Non-stop political spin is derailing serious debate over schools

Posted on August 9, 2022 in Education Delivery System

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
Aug. 8, 2022.     By Ricardo Tranjan, Contributor

In Ontario, endless communications battles have prevented real debate over education policy. September is looming, and schools have problems to solve.

It’s still summer, but a new school year is just around the corner. And in 2022, schools have a lot of problems to solve.

How do we help students recover from pandemic disruptions? How do we help them keep learning in the face of an anxiety-triggering climate crisis and unlimited access to disinformation? How can schools attract and retain talent? Should we bring back school nurses? How is the implementation of destreaming going? Weren’t portable classrooms supposed to be temporary? How can parents get involved in light of health concerns? Are Ontario schools safe spaces for all students?

These are only some of the crucial questions we’ve barely talked about over the last four years. That’s because in Ontario, real debate over education policy has been derailed by endless communications battles.

Announcements from the education ministry frequently include misleading and exaggerated statements. Instead of weighing in on the merits of the various measures, opposition parties, experts and advocates are forced to focus on fact-checking. Journalists fact-check the fact checks. Busy parents and educators easily lose the thread. Students just keep struggling.

Examples are plenty and date back to before the pandemic.

In October 2019, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce held a press conference to update the public on contract talks with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. The minister explained that the government was offering to lower high school class sizes from 28 to 25 students per teacher. Lecce said this 14 times. The Star’s Robert Benzie had to remind him that he had proposed to increase class sizes from 22.5 to 28 students, and that his new proposal was simply a “slightly less draconian” measure.

In the end, the government labelled the increase from 22.5 to 23 students per teacher a “freeze” in classroom sizes. Yet the introduction of two mandatory online courses, where student-teacher ratios are much higher, actually increased class sizes overall.

The pandemic came. And the spinning continued.

The 2020 reopening plan included “up to $1.3 billion in supports for the education sector.” But mostly it wasn’t new money from the province. It came from school board reserves. It came from the federal government.

Also, inflated figures mean little out of context. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives added that context and concluded that each school could hire, on average, just 1.5 new staff with the additional funding.

In May 2021, Lecce called the $25.6 billion education budget “the largest investment in public education in Ontario history.” That was disingenuous, to say the least: yesterday, I paid the highest grocery bill in the history of my household. It’s called inflation. Most people don’t celebrate it.

In the recent election, that same claim reappeared in Ontario PC campaign materials: “Our government is investing more in public education than any government in Ontario history.”

But here’s the fact: taking inflation and enrolment into account, school boards received $1.6 billion less for the 2021-22 school year than they did in 2017-18. That’s the equivalent of $800 less per student. The average-size secondary school had to make do with $600,000 less.

In late July, the government announced its Plan to Catch Up for the upcoming school year.

The first plank of the plan is that classes will start on time this year — a pretty low bar considering no one has suggested otherwise. The rest of the plan is a jumble of re-announcements and program extensions — nothing really new except the news release itself.

And yet, society is ready for a real conversation about education policy.

Recently, Wilfrid Laurier University’s Centre for Leading Research in Education convened 34 education leaders to talk about education recovery. People for Education released a detailed report on destreaming implementation. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives proposed and costed 13 recommendations for an equitable recovery. OISE professor Nina Bascia has shared her research findings on the pandemic’s impact on teachers. These are just some examples.

Ontario built a world-leading education system through rigorous debate and serious policy decisions, not political spin and photo ops. We need to restart that debate, and fast.

September is coming.

Ricardo Tranjan is a political economist and a senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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