Teachable moment: Back to school under the shadow of cuts to education

By Trevor Hutchinson

Teachable moment: Back to school under the shadow of cuts to education

September always brings back the excitement and promise of a new school year. For some kids and parents it can be a bit of a nervous time. And this year, we all have a reason to be more than a little nervous. Along with new teachers and classmates, students and their parents will be experiencing another thing this year: the first effects of the cuts to education announced by the Ontario PC government in March earlier this year.

As Sinead Fagan, communications officer at the Trillium Lakelands District School Board (TLDSB) explains, “The cuts will be felt system-wide. The 2019-2020 budget has been reduced in many areas.” Instructional budgets (including staffing) are down $10.7 million dollars this year alone.

While there have been a number of cuts to various programs announced by Premier Doug Ford’s government, it was the changes in class sizes that will lead to the biggest changes that students and parents will notice first. Despite overwhelming peer-reviewed evidence that smaller classes lead to better learning outcomes — especially for vulnerable students — the Conservatives increased the average class-size threshold for high school students from 21 to 28 and from 23.84 to 24.5 for Grades 4-8.

“It’s not about class sizes. It’s about cutting the budget,” explains Colin Matthew, District 15 president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation. “It is a cut of 25 per cent that gets labelled a class size change.”

Class size is a rather complicated issue. Averages are set by the province but actual numbers are also dealt with in the collective agreements (CA) between school boards and their unions. Under the previous CA locally, the largest public high school class could have 33 students. How about. Special education classes can have as few as three students and often rural school populations can lead to smaller class sizes. Technical classes had always been traditionally capped at 22 students for safety reasons and the amount of equipment available.

The TLDSB says that this year these cuts have resulted in a loss of 14.2 teachers in elementary schools and 24.33 teachers in secondary schools. Joe De Vuono, elementary vice-president of the Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington (PVNC) unit of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association reports that there will be 30 less teachers across the six Catholic high schools in the PVNC area.

And fewer teachers means less courses. “At St Thomas Aquinas in Lindsay we are looking at a loss of 12 sections that cannot be offered as a result of the cuts,” explains De Vuono.

But it’s not only teachers that are being cut. The TLDSB reports that 5.54 full time equivalent (FTE) secretaries were laid off, 8.563 FTE custodians were laid off, and 39.5 FTE educational assistants (EAs) — or 14 per cent of all EAs laid off as a result of these cuts. It should be remembered that in March 2019, former Minister of Education Lisa Thompson (since demoted to Government and Consumer Services) announced that the class size changes would not result in any job losses.

Many believe that the cuts to educational assistants will affect the most vulnerable learners — students who will already be negatively affected by the increased class sizes.

Karen Bratina is president of the Trillium Lakeland’s Elementary Teacher’s Local. She says on September 3 that “Trillium Lakelands Elementary Teachers will welcome their students back to school.” But it won’t be like recent years.

“The beginning of the school year is always filled with anticipation and excitement,” she notes. “Unfortunately, this year there is an added stress for parents and teachers who are worried about our most vulnerable students. Those who have special needs will not receive the supports required to be successful.”

William Campbell would agree. He’s president of CUPE997, which represents all non-teacher positions within the TLDSB.

He says the loss of 39.5 educational assistants will be “a devastating blow to the most vulnerable students in the system.”

“The cuts to Education Worker support staff will affect the entire school community.”

As he explains, the students that receive support from our EAs are students that need extra support to succeed. Without this assistance these students will struggle to succeed.

Campbell also warns that the loss of EAs could mean more violence in our schools explaining that “violent student behaviour often causes injuries to staff and students and disrupts the learning of all students in the classroom.”

“With 39.5 FTE fewer EAs in the classrooms student learning for all students will suffer.”

We are reminded how well the Royal Commission on Learning that was established by the Province about 24 years ago already warned about this. The commission’s final report ‘For the Love of Learning’ still rings as true today as it did a couple of decades ago on this matter.

“…if, as we stress, the primary responsibilities of teachers are the academic and intellectual growth of their students, schools themselves must be able to deal constructively with the many difficult non-academic needs and problems that our kids seem to be facing more and more. This issue will not disappear, and there’s no point in pretending we can simply continue to add new responsibilities to already overburdened teachers. Not only can these kids not learn properly without serious assistance, but unless assisted we can count on them making learning more difficult for all other students.”

Custodial and Secretarial Cuts

The cut in custodial and secretarial staff will be felt as well, warns William Campbell: “Less supports in the classroom, in the office and cleaning the schools will affect every student and community member that enters the school. In total there will be custodians working in 26 schools cleaning the schools with less hours to do so. This means that there are 26 schools that will not be as clean or as well cared for and safe going forward.”

It is true that at least for this year at the TLDSB no teacher lost their job (yet) under these cuts. The losses were absorbed by not replacing retiring teachers and teachers on leave. When a teacher returns from their leave they will have to take a position from a less senior teacher (under the terms of their CA) resulting in job losses.

But by not replacing a retiring teacher, we are also not replacing the many other things that they did outside the classroom. Explains Matthew, “It is true for this year Ford’s ‘no one is going to lose their job’ survived the test this year. But it’s monkey math — these 24 teachers did extra curricular clubs, coached, did drama. We have one school where both the male and female head of phys ed are retiring. They coached three sports each.”

Matthew says that the loss in teachers will lead to less course selection and more combined classes. He cites a combined class of Grade 11 and Grade 12 physics class as an example of combined classes that could lead to lower learning outcomes. Despite the best efforts of teachers, “the quality of instruction will suffer,” adds Matthew.

Matthew also laments the loss of the GoldStar program — a program where students earned credits doing construction. This program was created to transition high need students to employment. That program has now been cancelled.

What worries local many local people concerned about education is that this is just the beginning of the cuts. September 2020 will see the launch of Ford’s e-learning program, whereby students will be required to take four credits (out of the 30 needed to graduate) online. The policies and details of that program have yet to be announced and it is not known at this time if this will be public or assigned to some for-profit entity. That program will be detrimental to lower income students whose families can’t afford electronics or the internet. Students with slow internet in our area will also be disadvantaged by this program. Not to mention students who require more one-on-one attention to learn.

And for those of us who might be tempted to accept all these cuts as some necessary fiscal reality, the cuts we have seen locally don’t even get us locally to the provincial standards. As Matthew explains, the loss of 24.3 teachers brings the current high school ratio at the TLDSB to 24-1 from 22-1. To get to the mandated 28, there would have to be 40 more teacher cuts. E-learning will lead to the loss of another 35 teachers. We may be looking at a 25 per cent cut in secondary teachers over the coming four years.

It should be self-evident that these cuts will lead to larger classes, lower learning outcomes, fewer classes to choose from and reduced extra-curricular activities like sports, drama and clubs for students. But these cuts will also affect our economy and affect everyone, whether they have a child in the school system or not. The right-leaning Conference Board of Canada produced a report, the Economic Case for Investing in Education (for the OSSTF) that demonstrated that each dollar invested in public education spending generates $1.30 in total economic impacts. Furthermore, investing in education generates social benefits of a healthier population, a higher standard of living and a reduction in crime. Sadly, the report demonstrated that each dollar cut from public education results in $1.30 of negative economic impacts.

The bottom line is that investing in education saves us money in the long run. Each high school graduate saves the province on average $2,767 each year on health, social assistance and criminal justice. Conversely each high school non-completer costs the province $3,128 per year.

So these cuts, which have only started under Ford, are bad for students and are ultimately bad for our economy. The social costs down the road could be staggering, too: should high school graduation rates fall to 82.6 per cent, there would be additional costs of $3.8 billion.

So why proceed with them? Some critics suggest that this is an ideological attack on public education itself. Weakening the public system will make a private system more enticing. Also announced in March were the change in the sexual education syllabus, a move that most commentators say was to appease the fundamental social conservatives in Ford’s voter base. So clearly some ideological forces are at play in these decisions.

That may sound paranoid, but a provincial education budget of $28 billion would be quite enticing to private companies. And it is well demonstrated that the Googles and Apples of the world covet a greater role in private education.

And we have already seen our American neighbours pursue this approach. As Matthew notes, “The Americans are 20 years down this road (with their charter school movement). Extreme poverty happens when you give up on public education. Public education is the great equalizer. The loss of public education is the loss of hope.”

For its part, the TLDSB maintains some cautious optimism. As Larry Hope, director of education explains:

“There have been a number of challenges that we have worked through in balancing the budget. The effects to the reduction of function will be felt in all aspects of what we do. However, we have confidence in our staff, as well as the programming and supports we provide to TLDSB students.”

De Vuono, expressing the sentiment of most people contacted for this story, seems less optimistic. “Looking at recent history like the cuts to education, autism, etc., cuts seem to be way to be the way we are headed.”

What is certain is that we will hear more about the slashes to education and what the stakes are in the wake of such cuts. All of the contracts with the teacher unions expired on August 31, 2019. As these battles play out for public attention, it will be time for supporters of public education to express their support and opinions.

Will teachers be able to galvanize public opinion on these cuts? If they can capture the spirit shared long ago in the aforementioned ‘For the Love of Learning’ report they should be able to remind parents and community members of the job the vast majority of teachers do:

“Most teachers say they enter the profession out of their concern for kids, and we believe it’s true. From what we’ve observed and learned, we’re confident that most Ontario teachers are competent, caring, and committed; that they work conscientiously and hard; and that day in and day out, they do a good job. In fact, given the constant pressure they operate under, the seriousness of their responsibilities, the never-ending new obligations society foists on them and the never-ending new changes that boards or the Ministry impose on them, the anxiety about keeping up with their subject and with good practices that result from the explosion of knowledge both in their disciplines and in teaching methods – given all this, even the ordinary teacher seems heroic to us.”

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