By Kirk Winter

I sat down with Karen Bratina, President of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, to gain perspective on the proposed government changes to education tabled on March 15 by the Ford Conservatives and what ETFO plans to do about them.

Bratina said the announcement was greeted with mixed feelings by her membership. Thanks to almost 80,000 phone calls made by parents to their Members of Provincial Parliament, Kindergarten in its current form received a one-year reprieve and will be staffed by a teacher and an ECE for 2019/2020. ETFO was heartened to see that the new Health and Physical Education document was almost identical to the proposals put forward by the previous Wynne government. There the multiple court challenges, combined with lobbying from concerned parents and the LGBTQ community, saved a document that prepared children for the reality of 21st Century life from evisceration by social conservatives close to the Premier. ETFO was also pleased to see that their lobbying had kept caps on K to 3 classrooms right across Ontario.

Bratina said her members are not happy with the increases in class size in Grades 4 to 8. Many fear that the increase of .66 of a student will further distort the class size differences between small and large elementary schools in an attempt to gain the average of 24 across the board. A class of Grade 4 with 14 at a small rural school will likely have to be compensated with a class of perhaps 34 in a larger urban area like Lindsay or Bracebridge.

Bratina shared that few in her membership were ready for the unprecedented attack on secondary education and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, responsible for representing most of the educational staff who work at Ontario high schools.

Bratina says that all teachers, regardless of board or grade, realized they have a common enemy in the Ford Conservatives and they will not allow the government to “divide and conquer” the four different federations who make up the Ontario Teachers Federation. As Bratina stated, elementary teachers “know someone else is next” once the government has implemented their sweeping changes at secondary.

ETFO is starting to mobilize their staff for the challenges ahead, stressing that, “teachers are in for the fight of their lives” with this government. A united front with parents and other labour organizations will give the teacher federations the muscle they need to fight these changes. Bratina shared that the Ontario Teachers Federation that represents all public school teachers in the province is “strong and prepared to take the fight on as a team.”

Bratina said the rallying cry moving forward will be “the children of Ontario shouldn’t be paying for educational cuts,” and so far that message has found real resonance with parents and some school board trustees. Trustees from both Toronto and Peel have sent the Education Minister strongly worded statements opposing the cuts, and local teachers are hoping to see a similar reaction from Trillium Lakelands trustees and Director Larry Hope. There is consternation locally that so far no statement of opposition to these cuts has been forthcoming from any one or group at the Board Office.

The local teachers federations are hoping to sit down with Norm Miller and Laurie Scott, the two Conservative MPPs who represent the geographical area covered by the TLDSB. Miller has welcomed a meeting, while Scott’s office has yet to find the time for a meeting with concerned local teachers.

Bratina pointed out that it is clear the Education Minister, Lisa Thompson, who has no background in education, has any kind of handle on her portfolio. OTF has been stunned by some of the off-the-cuff statements the Minister has made about class sizes and creating student resiliency. Educational experts like OISE Professor Charles Pascal say these statements are not rooted in any current research or pedagogy.

Premier Ford has threatened the federations about protesting these changes, without stating what he will do if teachers exercise their constitutionally protected right to political action. Bratina says her members are “watching, waiting and anticipating” the government’s reactions as the federations “look forward to negotiations with the Conservatives.”

On April 6, hundreds of local teachers and friends of education will by leaving this area to attend an educational rally in Toronto. These protestors hope that they can convince the government that the political gain of these proposed policies will be far outweighed by the immediate and long-term condemnation of these sweeping and controversial decisions.

Bratina says this government has proven that they are very sensitive to public opinion and a recent delay of returning thousands of students with autism to their home schools from specialized private programming slated for April 1 has been delayed till next fall because of negative publicity associated by the move. Despite the delay, ETFO is still very concerned as no new money has been announced to support these students who in many cases will require at minimum individualized support like their own dedicated Education Assistant.

The province has promised every elementary teacher in Ontario one day training on Autism Behaviour Analysis before these students arrive in the fall. As can be imagined, ETFO is calling for many more supports to be in place before these challenged students arrive back in their classes. Bratina shared that “no teacher in Ontario is trained to deal with the diversity of behaviours and specialized programming that these children will need. Teachers are trained to deliver curriculum.”

Bratina concluded our talk by issuing the Ministry of Education a challenge that would be willingly taken on by many of her members. ETFO members “would love to see someone from the Ministry or even the Premier come in” to see how underfunded classrooms function, long before any of these proposed cuts at both elementary and secondary take place.

The future of schooling in Ontario promises to be a challenging one as government and their education workers seem to be at loggerheads already, months before formal negotiations are slated to start.