Ontario Premier Mike Harris’s Conservative government has launched a fullscale reform of the province’s education system, calling for standardized report cards, a provincewide curriculum and the right to determine the amount of time that teachers spend in the classroom. He has also called for additional unspecified spending cuts of $500 million.
Such changes have provoked fierce debate.
Last week, as demonstrators shouted anti-government slogans outside his Queen’s Park office, Harris spoke to Maclean’s National Affairs Columnist Anthony Wilson-Smith and Contributing Editor Mary Janigan. Excerpts:
Maclean’s: How important is the education issue for your government?
Harris: This one is very key. We are well on our way to making the changes that investors look for—except in education. Quality of education, the quality of our workforce, the quality of the training programs, has to be the best in the world. It can’t be mediocre. And certainly all the evidence that we’ve been able to gather indicates that we’re not keeping up. We’re not terrible—but it’s not excellent. Maclean’s: Why not then reinvest the savings from any future costcutting back into the education system?
Harris: Had we inherited balanced books, we might have had the luxury of not having to find savings at the same time as improving quality. What we have found is that throwing more money into the education system has not improved the quality. This system is broken. It’s not a matter of money. The presence of all these different partners—the school boards, the unions—has led to far too much bureaucracy, far too much money not being spent in the classroom, far too much money wasted—and that’s what we’re really trying to change.
If somebody shows me that another billion dollars is what you need to have the best education system in the world, we’ll find it. Well make savings in other areas. But nobody has said lack of money is the problem. And I don’t believe it is. I could commit to reinvest, but then I might not be reinvesting in something else and then I’m playing the mug’s game of measuring success by how many dollars you spend.
Maclean’s: The Common Sense Revolution has provoked many demonstrations. How do you react?
Harris: That seems to be the nature of the job in Ontario: if change is being made that takes something away from you, the accepted wisdom has been to scream and yell and blow whistles. Maybe that worked in the past. But we are 100-per-cent convinced the status quo couldn’t remain. The Common Sense Revolution put in very specific figures on education cuts—and it said those
should not affect the classroom. In our experience, those cuts have affected the classroom because the current system has not allowed us to get at the waste very well. There is no question that very strong provincial unions negotiating with very weak little local boards has led to this situation. The boards had begged us to help them. The teachers’ unions have fought the new testing, they fought standardization, they fought the new curriculum changes. None of us are immune from the test of results. Those that say this is about power, there is some truth to that.
Maclean’s: You have said that current report cards don’t make sense.
Harris: I can remember going to see my son’s Grade 2 teacher—and the only reason I knew how my kid was doing is that I knew what to ask. You get very little « idea how your kid is doing relative to how ÿ a similar kid would be doing in another I jurisdiction. So standardize the report Ü card. While the unions fight this, many 55 teachers welcome the new standardized ï report card, the new curriculum, even the testing.
Maclean’s: Did you foresee such broad institutional change before you came to power?
Harris: Before we were elected, we were criticized for saying things like ‘No blade of grass will be untrampled at Queen’s Park.’ But we knew a lot of things were wrong. It was probably time. Rationalization, fewer politicians—all these things were in the Common Sense Revolution. But the complexity of it was not. We made a fundamental decision that there are a number of these things that all need to be fixed and they’re interdependent and interlinked. But it is also a lot of change in a short period of time. There’s some uncertainty. Each change, though, is complementary to the other. And each, at the end of the day, in the next couple of years, will work very, very well.
Maclean’s: Can you get re-elected?
Harris: Fifty-five to 60 per cent of the people are saying: We like what you’re doing, we think you’re on the right track, we understand it needs to be done, please get it done.’ Some might say: Take your time, make sure you’re getting it right, don’t make a mistake here, we understand this is broken, make sure that what you’re replacing it with is better.’ And we want to do this. So if there are any unintended consequences in anything, we will deal with that. The intended consequences are better service at less cost to the taxpayers and a balanced budget, and growth in the private sector. All the intended consequences are coming true. Maclean’s: What do you tell voters now?
Harris: A lot of our opponents are trying to create fears, trying to mislead you, trying to upset you. Relax, things are getting better. Your job is more secure today than it was two years ago. A job for your children is far more secure today and it will get even better next year and even better the year after that. We believe that we’re giving good government. And I think that good government will be good politics come the next election. □
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