Ontario government savages public education

Doug Ford’s right-wing populist Progressive Conservative government has unveiled a plan that in the name of education “reform” makes savage cuts to Ontario’s public education system.

This attack, which is part of a broader assault on public and social services to pay for further massive handouts to the corporate elite, will see class sizes in Ontario high schools increase by over 25 percent, with smaller increases for lower grades.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced last Thursday that the high school class-size average will be increased over the next four years by the equivalent of six students, from 22.1 to 28.1. For Grades 4 to 8, the class-size average will be raised by one student to 24.5. Additionally, the government intends to revise the province’s sex education curriculum, which has been the target of fierce denunciations from the religious right and their far-right allies, and to change the way that math is taught to focus more on rote learning.

Thompson made the preposterous claim that not a single teacher will lose his or her job as a result of the government’s changes. In truth, the real character of the reform was underscored two weeks prior to her announcement, when Deputy Education Minister Nancy Naylor addressed a letter to school board heads urging them to impose an immediate hiring freeze. “School boards are advised to defer the annual processes of filling vacancies for retirements and other leaves related to teachers and other staff until the minister of education provides an update to the sector on or before March 15th,” wrote Naylor, according to a March 1 CBC report.

In other words, the government’s vicious cost-cutting will be implemented through “natural attrition”—i.e., by refusing to fill vacant posts following teacher retirements or other departures from the profession. This will force teachers to accept larger workloads. Needless to say, the quality of education, especially for pupils needing additional teacher support due to learning difficulties or adverse economic or family circumstances, will suffer.

According to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), the increased class-size average will result in the elimination of 3,630 frontline teaching positions at schools it represents. OSSTF President Harvey Bischof also warned that the new policy could result in core subjects, like math, having classes as large as 40, while making it harder for schools to offer specialized subjects that require smaller class sizes.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association projected that an additional 5,000 posts will be lost in the province’s government-supported “separate school” system, taking the total number of teacher job cuts in the province to almost 10,000.

Bischof described Thompson’s announcement as akin to taking a “sledgehammer” to Ontario’s schools, and in its official response, the OSSTF said “the government has declared war on Ontario’s public education system.”

However, the unions have no intention of fighting to mobilize the independent industrial and political strength of the working class to defend public education and oppose the austerity agenda of big business and the political establishment.

Bischof blustered that the OSSTF is “absolutely not going to be in a position where we’re going to give away the class size caps that we have achieved over years of negotiations,” a reference to the fact that the current caps are written into Ontario teachers’ collective agreements, which are up for renegotiation in the fall.

But as teachers know from bitter experience, such assurances are entirely worthless and are in fact nothing more than snake oil aimed at preventing teachers from organizing genuine resistance.

Whenever teachers have sought to fight back against government austerity, including during the mass mobilizations of the mid-1990s against the Harris Conservatives’ “Common Sense Revolution,” the unions have stepped in to smother their opposition and suppress the class struggle.

In 2012-2013, for example, the education unions, which spent millions of dollars in successive elections to support the election of Liberal governments, torpedoed the struggle against the McGuinty government’s wage-cutting “net zero” public sector pay framework. Two of the teachers’ unions rammed through contracts that adhered to the government’s demands, and the OSSTF and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario immediately capitulated when the government responded to the threat of limited job action by criminalizing teacher strikes. In the midst of all this, the teachers’ unions connived behind the scenes with the Liberals to gut teachers’ pension rights, in a deal that rank-and-file teachers were prevented from voting on.

In the fall of 2015, the teachers’ unions were again complicit in negotiating concessionary contracts that contained no real pay increases for teachers.

The vicious attacks imposed by the Liberals, which devastated public services across the province, and the support extended to this right-wing agenda by the unions, paved the way for Ford and his Tories to come to power last June. Since taking office, Ford has launched a frontal assault on the working class, slashing welfare and the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), canceling a modest minimum wage increase, gutting labour standards, and laying the groundwork for tens of billions in cuts to education, health care, and public and social infrastructure.

None of the unions, from the teachers’ unions to Unifor and the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), has called even a mass protest against this onslaught, let alone sought to galvanize the mass working-class opposition. This is because the privileged, well-heeled bureaucrats who head the union apparatuses are terrified that even the most token show of resistance could trigger a working-class upsurge that could quickly escape the unions’ political and organizational control.

The OFL—as exemplified by the provincial election countdown clock prominently displayed on the front page of its website—is telling workers to wait another three years until June 2022 for the opportunity to elect a “progressive” government—i.e., a Liberal-New Democratic Party (NDP) coalition or a majority government led by one of the two.

This is a declaration of the unions’ determination to prevent the eruption of a mass working-class challenge to the Ford government and its austerity program. It is also part of their effort to divert the mounting opposition to the Tories behind the NDP, now the Official Opposition at Queen’s Park. This is the same NDP that propped up a Liberal minority government for over two years ending in May 2014, allowing it to impose its “net zero” public sector pay framework and two vicious austerity budgets.

Wherever the NDP has held office across country, it has cut public spending, broken strikes, imposed concessions-laden contracts on public sector workers, and upheld the low-tax, balanced-budget policies that cater to the needs of the corporate elite.

To oppose austerity, fight Ford’s attacks, and defend public education, teachers must recognize that they are engaged in a political struggle that demands the independent political mobilization of the working class. They must draw the lessons of the struggles waged by educators in the United States and internationally, as well as by autoworkers and other sections of the working class, who have rebelled against the trade union bureaucrats, so as to assert their class interests.

To this end, teachers should form rank-and-file action committees independently of and in opposition to the trade unions to mobilize the entire working class against the Ontario government’s onslaught on public services and workers’ rights. Ford’s savage right-wing, pro-corporate agenda can be stopped only if teachers unite their struggle in a common fight with working people throughout the province, across Canada, and internationally and on the basis of a socialist program that puts the needs of working people before capitalist profit.

The author also recommends:

Canada: The unions’ suppression of the 1995-97 anti-Harris movement—Political lessons for today Part 3: The 1997 Ontario teachers’ strike
[10 October 2018]

OFL and NDP complicit in Liberal attacks:
Workers need a new perspective and new organizations to mount class political struggle
[26 January 2013]