The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we do many things, but as we all know, it has had a major impact on both the quality of educators’ work-lives and the quality of education students receive. It is also, unfortunately, one more excuse that the Ford government has used to destabilize public education. This has been one more year out of four years of Conservative governance that teachers have been left to figure out how to make poorly thought-out provincial government policy decisions work for students, and another year that student learning has been adversely affected. Throughout their entire mandate, we have seen the Ford government make decisions that have repeatedly taken a bad situation and made it worse.
That an Ontario Conservative government would capitalize on instability should be no surprise to our older members, but it may be instructive for our younger members to know that it has been a long-term, multi-generational strategy of the Ontario PC Party. In 1994, Premier Mike Harris introduced what he called “The Common Sense Revolution.” He convinced voters that the prior NDP and Liberal governments had taxed the people of Ontario too recklessly and that government itself wasn’t working. He insisted that “the system is broken.” In reality, more centrist conservative governments, culminating in the Conservative government of Bill Davis, had worked with federal governments and heavily subsidized private sector businesses for a generation to create a lot of the infrastructure of modern Ontario, including the community college system, more universities (York, Laurentian, Brock, Trent and OISE) and TVO. Mike Harris decided to take the Conservative party in a new direction, one of austerity and shrinking public services, and this is the direction they continue to be headed in today. He slashed taxes and, with reduced revenue, slashed program spending on social assistance, education and health care, just to name a few of his target sectors.
Mike Harris’ Minister of Education, John Snobelen, was filmed in 1995 boasting that by “creating a crisis” and “bankrupting,” public education, he would be able to institute significant reforms. The Ontario PC government then launched an attack on public education through Bill 160. Under the bill, the Harris government cut a further $2 billion from education and introduced a broken education funding formula still in use today to determine class sizes. This funding formula took class size decisions away from boards and gave those powers to the provincial government, resulting in larger class sizes. Among other problems, the bill removed principals and vice principals from teacher federations, creating an often adversarial “us and them,” management versus labour approach to leadership in schools. Here in York Region, teacher preparation time was stripped to 120 minutes. In October 1997, teachers across Ontario went on strike for two weeks to protest Bill 160. One of the aspects of the bill the government of the day backed down on was allowing uncertified teachers to instruct students.
There were other fights they picked with public school teachers after the bill. In March 2000, Harris introduced legislation to force every teacher to run extracurricular activities the following September. Teachers fought back hard against that bill and he backed down. In June 2001, he passed Bill 80, the Stability and Excellence in Education Act, which required all teachers to “recertify” themselves through a range of courses that teachers would have to take on their own time, and at their own expense, repeatedly throughout their careers. Through hard fought efforts by teachers and their unions, we were able to come to a compromise, the current Teacher Performance Appraisal program. Some of Mike Harris’ other changes to education still affect teachers today. He introduced the College of Teachers, an organization that raises its membership fees almost annually and seems to have become an extension of government will. He also introduced the EQAO test, an ironically expensive program that costs at least $33 million per year to administer and has been widely criticized by education experts. A report commissioned by the government in 2018 called on the government to reform much of it and abolish the rest.
After two terms, the people of Ontario got tired of schools and hospitals that were falling apart (some Toronto schools had buckets laid out to catch drips from the ceiling), of their health and safety compromised (seven dead and 2,300 people ill in Walkerton when the province stopped testing water for cleanliness) and of a government that sold some of its most valuable assets (e.g., the 407) to pay for its mistakes. In 2003, Ontarians elected a new government.
Reflecting on those years, preparation time in particular is illustrative of what we have to lose when something is stripped away from our collective agreements. It would be another 11 years before our local teaching staff would reach our goal of 240 minutes of preparation time per week. When we lose rights enshrined in our collective agreements, it can take a generation to get them back, if we ever do. Through several rounds of negotiations, we were able to win back some of our rights from Liberal governments, but even the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty showed us that benefits (like sick leave), once lost, may never be regained.
We are now living through the Doug Ford era. Not only does he seem like a more brand-conscious shadow of Mike Harris, he is also the son of Doug Ford Sr., who served in Mike Harris’ caucus in the 1990s. Doug Ford was elected without a clear plan beyond slogans like “buck a beer” and firing the “six million dollar man” in charge of hydro. Just as Mike Harris was a reaction to the Regan-era “trickle-down economics” of the 80s, Ford’s vision for Ontario seems to align with modern Conservative movements elsewhere: trickle-down economics with a twist of Trump-style showmanship, which is to say, promising much and delivering little, while cutting regulations designed to protect the public.
It certainly seems to those of us who were around in the Harris days that Ford has chosen education ministers (Lisa Thompson and Stephen Lecce) who are comfortable creating a crisis in education. Even before COVID-19, the government launched their first assault on public servants with Bill 124, superseding the charter right of teachers, nurses, pharmacists and other public servants to improve salaries through collective bargaining by capping salary increases at one percent a year. In short order, we lived through a year where Minister Lecce negotiated in the press, often using misinformation (“they are holding out for more salary”) to mask the reality that he was building on previous governments’ tactics of “strip-a-lot, give-a-little” for negotiations. In the end, after the longest teachers’ strike in Ontario since 1997, we received a one percent pay raise per year (two percent or more below inflation) and stable funding for our benefits. Status quo is hardly the result teachers had in mind when they sacrificed a significant portion of their pay and walked for hours in the cold, but COVID-19 had arrived in Ontario, and we realized that holding out would appear disconnected from what was happening.
Since that time though, under the guise of protecting the province from the pandemic, the government has been able to further destabilize public education and the province in general through the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act of 2020. Most of us could have easily predicted that when we were offered a collective agreement with a non-binding promise outside of the collective agreement to preserve PPM 155, that it wouldn’t take long for the province to break its promise. Indeed, the government has suspended it under the premise that it will give principals more flexibility during a crisis. The Ford Conservatives gave themselves sweeping powers under the act that had reverberations beyond education. For example, over the past year the government has used its powers under the act to circumvent environmental assessments on construction projects that likely would not go ahead if a thorough assessment of their impact on the environment was conducted.
In 2020, the Ford government mandated that all boards must provide an e-learning option for students whose parents want them to learn from home, while at the same time cutting back on the funding that boards receive. According to the Centre for Policy Alternatives, across Ontario last year, the average school board hired one teacher for every 521 students, or an average of 1.5 staff members per school, to meet the needs of the pandemic. It has since become clear that the bulk of the funding came from the federal government and board reserves set aside for repairs. Six hundred and fifty-five million dollars ($655 million) in total was used to hire additional staffing. Of that, $304 million (46 percent) came from the boards, and at least $119 million was federal funding. That means that only 35 percent of the funding to open schools, which the provincial government argued were crucial for reopening and essential for Ontario’s economy, was actually spent by the provincial government. Across the economy, a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives analysis has shown that 94 percent of the money spent on direct COVID-19 measures came from the federal government and only six percent from the province. Within Ontario itself, despite claims that he would “spare no expense at all” to protect the people of Ontario from the effects of the pandemic, Ford’s government did nothing to help Ontario’s jobless. Ford claimed he would build an “iron ring” around nursing homes to protect the elderly, but Ontario was so hard hit by lack of preparation in long-term care facilities that we needed the Canadian military to volunteer with elder care. Members of the military were so shocked by what they saw that they released a report in May 2021 so that people in Ontario would better understand how little care had been provided in LTC homes.
Meanwhile, school boards have done what they can to meet the demands of the Ministry of Education with less funding. For the past two years, educators around the province have done their best to serve students at home, during physical school closures, in emergency virtual and hybrid schooling, with very few resources available to them. In fact, the Ontario government cancelled many subscriptions to digital tools in December 2020, even as teachers around the province needed more digital resources for our students online.
Rather than consulting with educators about how to best support teachers who taught students online during a lockdown, the Ford government paid American management consulting firm McKinsey & Co $1.6 million to tell them. McKinsey & Co., consultants to 90 percent of the world’s top 100 companies, have worked with companies to eliminate middle management since the 1970s. By the 90s they had set their sights on unions and stripped any management rights from production workers. That Doug Ford would partner with such a firm to provide any solutions for education in Ontario should be of concern to all of us.
A plan to reopen schools safely would have involved smaller class sizes, better ventilation, proper PPE for teachers and students, good access to rapid testing and priority vaccine access for teachers and students. Educators, public health experts, scientist and parents have been calling for these measures since the beginning of the pandemic, but government half-heartedly cherry-picked only some of them. Only with the recent closures in January did they finally agree to prioritize education workers for vaccine booster shots and to provide N95 masks to educators and three-ply surgical masks to students.
Online learning is a win-win for the government and a lose-lose for educators. If we succeed at delivering education online, the government will point to the success and the money saved as reasons to adapt its agenda of providing more education online. By contrast, if parents end up angry and disappointed with our delivery, it is a certainty that the government will use that as a cue to engage the private sector to provide online education. As it stands, the secondary e-learning model is slated to be delivered by TVO, a public non-profit corporation. One does not require much of an imagination to foresee that if the delivery is in any way successful, conservative governments of the future will make the argument that a private sector, for-profit corporation could deliver the model even more “efficiently.” It probably is also no accident that this government has chosen their own form of recertification. If they can successfully force us to take training on our own time over a matter as serious as sexual abuse, they will have succeeded where their predecessors failed, by offering the training “for free” and outside of a brick-and-mortar training facility. They may then try to use estoppel/ past precedence to suggest that we agreed to training on our own time before and use our goodwill to force teachers to, for instance, take online math training with every change of government.
There is an election in the spring, and negotiations for our next collective agreement will be part of the background. We, as educators, need to let friends and family know how much damage the government has done to public education, and what we collectively need to recover. We, as federation members, also need understand how important our union has been in securing gains and protections for us since the beginning of this pandemic. The reality is teachers’ federations and other unions have been working frantically behind the scenes to organize and pressure the government for the funding and protections frontline workers need.'
Never forget that we all, collectively, make our union what it is. Yes, we have executive officers who are paid to represent our interests. Right now, they are using every finger and toe to try and plug up a dam that is full of more holes than a sieve. ETFO and other unions are contending with a government that makes horrible education policies at every turn, without consultation with educators or the organizations that represent us.
If this government wins another term, the next collective agreement will be disastrous, and like previous generations of teachers, our working conditions will be made considerably worse for a generation, or perhaps for good. Over the past four years this government has sacrificed our working conditions, our students’ learning conditions and the safety of educators and students, all with end-goals that will work directly against what is best for you and your students.
In 2014, educators and public servants faced what may have been a less existential threat. The PC leader at the time, Tim Hudak, had made it a major policy position during the election that he would reduce the public service by 100,000 jobs. Teachers, nurses and other public servants reacted swiftly. We not only went to the ballot boxes ourselves to prevent this, but we persuaded spouses, parents, neighbors and friends that they should also vote against this policy to protect the public services and public servants we all rely on. In the coming months, you need to convince the same group of people that came out in 2014 to act again in their own interests and in the interests of the public servants in their lives. You can do that by talking broadly about the issues, donating to opposition parties, canvassing for opposition parties and, of course, by voting. It may very well be that your working conditions for the remainder of your career as an educator will be impacted by what you and I do over the coming months. The cost of doing nothing is too high. Ontario can’t wait for a second term under Doug Ford to discover, as we did under Mike Harris, that a strong public service makes for a better place to live.
Chris Fuerth is a member of the York Region Teacher Local.