Going to the wall

D’ARCY JENISH November 10 1997

Going to the wall

D’ARCY JENISH November 10 1997

Going to the wall

A power struggle hits two million Ontario children


The Ajax-Pickering minor peewee Raiders were working on breakout drills—three slick passes from a defenceman, to a winger and then the centreman, in order to launch an offensive attack. For the young hockey players, practising at a suburban arena east of Toronto one evening last week, executing the breakout was as simple as adding one plus two. The half-dozen parents sitting in the stands were more concerned, however, with the lessons their boys weren’t receiving due to a provincewide teachers’ strike that put school on ice for 2.1 million children. “They should all be fired,” snapped one irate mother—“they” being Ontario’s public elementary and secondary teachers. “There are a lot of good teachers who understand the system needs to change,” piped in Richard Wilkins, an executive with a major trust company. “But a lot think they are untouchable.”

As a tense week unfolded, the debate about the dispute that had shut down public education resounded across the province, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood. At the centre of the storm: Bill 160, a controversial piece of legislation that aims to place control of Ontario’s $ 14billion public education system firmly in the hands of the provincial government. “I’m for the teachers, 100 per cent,” said Susan McDowell, an Ajax mother of two teenage children, despite the fact that she had been laid off from her cafeteria job at a local high school due to the dispute. ‘When you work with teachers, you know they don’t have an easy job.”

The first Ontario-wide teachers’ strike in more than two decades was a classic power struggle between a stubborn, reform-minded government and 126,000 teachers who also refused to buckle.

The result was a week of noisy demonstrations, cranky editorials and heated exchanges between the principal antagonists: Premier Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government and the province’s five powerful teachers’ unions. The two sides could not even agree what to call the dispute, let alone negotiate a settlement. To the government, it was an “illegal strike,” plain and simple. To the unions, it was a legitimate “political protest” against Bill 160, which, if passed, would make dozens of changes, including increasing the number of school days and cutting preparation time for high-school teachers.

Given the emotions generated by the bill, there were understandable shows of support for the teachers, denunciations of their actions, and picket-line confrontations. Some parents marched with the teachers, or brought them coffee and cookies. Passing motorists honked to signal their approval while others shouted obscenities, or used rude gestures to convey their opinions. And teachers who crossed the lines got a chilly reception. “This school

is supposed to be open,” English teacher Lena Bethune shouted at colleagues who blocked her van outside Pickering High School in Ajax one morning. “Go home, Lena,” a fellow teacher snapped. ‘You’re one of a hundred.” Retorted Bethune: ‘That’s untrue. A lot of teachers don’t want to be on a picket line.”

In the bill’s current form, it would also allow the use of non-certified teachers in guidance offices, and art and music classes—although late last week Education Minister Dave Johnson said he

would change the wording to allow such professionals only to “complement” teachers. As well, the bill would give the minister broad new powers to open and close schools, and determine the composition of district school boards in some cases.

Teachers argue that the reforms would lead to massive cuts in education spending, and the elimination of up to 10,000 teaching positions—a figure that Johnson pegs at 7,500. One 30-second TV ad from the Ontario Teachers’ Federation warns: “This government has already cut a billion dollars out of education. Now, it plans to cut another billion.” To support that charge, teachers pointed to the

performance contract of deputy education minister Veronica Lacey, leaked to the media in mid-October. Among Lacey’s list of duties for the coming fiscal year: removing $667 million from the coffers of public education. That, said union leaders, would only compound the problems caused by the earlier cuts. In response, Finance Minister Ernie Eves held a press conference at which he argued that spending on education has actually increased by $269 million over the past two years—even though the province cut its transfers to school boards by $400 million in November, 1995—because the boards had simply jacked up local taxes.

Throughout the week, the government accused teachers of being more concerned with maintaining their perks than creating quality schools. In news conferences, Education Minister Johnson produced charts and bar graphs showing that Ontario high-school teachers spend less time in the classroom—3% hours per day— than their counterparts almost anywhere in the country. And in sombre TV spots, Harris, a former teacher, asked: “What in our plans to reform education could possibly justify breaking the law?” The government, he said, had a simple request: “Asking teachers

to spend a little more time with their students.”

Even as if struggled to win in the court of public opinion, the government was making moves to force an end to the dispute. On the weekend, government lawyers stood before James MacPherson, an Ontario Court general division judge, in downtown Toronto, arguing for an injunction that would force the teachers back to their classrooms. MacPherson directed several blunt comments towards government lawyers, suggesting he was not sympathetic to their arguments that the strike was causing “irreparable harm” to the province. Union leaders had refused to say how they would re-

spond to a back-to-work order, but hinted they would be unlikely to defy the courts. ‘We will not be reckless,” Marshall Jarvis, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, told Maclean’s. “This is not a protest against the courts of Ontario.”

The sound and the fury in the province, say many observers, is simply a more raucous version of debates over public education that have been unfolding across the country. To varying degrees, several provinces have tried to take greater control of their school systems, and reduce administrative costs, often as part of a larger goal of downsizing public deficits. British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have all drastically reduced the number of school boards. And, in fact, Ontario passed legislation just last spring reducing the number of its boards, effective Jan. 1, to 66 from 129.

In 1994, the Alberta government of Premier Ralph Klein took the collection of education taxes out of the hands of local municipalities, and began funding schools provincewide through per capita student grants. It also cut teachers’ salaries by 5.5 per cent, although most teachers have since recovered the lost income. But

Calgary teachers are still trying to recoup that loss, and since August have been protesting with a work-to-rule campaign— refusing extracurricular activities, arriving just a half-hour before class, and leaving 30 minutes after the last bell.

In many provinces, the move to more centralized control has been accompanied by legislation requiring so-called parent advisory councils, locally elected bodies that meet regularly with teachers and administrators. New Brunswick has made the most dramatic moves in that direction, eliminating traditional boards altogether and replacing them with advisory councils at every school. They in turn send representatives to 18 district councils as well as two parent-led provincial boards of education—one English, one French—that advise the education minister on a broad array of issues.

Meanwhile, the education ministries of all four western provinces, as well as Quebec and New Brunswick, have introduced standardized, provincewide testing at a variety of grade levels. In both Alberta and New Brunswick, senior high-school students write year-end exams in a range of subjects, worth between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of their final marks. Cary Grobe, New Brunswick’s director of evaluation for English schools, says teachers initially resisted testing because it prevented them from setting their own standards. “But,” he adds, “tests have become part of our educational culture.”

By comparison, the Harris government seems to be making up for lost time by in-

troducing a raft of massive changes in a comparatively short time frame. Last spring, the ministry conducted its first provincewide achievement tests of grades 3 and 6 students and next year plans to introduce similar tests in grades 9 and 11. And this past summer, then-Education Minister John Snobelen—who was replaced by Johnson in a cabinet shakeup on Oct. 10—unveiled a new elementary school curriculum that contains clearer and tougher standards beginning in Grade 1.

While teachers have done little to protest those changes, Bill 160 has been the focus of fierce resistance. And considering its breadth

and scope, itis hardly surprising.

Among other things, the proposed new law gives the government the authority to set class sizes, something traditionally negotiated by teachers’ unions and school boards. As well, it enshrines in law a reduction in the number of annual professional development days to five from nine, and permits the government to cut preparation time for secondary school teachers by one-third, to 50 minutes a day— a move that also would reduce the number of teachers required. And in a move that infuriated union leaders, Johnson said at week’s end that he intends to bar principals and viceprincipals from joining teachers’ unions—a move that Ontario Teachers’ Federation president Eileen Lennon described as “vindictive and punitive.”

The bill’s critics say, however, there are far bigger issues at stake than teachers’ working conditions. Most important, they object to the fact that Bill 160 proposes to place enormous regulatory powers in the hands of the education minister and the provincial cabinet. The result, they argue, will be an unacceptable centralization of control, and the virtual elimination of community influence over local schools. “They have got a provision in there that gives Queen’s Park the authority to close any school in the province at any time,” notes Jarvis. “By issuing regulations, the cabinet can override legislation.”

Lynn Peterson, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association, adds that the bill contains six pages of regulations giving the minister unconstrained regulatory powers over the new district boards. “They can take the assets of one board—employees, buildings and books—and transfer them to another board,” notes Peterson. “They can dissolve boards in the future without so much as a discussion in public.”

Parents in many parts of the province, particularly those outside the Toronto area, also fear that local concerns will be ignored if the bill becomes law.

Barbara Dowell, a Windsor homemaker and mother of four, questions whether the larger district boards— or Queen’s Park bureaucrats—will listen to arguments from parents whose children have special needs.

Dowell’s son Hugh,12, is visually impaired, and she says her local board has been highly responsive to providing large-print books and other resources. “If their priority is to cut,” says Dowell, “I’m leery

about what will be cut.”

Many parents in smaller remote communities share similar fears. “If the boards are not going to have any control, where do I go if I have a problem?” asks Beverly Rizzi, a mother of three school-age children in Nolalu, Ont., 55 km west of Thunder Bay. “I talked to a guy from the ministry one day who thought Kenora was a 15minute drive from Thunder Bay. It’s a good five hours away.” Whatever the faults of Bill 160, many observers were arguing last week that the current system is not working either. Graham Orpwood, a professor of education at Toronto’s York University who helped co-ordinate international math and science tests written in the spring of 1995, notes that Ontario students performed far below the national average. “Those results,” he says, “should give anyone in Ontario cause for concern.” Furthermore, results from the province’s first set of achievement tests, released last week, showed half of the province’s

Grade 3 students performing

below the basic level in math, and 73 per cent of the Grade 6 students earning basic or sub-standard results.

As the defenders and detractors of Bill 160 continued their debates last week, the strike was presenting many Ontarians with more immediate concerns. Some large employers, such as the Toronto law firm McMillan Binch and several branches of the Royal Bank of Canada, set up temporary day care facilities for younger children. Many other parents were simply forced to show up at work with children in tow. In a successful effort to keep about 65 high-school students busy each day, Ottawa-based Mitel Corp., a manufacturer of high-tech equipment, offered résumé writing and job-hunting seminars.

By week’s end, it was clear the province would survive the disruption—even as the complex issues it raised continued to cause

confusion for many. “In these situations, there are always three sides to the story,” said Ajax’s Susan McDowell. ‘Yours, mine and the truth.” With the two sides in the dispute continuing their deluge of charges and countercharges, Ontario residents could be excused for wishing a quick end to the “political protest” that had shut down their system of public education.

MAKING CONTACT Annual number of teaching days Alberta 200 Manitoba 200 Quebec 200 Saskatchewan 197 Prince Edward Island 196 Canada 195 New Brunswick 195 Nova Scotia 195 British Columbia 194 Ontario 188 Newfoundland 185