Education

A Season of Strife

John Schofield May 22 2000
Education

A Season of Strife

John Schofield May 22 2000

A Season of Strife

Education

Bitter disputes between teachers and governments threaten to turn schools into battlegrounds

John Schofield

It was a matter of love over lucre. As an electricalengineering graduate in the mid-1980s, Savio Wong had his pick of profitable career options. His lab partner, Mike Lazaridis, went on to launch high-tech powerhouse Research in Motion Ltd., and is now worth an estimated $415 million. Wong chose teaching, starting as a math teacher and now working as the librarian at Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School, just west of Kitchener, Ont. While the pay is modest, he says the greatest reward is helping students learn. Along with his regular duties, Wong coaches soccer and the Reach for the Top quiz team. But slowly, he says, some of the joy is seeping from the job. A relentless wave of reforms has left teachers weary, confused and angry. “It’s difficult to read what this government is trying to do with education,” says Wong, 4L “I don’t know why they’re picking on teachers.”

If anything, the real battle is only beginning. Last week, Ontario’s Conservative government unveiled a proposed law that strictly defines instructional time, requiring high-school teachers to oversee the equivalent of an extra half-course a year. The government also became the first in Canada to make the supervising of extracurricular activities mandatory, giving principals the power to assign those duties. The proposed amendment to the Education Act gives the government sweeping powers over school boards. In addition, Education Minister Janet Ecker announced a long-touted plan for teacher testing that calls for compulsory professionaldevelopment courses, standardized certification tests for new teachers, and regular performance appraisals. The escalating conflict sets the stage for a bitter showdown, one that could reignite the labour unrest that paralyzed the province’s schools in 1998. “Clearly,” says Earl Manners, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, “the government seems intent on provoking a fight.”

But school conflict extends far beyond Ontario. In British Columbia, the union representing bus drivers, janitors and other school support workers is threatening pandemonium if government arbitrators fail to reach an acceptable solution next month in an ongoing dispute with school boards.

Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell has vowed to take away teachers’ right to strike if he wins the next B.C. election, and some observers say Ontario’s Tory government is eyeing similar action or a move to provincial bargaining. In Nova Scotia, provincewide protests over last months deep cuts to education have simmered down, but only after the Conservative government agreed to provide $34 million to cover schoolboard deficits and teachers’ salaries next year. Still, Nova Scotia boards are expected to cut $20 million, including about 200 teaching positions across the province.

After years of turmoil in education, many parents are disillusioned with what they see as the steady deterioration of public schools. Across Canada, enrolment in private schools has jumped 23 per cent since 1990. After seeing their son Jamal stumble in an overcrowded Grade 2 class, Halifax mother Katherine Ali and her husband, Imtiaz, a doctor, plan to place the eight-year-old in Bedford Elementary Academy. That local private school, which charges annual fees of $3,800, has tripled in size since 1998. Their daughter Sarrah is already in the kindergarten program. “The core of education is starting to suffer,” says Ali, a marketing consultant. “I’m not going to sacrifice a child to the public system.”

In Ontario, the government insists it is pumping more money into schools to ensure the public system remains strong. Ecker says the move to make extracurricular activities mandatory is designed to thwart possible boycotts of those activities in the event of teacher protests. Teachers at Durham District School Board, which serves the education minister’s own riding northeast of Toronto, have refused to oversee those activities since their board implemented increased class time in 1998. Ecker says the government wants teachers to spend an extra 25 minutes in class each day to bring them in line with the national average. She also points to this month’s provincial budget, which announced an extra $241 million for special education, early reading programs, and reducing elementary class sizes. Says Ecker: “There’s no question about the money that’s going into education.”

For those on the ground, however, that claim seems increasingly hard to swallow. The number of teachers in the province’s schools has declined by 11,399 in the past six years, while enrolment over the same period has jumped by more than 59,000, according to People for Education, a parents’ group. Urban school boards are hurting the most. In 1998, their local taxing powers were stripped away and replaced with a new funding formula. By 2003, when the formula will be fully implemented, the Toronto District School Board alone expects it will have slashed $362 million from its budget. It plans to shut as many as 30 schools by 2002. Across the province, 137 are slated to close this year and next.

Now, school boards are fighting back. In March, the Greater Essex County District School Board in Windsor, Ont., passed a resolution refusing to make further cuts, and three other boards, including Toronto and Ottawa, have passed similar motions. Ecker has ordered the Windsor board to overturn its decision. Under the Conservatives’ new law,

the minister of education will have the authority to take over boards that fail to comply with orders regarding curriculum, instructional time or other matters. Under the Education Act, trustees could face jail sentences. But as former Toronto trustee Fiona Nelson said at a recent educational symposium: “Sometimes there are things worth going to jail for.”

Making extracurricular work compulsory will be a “nightmare” to implement, says Wong, and is an insult to those who give of their time freely. To make matters worse, he argues, the extra class time will add hours of preparation. A recent time-use study by Saint Mary’s University in Halifax found that the average teacher in Nova Scotia already works about 52.5 hours a week. “The teachers will do whatever they can to avoid a strike,” says Barb Sargent, president of the Ontario Teachers Federation, an umbrella organization for the province’s four teachers’ unions. “But in the end, that may be their only option.”

The last walkout caused painful riffs, and in many cases, the healing is still going on. Parents and students feel caught

in the crossfire. What they need is stability, says Judy Watson, president of the 16,000-member Ontario Federation of Home and School Associations. While she applauds the government’s tougher high-school curriculum, introduced last fall for Grade 9, she says teachers and students were poorly prepared for it. Kids are falling through the cracks, especially in math and science. Signs of cutbacks are everywhere: vocational subjects have been scaled back, and increasingly, parents are being asked to raise money for such basics as classroom maps, sheet music and teachers’ resources. “There’s a lot of apprehension,” says Watson. “We wish everyone would stop fighting and focus on our children.” Amid all the sniping, it’s clear they are the ones with the most to lose.