In a scene reminiscent of the Mike Harris era, Ontario teachers are escalating their protracted struggle against a Conservative provincial government. Secondary schools in selected locations across the province closed on January 21, as teachers walked out in a one-day strike. This followed a similar one-day walkout by elementary teachers on January 20 and is part of a series of work-to-rule sanctions and rotating single-day strikes by teachers’ unions, who are all in a legal strike position at the same time.
The public response has been strong opposition to the government and solid solidarity with the teachers. A Nanos Research poll in November, for example, showed that over 60% of Ontarians disagreed with Conservatives’ approach on every major issue relating to public education funding and the dispute with teachers. Ford’s personal popularity has plummeted to 26% and the Conservatives now trail the leaderless provincial Liberals in opinion polls.
Perhaps more importantly, parent organizations have mobilized provincially around public education and outreach, picket line support, school “walk-ins” and lobbying.
Parent organizations have also organized to pressure local school boards, encouraging trustees to not blindly accept the province’s directives.
The key issue in the dispute remains the Ford government’s drive to increase class size. This was part of a program of deep cuts that the Conservatives introduced last spring, which included a three-per-cent reduction in per-student funding across all Ontario school boards, 10,000 teaching positions lost over four years, a massive reduction in class offerings to students, and the loss of educational supports and special needs services.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) says the impact of increasing class size is “25% fewer teachers, resulting in a 25% reduction in the number of classes with no reduction in the number of students. In a crowded classroom, it’s easier for our students to get left behind; there will be fewer resources to go around and less time for individual students to get the help they need. This also means less time for educators to communicate with parents.”
The Ontario Committee of the Communist Party has underscored that the Ford government’s approach to education is rooted in its neoliberal austerity policies:
“These cuts will serve to further privatize education by continuing to erode the quality of public education. The drive towards privatization has also been accelerated by reduced class offerings, forcing more students to take online education, some of which is provided by private schools.”
A confidential document leaked to the Toronto Star newspaper in mid-January reveals the extent to which the government is willing to go. The paper details the Conservatives’ plan to introduce and gradually increase the amount of mandatory online learning and connect this to “maximum revenue generation for the province.”
“School boards will be required to meet progressively increasing minimum targets for student enrollment in online learning courses; optional enrollment at the individual student level,” reads the document. It goes on to propose a path to privatization, by developing a Ministry of Education “business model to make available and market Ontario’s online learning system to out-of-province and international students and examine feasible options for selling licensing rights to courses/content to other jurisdictions.”
Teachers are also fighting the government’s demand for a 1% cap on salary and benefits. The Conservatives have legislated this cap for the broader public service – affecting over a million workers in Ontario – through Bill 124, the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act. A coalition of 10 unions, representing workers in the broader public sector, is challenging the law as unconstitutional, on the grounds that it violates collective bargaining rights.
The Communist Party is demanding the immediate repeal of Bill 124, the reversal of all cuts to education and a new needs-based funding formula for public schools. The Party is also calling for escalating solidarity in action with teachers, in defense of public education and labour rights.
“The stakes are high for teachers, students and the future of public education in the province. The unions also have to grapple with the fact that the Ford government has already violated labour rights by using back to work legislation and will likely do it again. Building solidarity with the rest of the labour movement and the public as a whole is the necessary ingredient in this fight to defend public education.
“It is essential that all progressive forces, especially unions, parents, students, and community organizations work to mobilize solidarity in support of teachers and to defend public education.”
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