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COMMENTARY: In Ontario’s education number games, it’s the students who are losing

More than 10,000 protestors rallied against education reforms in front of the Ontario Legislature. Despite their opposition to changes, the Ford Government seems unmoved by the discontent.

“Don’t forget, Doug Ford: those students are going to be voting in the next provincial election. And we’re voting with them!” — Sam Hammond, president, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario

The daffodils may be out at Queen’s Park, but they could barely be seen amid thousands of demonstrators trampling the legislative lawn this weekend. They came to protest the Ford government’s revamp of the provincial education system, which would eliminate 3,475 teaching positions over four years, thereby saving $851 million.

The government says these cuts will be made through attrition, not layoffs, but the teachers’ unions aren’t buying it. They claim Ford plans to trim even more positions by increasing high school class sizes from an average of 22 to 28 students, and requiring students to take four e-learning courses to earn their diploma.

READ MORE: Unions hold rally at Ontario legislature to protest education cuts

So they bussed in from all corners of the province, megaphones and placards in hand, joining forces with students, parents, and all manner of groups with an axe to grind against the current government. It was a back-to-the-90s moment, a reminder of when the Mike Harris government found itself under permanent siege by union demonstrators protesting cuts to everything from welfare to health care to education.

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Like then, neither side shows any intention of backing down. Instead, there are signs teacher reductions may already be happening: in anticipation of funding cuts in the P.C. government’s first budget on Thursday, the TDSB has issued surplus notices to 1,000 high school teachers — a big increase from last year, when it issued 274 notices, and even from 2014-15, which saw 515 notices go out after reports of declining enrolment.

READ MORE: About 1,000 Toronto high school teachers declared surplus

In response, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation sent out a memo to surplus teachers pledging to “fight for their jobs.” According to OSSTF president Leslie Wolfe, “The number of surplus this year is decidedly uncommonly high. It’s absolutely appalling if you take into consideration that TDSB is in an enrolment growth period.”

Really? Since when? Over the past two decades, enrolment in publicly funded Toronto schools has consistently declined — a situation that mirrors the overall drop in attendance across the province. In Ontario, total Kindergarten to Grade 12 enrolment declined by approximately 100,000 students between 2000/01 and 2015/16, from 1,446,000 to 1,339,000 students, an overall loss of 6.7 per cent.

From 2012-2016 alone, the Toronto District School Board saw a drop of five per cent in enrolment.

With headline after headline about half-empty schools, of which dozens were slated for review and possible closure, it is utterly disingenuous to claim that more teachers are needed for the current population of students — unless class sizes themselves were reduced.

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WATCH BELOW: Education students worry about Ford government teacher cuts

Education students worry about Ford government teacher cuts
Education students worry about Ford government teacher cuts

And that’s the core of the debate. If the government was not planning to stuff more kids into classrooms, it could not be accused of making things worse, but of maintaining the (not-that-great) status quo.

Instead, in Tory math, less equals more. “Ontario has a much lower student-to-teacher ratio than most of the country and, year over year, teachers’ salaries and benefits have increased while students continue to fall behind in important subjects like math,” chirped Education Minister Lisa Thompson. She then went on to defend increasing class size: “We’re hearing from professors and employers alike that they are lacking coping skills and they are lacking resiliency. … By increasing class sizes in high school, we are preparing them for the reality of post-secondary, as well as the world of work.”

From comparisons to the Hunger Games and Lord of the Flies, these tone-deaf comments justifiably earned Thompson the ire of the opposition, parents and educators alike. They also fly completely in the face of the evidence — which ironically, comes from the very place the education meets the business sector Ford loves so much: the private school system.

READ MORE: Doug Ford clashes with protesting students at Ontario legislature over post-secondary cuts

Visit any private school website and you’re bound to find some version of the “small class advantage”: more attention, individualized learning, less class disruption. And guess what? While enrolment in publicly-funded schools dropped from 2000/01 to 2014/15, attendance at private schools grew 17 per cent during the same period — this despite the fact that Ontario does not subsidize private school tuition, which averages $20,000 a year. Private school students also go on to graduate from university at higher rates than their public school peers — so much for small classes damaging resiliency.

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But why look at evidence that child-focused, individualized learning makes for better education? Why not just treat kids like widgets instead? Instead of focusing on their best interests, both the government and the unions have made this a numbers game: numbers of jobs at stake, numbers of pupils per teacher, numbers of dollars spent or saved. And don’t expect it to cool down in the dog days of summer: both sides will continue talking tough as contract negotiations kick off.

With the battle playing to the Tories’ populist base as well as the NDP opposition’s union voters, it’s a familiar fight that may pay political dividends — but as usual, leaves the best interests of students on the sidelines.

Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.