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OSSTF/FEESO Media Conference: remarks by President Harvey Bischof

OSSTF/FEESO President Harvey Bischof delivered the following remarks at a media conference in Toronto this afternoon:

As OSSTF has now confirmed and I will explain in a moment, Friday, March 15 was perhaps the bleakest day in Ontario education history, with the release of Minister of Education Lisa Thompson’s devastating announcement about the Ford government’s intention to slash over $700 Million from the province’s secondary school budget.

What we will do today is provide you with the details, in terms of lost teaching and other staff, that Ministry officials refused or were unable to provide on Friday. We have nailed down these numbers with as much accuracy as possible, being aware that the Ministry has not yet provided technical details on a number of matters. We believe these are minimum numbers.

It should be said, if the government’s failure to answer our questions about the true impact of the move to a 28:1 teacher/student ratio from 22:1 was a matter of simple refusal, then it would be because the bureaucracy was muzzled by political masters who wanted to maintain the paper-thin veneer of so called “modernization” as the justification for this devastating blow to Ontario’s publicly funded education system.

If it was because they were truly unable, then that points to another problem. The ministry bureaucracy is certainly competent in matters of statistical analysis and projections. Their inability to answer our questions would have arisen out of a last-second, knee jerk government decision-making process that gave bureaucrats too little time to analyze properly the massive impacts of the Minister of Education’s announcement. More and more, it appears the latter was at least partly to blame. It would seem that this is a case of mean-spiritedness being matched by incompetence.

On Friday and since, in examples of obfuscation and spin unworthy of anyone bestowed with the public trust in a matter so crucial as education, Minister Thompson has repeated her sound-bite claim of no involuntary job loss. But what does the move to 28:1 really mean? To start with, it means the loss, over 4 years, of 5700 or more classroom teaching positions in English public secondary schools alone. That equates to a loss of approximately 34,000 classes. It means that any smaller, more specialized program is unlikely to survive. It means ballooning class sizes in any course that is not limited by issues such as student safety, as we would see in certain technology classes, for example.

It means in a fairly average high school of 800 students, by 2023, instead of the current 46 classroom teachers, there would be 35. That’s 11 classroom teachers lost from one average-sized high school. If a couple of those teachers who leave but are not funded to be replaced happen to be, for example, French teachers, the French program would be decimated if not outright eliminated. Imagine a science, math, or history or any other department instead suffering the same losses with the same impact. Is this a recipe for “modernized” education? Is 40 or 45 students in a class, the potential for which is absolutely real, “modernization” or is it a return to the single room school houses of the 1800s? In a time when small, collaborative groups are the innovation engine of so many Ontario businesses, is an industrial model of 40 or 45 students in a class really going to produce students who meet employers’ needs?

Additionally, at time when Ontario’s classrooms serve more diverse and abundant special needs than ever before, Minister Thompson promised, through her funding announcement, to put at risk thousands of support staff positions and the supports those members provide to students as school boards make staffing decisions resulting from education funding being slashed. This at a time when, in just one example, thousands of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder will be displaced from other therapeutic settings by lack of funding support, and returning to the classrooms across the province.

As you will see, we have provided you with more details of the effects of the change to the staffing ratio in the written materials.

It is also important to recognize that while the government controls the generation of teaching staff through regulation, class size caps exist in local collective agreements. As school boards lose funding, they will find themselves harder and harder pressed to meet contractual obligations. They will likely look for strips to collective agreements regarding class size maxima — strips that, to be absolutely clear, we will not concede. This means that the blame for any foreseeable instability and discord in coming contract negotiations will lie squarely at the feet of the Ford government and Minister Thompson’s outrageous announcement. It seems the government is attempting to outsource the coming conflict to school boards. The Premier and the Minister should not be let off the hook.

With regard to the minister’s announcement of a mandatory four credits taken through e-learning, this is not modernization but a further attempt to deliver a bargain basement education through the cheapest means possible. As education workers and parents of teenagers will recognize, many teenagers require the face to face contact, the support, nurturing, and occasional cajoling of an adult in the room to complete their studies to their highest potential. Four mandatory online credits will, guaranteed, lead to lower graduation rates – rates that have improved enormously since the last PC government.

Finally, I will close, before taking questions, with this: this government has no mandate to take an axe to Ontario’s educators. Premier Ford’s repeated claim that finding 4% savings in the provincial budget would be easy and result in no job losses means he has no right to deliver this sledge-hammer blow to Ontario’s excellent publicly funded education system. Because this government gave no hint that it was their intention to achieve budgetary savings this way, they have no legitimate reason to believe that a single Ontarian voted for this approach that will, in the end, result in the province’s students being less prepared for the challenges of the future and in Ontario itself being less prosperous.

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The upcoming provincial election is an opportunity to strengthen public education-- the cornerstone of a strong society--and create a more equitable and prosperous future for Ontario. Ontario’s public