can’t keep up, and more pressure is being put on it now.
A speaker from Goderich said that economic development would also suffer as a result of these changes, as young teachers bring families and spending to the area. With an already-declining population in Huron-Bruce, he said this problem would just be compounded.
Jeff Denys, a teacher from Central Huron Secondary School said that he had a problem with the language being used in regards to the cuts. He said that, in his mind, the term “teachers” only reflected the tip of the iceberg.
He said that all professionals in the system, including educational assistants (EAs), janitors, secretaries and everyone else in the education field, are at risk.
He said that some of those people are the most valuable in the system in his understanding of it, because teachers couldn’t do their jobs without them.
An elementary teacher from the Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board said that, while elementary teachers support their secondary school peers, changes to the elementary system can’t be overlooked. She said that support is going to disappear from the system, resulting in a more stressful working environment, which in itself could manifest as mental health issues for staff.
She also said that the annual Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) testing needed to be done away with because it is a flawed test that only provides a “snapshot” of a student’s life.
Stiles pointed to the fact that the test, which was called flawed by other speakers, was strengthened by the new government which took a reported part-time position that paid approximately $2,000 a year and turned it into a full-time job for a failed PC candidate for more than $100,000.
The NDP, according to Stiles, does plan to do away with the test, but said it made sense that Ford wanted to keep it. She said that, by controlling the test, the government can control what is taught, helping the government to control facts and figures it presents. She said getting rid of the EQAO would prevent “bad governments” from using it to justify changes.
A special education teacher from Stratford spoke next, saying that, in a world where safety concerns are already increasing, these cuts would inevitably lead to more.
Dave Armour, a teacher at Goderich District Collegiate Institute, gave a brief history lesson on changes to the education system, tying the negative changes to former conservative governments, including reducing high school to a four-year program through the OAC program, changing required courses for graduation and having schools viewed as businesses, which he was staunchly opposed to.
“Students are not a product,” he said. “‘Teach’ isn’t something I can give to someone. I can help them learn.
“The changes that come in with conservative governments have one intent – make education cheaper,” he said. “It’s always about that and that’s not the answer.”
Stiles said that was an important lesson to learn from modernity, and that the changes, in her mind, had a particular goal: undercut public education so that private education becomes a lucrative business opportunity.
Willi Laurie, a former educator, said she was concerned about Junior Kindergarten programming, saying that going back to part-time programming wasn’t feasible. She also said that rumours that teachers may be taken out of Kindergarten classes and replaced with two Early Childhood Educators (currently, the model often has one ECE with a teacher) was concerning.
“We still need teachers,” she said. “However, this is all about making sure that education is cheap and private education looks better.”
Aside from aiming to make private schooling more lucrative, Laurie said, she felt Ford was trying to create part-time teaching as the norm to save on benefits.
She said these changes will not create the resiliency that Thompson touts, but will instead increase dropouts, especially among students who “learn at a different pace”.
Several other speakers addressed issues similar to those discussed above before Stiles encouraged everyone to continue to tell their stories.
“We need stories from teachers, students, parents, grandparents and neighbours,” she said. “The stories will help me to get the answers we need and get the message out.”
She went on to say that teachers, boards, unions and their supporters need to continue to be visible in their protests because it’s the only way to send their message to Thompson and Ford.
“We need to keep pushing or else these issues will come back.
She encouraged people to use petitions to share a unified stance and said that school boards should continue to send letters to Thompson and the government so their concerns are heard.