Bracing for deep cuts, Ontario students and teachers are locking arms and fighting back
For Grade 8 teacher Anne Schlarp, deficit reduction is not an abstract proposition. If Ontario Education Minister John Snobelen carries through his promise to cut public school funding by nine per cent this year, the Mississauga, Ont., teacher says that she will be unable to meet the needs of one-third of her students, including three with severe behavioral problems, six with learning disabilities and four who are recent immigrants. The reason: in his drive to downsize, Snobelen has set his sights on the so-called prep time that teachers are given to plan individual lessons and counsel students. According to Shiraz Rawat, a third-year student at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, Snobelen is launching a “full-scale assault on publicly supported education.” Noting that Ontario already ranks ninth among the provinces in postsecondary funding per student—11 per cent below the national average—Rawat describes Snobelen’s decision to eliminate an-
other 15 per cent of provincial funding as “reprehensible.” Says Rawat: “Corporations are making record profits, while students, workers and the poor are being told, ‘Do with less, do without.’ It’s time to fight back.” Both Schlarp and Rawat are doing just that. She took part in a 37,000-strong demonstration by teachers, parents and students at the Ontario legislature in mid-January. He is one of the organizers of a nationwide day of action by university students planned for Feb. 7. But while both are angry, both are also confronting intransigent politicians. The Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris faces a massive $10-billion deficit that it is bent on eliminating. Later this month, Ottawa will formally announce its plans to begin slashing provincial transfers to postsecondary education, health and social programs by 20 per cent over the next two years, pushing the Harris government even further to the wall. Its drive to cut costs is prompting unprecedented alliances between
all levels of education in Ontario—and threats of province-wide job action in the public schools. But however determined they are to fight, teachers and students face a steep, uphill battle. Snobelen, himself a high-school dropout, is fast emerging as the Darth Vader of the education wars. Describing resistance to his plans as “simply unacceptable,” he says, “the longer we wait, the bigger the problem will be.”
Many Ontario administrators, anticipating what is to come, have in fact begun carving from their budgets. Taking a cue from Snobelen’s recent announcement that junior kindergarten will no longer be mandatory, several school boards have declared that they will be terminating the program next September. And last month, the University of Waterloo announced that it will be eliminating 16 per cent of faculty positions, plus one-tenth of support staff, by next September. Since then, Waterloo administrators have confirmed that they are almost certain to raise tuition by 20 per cent this fall. They will be able to do so thanks to yet another Snobelen decree: late last year, the minister gave universities the go-ahead to double the government’s own 10per-cent increase, paving the way for one of the largest tuition hikes in Canadian history. At the University of Windsor, president Ronald Ianni says that such drastic changes are only the first of many to come. “There are no two ways about it,” says Ianni. “Those charged with running the education system
of Ontario are facing a challenge more significant than any we have seen in the past 30 years.”
As they struggle to meet that challenge, all sides are steeling for a schoolyard punch-up of major proportions. Given a larger perspective, the timing is strangely ironic: last week, following two years of deep cuts to education, the Alberta government of Premier Ralph Klein said that it would begin to loosen the reins of its own conservative fiscal policies. As a result, it reinstated full funding for kindergarten. That announcement followed a recent promise made by treasurer James Dinning that the province will absorb the looming federal cuts to postsecondary education. Certainly Alberta’s extensive experience with lean times has not been lost on Ontario’s university administrators: last fall, they met with their Alberta counterparts to discuss strategies for adjusting to looming claw-backs.
But according to many on the front lines of teaching and learning, the first task is to fight the cuts. In the closing days of 1995, a scheduled two-hour meeting between Snobelen and representatives of the Ontario Teachers Fed-
eration, an umbrella group of associations representing Ontario’s 130,000 teachers, ended after five minutes. The reason: OTF officials insisted there was no way to make the proposed cuts, totalling $400 million in 1996, without affecting classroom quality.
The subsequent march on the legislature was by far the largest since the Harris government took power. Another is planned for Feb. 24—one day after an Ontario Federation of Labour general strike scheduled for Hamilton, at which teacher unions plan to play a significant role. And last week, OTF president Ronald Robert told Maclean’s that
“job action is definitely being considered” by the unions he represents.
Under siege, educators at all levels appear determined to lock arms. Professors from all three Toronto universities met with college instructors and secondary school teachers from across the city on Jan. 19, agreeing to form the Coalition for Education. Its aim: to build support for the upcoming student and teacher demonstrations. Says John Shields, a coalition member and a professor of public administration at Ryerson: “Although I’m a university teacher, I am concerned about cuts right down the line because they will ultimately affect the quality of students that end up in my classroom.”
Faced with such actions, Snobelen is sounding anything but conciliatory. Since the abortive December meeting, he has sidestepped the unions and made several provocative public pronouncements. Speaking to 250 school board trustees in mid-January, he made it clear that teachers would bear the brunt of any downsizing. To that end, he outlined what he called a legislative “tool kit,” to be formally unveiled this month, that will enable boards to supersede union contracts and alter certain time-honored aspects of the public system.
Among the most sacred of those is preparation time. Currently, Ontario teachers have a daily average of 33 minutes of prep time at the grade school level, and roughly twice that in high schools. While Snobelen claims he does not want to eliminate the practice, he questions current levels—which are comparable to the national average in grade schools, and slightly higher in high schools—which he says cost taxpayers $650 million a year. That infuriates teachers like Schlarp. “I need time for something as simple as getting a physics lab prepared, or working out ways that I can explain new scientific concepts,” says the 17-year veteran of the classroom, now in her second year of teaching Grade 8. “I can’t just hand students textbooks and expect them to learn.” As well, Schlarp maintains that an increase in social and family problems has added enormously to her workload. “You need downtime to constantly modify for needy students,” she says. “And that doesn’t even include meeting with librarians, psychologists, social workers and parents.”
Equally inflammatory is Snobelen’s plan to eliminate all certified teachers from junior kindergarten classrooms. Last week, he denied knowledge of an internal ministry document, leaked to the press, that floated the idea of imposing a user fee of $2,068 for junior kindergarten. Still, in addition to making junior kindergarten optional, his tool kit includes a staffing provision for the programs, replacing university-educated teach-
ers with specialists in early childhood education—college graduates whose salaries are roughly half as high.
To many, that is the thin edge of a dangerous wedge. “I have a real concern when he alludes to uncertified, unqualified teachers delivering programs,” says Marilies Rettig, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. She notes that several studies point to the junior years as the most critical in a child’s development. “If it can be done there,” she asks, “where will boards look next?” In fact, the leaked document would suggest that libraries and guidance offices are also potential targets. But while Snobelen continued to distance himself from the document, he remained adamant that “there is a lot of disagreement among educators about who is most appropriate” to teach young children.
As those in the public schools wage their war of words, Ontario campuses are abuzz with rumors of the enormous changes ahead. There is widespread anxiety over Snobelen’s soon-to-be-released discussion paper on the future of higher education. According to the minister, it will provide “a template” for a three-member panel, which will seek input from various groups, including students, administrators and businessmen. Mary Hofstetter, chair of the Ontario Council of College Presidents, predicts that the paper may point towards what she coolly describes as “the rationalization of institutions”—the closure of entire colleges and universities. That prospect horrifies many in the university community. But Hofstetter, who is also president of Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., notes that she is already in the process of selling two of Sheridan’s eight campuses, and has plans to consolidate two others. And she predicts that Snobelen will “warmly encourage” similar moves throughout the province.
Hofstetter is not alone in that belief. “What colleges are doing now is what you will see universities doing, but at a different pace,” says University of Toronto president Robert Prichard. Like other university administrators, Prichard is playing his cards close to his chest, declining to forecast which of his own departments will be hardest hit. But he leaves little doubt that certain ones will not survive. “Universities have to start focusing on areas where they are strong,” says Prichard. “The current climate creates a natural dynamic in that direction.”
In their own efforts to weather stormy times, Alberta’s universities have employed several strategies, many of which were discussed at a five-hour workshop in Toronto last fall. Hosted by several Ontario administrators, it was attended by University of Calgary president Murray Fraser, as well as rep-
resentatives from the universities of Lethbridge and Alberta. Among other things, Fraser has instituted a process of “collaborative bargaining” through which Calgary faculty have received a greater say in determining the shape and scope of rollbacks to wages and benefits. Says Fraser: “It has helped both sides understand the position of the other.”
Ryerson president Claude Lajeunesse says that his institution will be able to survive provincial cuts of $10.8-million next year only
if his employee associations “recognize that we cannot afford a confrontational route.” Hoping to negotiate adjustments to wages and benefits, as well as stricter rules governing sabbaticals and teaching loads, Lajeunesse says he is encountering an “openness” to working out cutbacks that will be “shared and fair.” Still, he will almost certainly encounter skepticism—and resistance. Says Prof. Shields: ‘There is so much talk about the importance of investing in technology and training, and yet they want to cut the front line of education. It seems to be a rather contradictory message.”
The Infobahn is also helping some universities drive down costs. Several have begun using high-tech video and computer hookups to share courses, professors and research. The universities of Calgary and Alberta conduct joint programs in engineering and modern languages. In the wake of the Waterloo cuts, officials there say they intend to intensify links with several schools, including nearby Wilfrid Laurier and the University of Guelph.
Teachers arrived for a two-hour meeting with Snobelen. After five minutes, they were out the door.
Others are training a sharper eye on market demand. At the University of Lethbridge, tuition for each course is now paid directly to deans, effectively forcing them to provide offerings that are attractive to their customers—and to jettison those that are not. Others worry about the long-term effects of letting the customer rule, especially as growing numbers of students view university as a chance to gain an edge in a grim economy. “No matter how deeply governments cut,” says Windsor’s Ianni, “we can’t simply turn ourselves into training schools for Corporation X or Company Y.”
Still, lean times are forcing all universities to give more thought to attracting students, who are also an important source of funding. In Ontario, applications dropped an average of roughly five per cent last year. Ironically, some fear that universities will be risking an even greater fall-off if they raise fees as much as Snobelen is now allowing. “As it is, I have friends who have had to drop out of school because they felt they were going too far into debt,” says Ryerson’s Rawat. “Higher fees will definitely keep many from going in the first place.” But whatever the cost of education, the bottom line for many Ontario students is clear: the one-two punch of federal and provincial cuts will have profoundly tangible effects. Those are almost certain to include a move to larger classes, a diminished variety of courses, and less personalized service. The recent events at Waterloo confirm that notion. According o to vice-president, academic, S Jim Kalbfleisch, the universi§ ty hopes to replace no more than half of the 140 departing faculty, while keeping enrolment steady. Says Kalbfleisch: “We will start looking hard at the number of small enrolment courses we offer.”
As they prepare for the Feb. 7 demonstrations, Ontario students and their supporters say that such bread-and-butter issues will be at the top of their agenda. At the same time, they hope to begin building support in their own ranks for the coming battles of public school teachers and others facing deficit-driven cutbacks. Says Shields: “What we are fighting stretches beyond education into health, social services and a whole variety of Ontario and Canadian institutions that are under attack by right-wing ideologues.”
But however heated their rhetoric, Snobelen is not budging. Vowing to carry out his plans to force every level of education to do more with less, the minister says bluntly: This is a turnaround in management that we have been elected to carry through. Is that ideology? No, it’s just reality.” Whether students and teachers will accept that reality, of course, is another question entirely. □