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Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, seen here on Oct. 6, 2019, is softening his government’s stand on hiking high-school class size averages across the province, in an effort to head off potential labour disruptions as teachers’ unions hold a series of strike votes.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce is softening his government’s stand on hiking high-school class size averages across the province, in an effort to head off potential labour disruptions as teachers’ unions hold a series of strike votes.

His offer, made by government negotiators at labour talks with the public high-school teachers’ union on Thursday, would still increase class sizes, but not by as much as the government first announced in March.

It’s the latest retreat by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has backed off a number of other unpopular belt-tightening moves his government had made in its effort to balance the books of Canada’s most populous province, which has projected a $10.3-billion deficit for 2019-20.

However, Mr. Lecce’s offer was not well received. Just hours after it was given to negotiators with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), the union said the offer contained a condition that would eliminate all local class-size caps, including those for some special needs classes and workplace courses, at all school boards across the province.

The OSSTF then made a procedural move, requesting what is known as a “no board” report from the Minister of Labour, that could put it in a legal strike position in a matter of weeks.

“We proposed a significant change to OSSTF earlier today,” Mr. Lecce said at a press conference on Thursday. “And yet, following this proposal, they have decided to continue their campaign to escalate towards disruption to your child’s classroom by asking for a ‘no board.’ ”

The minister said his offer would allow average high-school class sizes to rise to just 25 from the current 22.5, instead of his government’s previous planned goal of 28. But Mr. Lecce would not directly answer questions about what Harvey Bischof, head of the OSSTF, calls the “poison pill” in the government’s offer: its demand to eliminate all local class-size caps in collective agreements at all school boards – instead of negotiating changes to those caps.

Mr. Bischof said the class-size caps, which vary from board to board and by type of class, were needed to protect the quality of students’ education, and the government’s demand would allow class sizes to rise with no restrictions.

“That would mean that any class regardless of the needs of the students in that class could rise to any size limited by only the number of students you could jam into a room,” he said in an interview.

The research on the effects of reducing class sizes has focused on the primary grades, where one study from the 1980s showed that lowering them improved academic achievement, especially for those students from less-advantaged backgrounds. Other research has shown while it has improved achievement slightly, training teachers to deliver a high-quality curriculum is also key.

Some researchers have noted that even in the later grades, lower class sizes can improve certain skills, including a student’s engagement in lessons, all of which translates to better graduation outcomes.

The OSSTF and other teachers’ unions are now holding strike votes across the province. Mr. Bischof said the government’s move on Thursday would guarantee a strong strike mandate from his members. Both sides pledged to keep negotiating.

Mr. Lecce said the government, in softening its class-size plan, had listened to concerns from parents and educators. The minister said the government was making a reasonable offer as it sought to avoid a provincewide strike, citing the recent tentative deal reached with the union representing education support workers. He said the OSSTF’s demand for wage hikes at the rate of inflation (now around 2 per cent) remained a challenge. The government has threatened to legislate 1-per-cent wage caps.

But he would not say how much money his offer to ease the hikes to class sizes would cost taxpayers, saying he was not looking at the issue with a “fiscal” lens. The minister has previously said he was open to changing the class-size reductions – if cost savings could be found elsewhere.

The average class size before the government’s changes, which started being phased in this year, was 22. Moving it up to 22.5 has caused classes to balloon as large as 40 students, Mr. Bischof said.

The union leader says taking the average to 25 would remove about 5,000 teaching positions from high schools – half the estimated 10,000 jobs the independent Financial Accountability Office says the government’s original plan would remove. (The government has said no teacher would face an involuntary layoff.)

Mr. Bischof said removing the local caps could “undermine” the learning environment. At the Toronto District School Board, one type of special education program currently has a cap of 16 students, with the contract allowing 10 per cent of flexibility in up to 10 per cent of classes per school. Typically, university-level courses have higher caps so that classrooms with students who need extra help can be smaller.

NDP education critic Marit Stiles criticized Mr. Lecce’s move, asking why the government moved to hiking average class sizes to 28 in the first place, if it wasn’t needed: “This government is using Ontario’s students as bargaining chips and as pawns in the bargaining process.”

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