By Doug Hallett
Comparing the Liberal government un-favourably with the Mike Harris government when it comes to education policy is “incomprehensible,” says local MPP Liz Sandals.
“I just find it incomprehensible that the message” from teachers is that what the Liberals are now doing is as bad or worse than what happened under the Progressive Conservative government led by Harris, she said in an interview Thursday.
“I was there. It wasn’t the same,” said Sandals, who was on the local public school board while Harris was premier from 1995 to 2002. “I just get very frustrated” hearing this sort of accusation, she said. “I lived through those years as a trustee.”
What she remembers is a government that took away school boards’ right to tax, leading to less education revenue and fewer jobs for teachers.
The Harris government was also “very punitive when it came to teachers,” for example by reducing professional development days and making teachers write “silly” tests before they could get jobs, Sandals said. She said the Liberals reversed both these actions of the Harris government.
The Harris government increased workload for teachers, while the Liberals have gone in the other direction by such things as boosting preparation time for elementary teachers.
“It just goes on and on,” she said, when it comes to contrasting the approaches of the previous PC government and the Liberals.
The Harris government was “quite upfront” that its goal was to take $1 billion out of Ontario’s education system, she said, while the Liberals have increased school board funding by $6.5 billion or 45 per cent since coming to power in 2003.
In fact, Ontario’s decline in school enrolment in recent years because of “natural demographics” means the province’s per pupil funding has gone up by about $4,000 to about $11,000 under the Liberals, an increase of 55%, she said.
The Liberals also reduced primary class sizes and brought in full-day kindergarten, which along with their benefits for children have created more teaching jobs, she said.
“I don’t know what more you can do,” Sandals said. However, recessionary times and the province’s stubborn deficit problem means the Liberals can’t continue to increase education funding and can’t continue to allow benefits for teachers that exceed what provincial civil servants get, she said.
“So yes, we have changed the sick plan” for teachers in the legislation introduced last week, but the change makes it like the sick plan for people who work directly for the province, she said.
When it comes to the issue of bargaining rights, Sandals said, the Liberal government notified school boards and teachers’ unions soon after being re-elected with a minority government last fall that bargaining needed to start early to replace four-year contracts expiring Aug. 31, 2012.
The province began negotiations on a framework for new teacher contracts in February, but the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario walked away from the bargaining table after about an hour and never returned, Sandals said.
The negotiations, which ETFO refused to be part of, did lead to compromises being made, Sandals said.
The government’s original position was that “a freeze is a freeze” and should include no movement on the experience-related salary grid for two years, she said. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, which reached a deal with the government in early July, opposed this grid freeze and offered financial concessions to make up the cost of allowing continued grid movement for young teachers, she said.
The July deal, which is reflected in the legislation introduced by the government last week, has the cost of grid movement mainly being offset by savings from three unpaid professional development days for all teachers during the 2013-14 school year.
The Liberal government has also helped teachers, Sandals said, by rejecting some recommendations made in February by economist Don Drummond, who headed the province’s Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services. Drummond’s opposition to full-day kindergarten and some other educational initiatives of the Liberal government would, if implemented, cost 10,000 teachers and 10,000 educational support staff their jobs, she said.
The government’s teacher legislation is to take effect on Sept. 1, but is to provide until Dec. 31 for school boards, teachers and support staff to engage in collective bargaining, according to a Ministry of Education backgrounder.
“This would allow the government’s education partners to reach agreements that respect local circumstances while also including the parameters set out in the legislation,” the education ministry says. “Where any agreements do not meet the standards of the legislation, the Minister of Education will have the power to withhold approval and the parties will risk having agreements imposed.”