Teacher situation demands new tactics from Province

In mid-July I represented the Province of Ontario at the Mid-Western States and Provinces Conference held in Cleveland, Ohio.  There were many frank discussions about the state of our respective economies and much angst from American state legislators about the decline in education attainment in the United States.  It was admitted that American education standards had gone from number one (a generation ago) to number 16 today amongst the 21 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries listed.

When it was my turn to speak I talked about successes in Ontario – excellent teachers, a fully funded education program,  English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for new Canadians, all-day kindergarten and how we had gone up to near the top of the OECD countries.  And it all came down to proper funding and working with – not against our teachers and support workers.

In August this all changed.  You can imagine the disbelief when the Premier announced that the Legislature was being recalled to impose a contract on our teachers and those who assist them.

To those in the teaching profession this bordered on the absurd.  In April teachers agreed to: a) a two-year wage freeze, b) a retirement incentives program to give newly trained teachers more access to full-time jobs, c) changes to administrative practices which would save Boards of Education tens of millions of dollars, and d) restructuring of employee benefits to assist the Government in “reining in” escalating costs.

This was ignored as the rhetoric increased and inflammatory language about strikes and unaffordable wage increases were alleged.

The press did not buy into this fabricated crisis, nor does it seem, did the public.  The press accused the McGuinty government of waging a phony war against teachers and their unions to curry public favour for two by-elections in September.  If that was the case it did not work.  The Liberals retained one seat with a greatly reduced majority and ran third behind both the NDP and the Conservatives in the other.

But even more problematic is the spectre of a prolonged and divisive battle in the courts over legislation which the Canadian Civil Liberties Association called “unconstitutional.”

We have seen hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on e-Health, Ornge ambulance services and the natural gas fired electricity plants in Mississauga and Oakville.  Voters don’t want to see more millions wasted on a court challenge that the Government will likely lose.

Even the Premier acknowledged such a scenario as recently as 31 May 2012 in the Legislature when he stated, “I would recommend to them” – the Progressive Conservatives – “that they take a look at a particular decision that dealt with a measure adopted by the British Columbia government.  They went ahead in the approach being recommended by my colleague.  That matter was taken to court.  It involved 9,000 employees and ended up costing BC taxpayers $85 million because of a mistake made by the BC government.  We have 1.2 million public sector employees, and I hesitate to think of the cost that would flow from the mistake were we to adopt this particular approach.”

We are now in a period of turmoil. Each of us must try to ensure that we do what is best for our students and for a school system that really does strive to do that which will benefit every child.

Our children should not be caught in the crossfire.

The teachers know this and have stayed in the classroom.

The government needs to rethink its latest tactic.  It isn’t working.  They have lost the goodwill of all those who are committed to public education including teachers, support staff and school trustees.  They risk losing a court case and the hundreds of millions of dollars that will ensue.  And they have seen their popularity plummet to new lows.

My observations shared in Cleveland can still be maintained but it will take serious rethinking on the part of this Government.

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