Some thoughts on the education aspects of Ontario’s budget

These are initial impressions only.  I haven’t gone in-depth.

First, on the issue of workers paying more into their pensions: teachers already pay 11.2% of their salaries (at the elementary level at least) into their pensions.  I’ve never seen a private-sector RRSP that suggested anything higher than 10%, and I’ve seen several that suggested only 5%.  I resent the potshots about employees paying more than that.  Our pensions are an earned benefit, bargained for over decades in exchange for lower salary increases.  To imply that teachers are greedily feeding at the public trough is unfair and prejudicial.

Second, on an issue that did not show up directly in the budget at all: can we finally start having a productive discussion in this province on the role, cost, and benefit of EQAO testing?  That testing costs a fortune, first for the people who spend the whole year writing and publishing it, then for the material cost of its administration, and finally for the teachers paid to mark it during the summer.  What do we get for that cost?  A lot of stressed-out kids and teachers, and information that mirrors what teachers already knew about their students from less-intrusive methods that actually helped them teach.  There are other ways to get accountability that really is accountable.  EQAO isn’t, because the students aren’t compared to their own earlier scores, so they’re not measuring students’ progress.  Instead, groups of students are measured against other groups of students, with no reference to their strengths, weaknesses, learning differences, or state of mind at the time of the test.  But this potential area of savings – something that would go a long way towards placating teachers – was ignored in this budget.

Third, on the issue of threats of layoffs: I have to hand it to Mr. McGuinty.  After getting everyone upset at the Drummond Report, which advocated things like cutting non-teaching staff by 70%, to then turn around and give that as the THREAT of what happens if the collective bargaining goes south, is a lovely bit of governmental bullying.  (On the issue of those layoffs: Mr. Drummond clearly hadn’t set foot in an actual school since he graduated from one himself.  Teacher-librarians were listed in the report as non-teaching staff, which doesn’t reflect the way schools are organized at all, since teacher-librarians are usually prep-coverage teachers teaching full schedules.  School psychologists – that is, the people who diagnose learning disabilities so that struggling students have a shot at school success – were also on that list.  We’re already down to the bare minimum number of educational assistants needed to keep our special needs kids safe, and well below what they need to actually learn.  It was a threat that would have taken Ontario schools back to the 70’s, but with added legislation in place to reflect the realities of an integrated, multilingual, differentiated school system.  Which is to say, it would have made us look like most American public schools.  A worse fate I cannot envision.)

I think the budget could have gone further in encouraging school boards to cut specific programs that amount to non-teaching staff, and absorbing the teachers currently engaged in those back into the regular teaching force.  That would see a reduction in openings for new teachers but no actual layoffs.  In my own board, this would include the Literacy Improvement Project Teachers, a cadre of specialist teachers who serve up to four schools each – most serve one or two schools – and have as their job description supporting teachers in their teaching of literacy, taking small groups of struggling students for intensive and targeted reading instruction, and working with the grade three and six teachers on issues relating to EQAO.  I am astonished that funding for these teachers is not being phased out at the provincial level.  Really, the job the LIPTs were formed to do has been done.  At least two-thirds of their daily schedule is gravy within the school, which means they could be absorbed into a beefed-up special education budget at significant savings.  This shift could be accomplished through attrition over two or three years with little effect to classroom results.

Instead, the budget picks a fight with unions while paying lip service to collective bargaining; it attacks teachers’ earned benefits, especially pensions but also sick benefits through contract offers; and it completely fails to address the ineffective, expensive, and invalid testing going on in Ontario’s schools.

The irony seems to be that it will be Horwath’s NDP which allows the budget to pass, rather than the right-wing Conservatives from whose playbook many of the measures come.