“I feel like education has been moving in a really good direction; schools are getting that they have to be there to support students’ mental health, we have to take care of racism and make students feel safe and this is just setting us back in so many different ways.” Nicole Luinenburg, high school teacher in the Peel District School Board told me as crowds of teachers filed onto buses.
Two days after more than 100,000 students from 700 high schools across the province walked out of classes to protest education cuts, Ontario teachers, education workers and community allies brought the fight to Queen’s Park. More than 30,000 came out to oppose Doug Ford’s plan for education.
Ford’s Progressive Conservative government came to power in June, 2018 promising no job losses, an end to hallway medicine and better services for Ontario. But the plan the Minister of Education, Lisa Thompson outlined for the province’s education system looks disastrous for students, teachers and parents.
The average class size requirement for Grades 9 to 12 will be adjusted up to 28, from the current average of 22. The average class size for Grades 4 to 8 will increase to 24.5 from 23.84. That means that most classes will be much larger than those numbers, considering the effect on the average of smaller, specialized classes.
The Tories plan to cut 3,475 teaching jobs over the next four years to save $851 million, according to an education ministry memo, reported by the Toronto Star. 1,558 of those jobs will be gone by this September. That means that the average-sized secondary school will have 11 fewer teachers, and will see fewer elective courses such as art, music, and shop classes. According to John Malloy, education director for the Toronto District School Board, a loss of 1 teacher equals the loss of 6 courses.
The rally drew together elementary, secondary, Catholic, and Francophone teachers, other education workers students, parents, post-secondary students, and public sector workers to make the case for a united fight against Ford’s cuts. Chanting “if the people don’t get it, shut it down,” one teacher who said we have to be prepared for a general strike in the province received loud cheers from the crowd. The crowd was coloured by thousands of homemade signs declaring the many different ways Ford has pissed people off.
“The cuts to autism services, will directly impact ABA, IBI services for my kids. We love to have them at school, but these are intensive therapy programs that greatly benefit them, their functional skills and families as a whole,” says Cindy Soares, a Special Education teacher from York Region District School Board. “We need solidarity, everybody banding together, educating yourself, doing your research on what is happening, getting out there and sticking together as a team, involving everyone at your schools; families, parents, students.”
“I think the worst part of Ford’s education plan is the mandatory e-learning courses, ” said Kristen Dawe, a teacher with the Durham District School Board. “By making students take these courses online, which already had the highest fail rates before his announcement, it’s unfair to force these students to complete those courses on their own,”
Megan Sinclair, another teacher from Durham emphasized “I have an LTO [Long Term Occasional teaching position] right now and I have 27 kids in one class and that’s even a lot, so I can’t imagine high school classes going from 22 to 28 or more. It’s ridiculous, teachers can’t get to all those kids.”
Red for Ed
Noticeable amongst the huge crowds was the sea of red t-shirts worn by Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation members with an outline of the province with the words “Red for Ed” on the front. Wearing “Red for Ed” was a practice used by teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland and Virginia in their fight for better working and learning conditions.
The fact that a group of Ontario teachers have adopted that slogan is important. To beat Ford’s cuts, they will need to follow the lead of the teachers in the US who won strikes by uniting teachers, students, parents and community to fight for a vision of education that was bigger than better pay, it was about centring learning conditions and social justice in their struggle.
To achieve this here, teachers will need workplace mobilizing committees in every school that can talk to parents, students and the community about what is at stake. Teachers will have to look outward and put together a plan for what is next. This rally was a huge success, but it can’t be a one-off. Teachers and students need to organize in their schools and think about the next moment to test their strength as we approach September when the legislature returns to session.
The April 11 budget will be bad, but it is an organizing opportunity. The outpouring of anger from students and teachers shows that the fight against the cuts to education can be a focal point for resistance to Ford. It would be a mistake to fragment our struggle by having healthcare fights over here and environmental fights over there. We need to unite opposition to Ford’s agenda behind the teachers into a general anti-cuts movement that can build the strength to take on the Tories where they are weakest.
The labour movement will also have to avoid the pull of the federal elections. There will be a temptation to pour all resources into federal campaigns as the fall approaches, draining the momentum from the education fight. This would be a mistake. Strengthening the fight against austerity in Ontario and posing an alternative by workplace action has to be seen as the best path to good results for labour in the federal election.
Finally, as teachers approach bargaining it poses tough questions for the labour movement in Ontario. What if there is a strike? How can we make sure that the teachers do not fight alone? Doug Ford’s Conservatives aggressive austerity agenda has angered so many and shows the potential for a major challenge to his government, but if that potential isn’t united effectively it could be squandered.