Kathleen Wynne can look to British Columbia and see the start of the new school year scrapped because of a labour dispute in which class sizes play a big role. Or she can look closer to home and see the final stage of her government's full-day kindergarten rollout marred by complaints that there are too many four- and five-year-olds crammed into their classrooms.
In short, of all the ways to try to tackle a $12.5-billion deficit, Ontario's Premier could easily see bigger class sizes as among the most toxic.
Or, if she's serious about using this fall's negotiations with her province's teachers to find significant savings, she could choose to see that option a different way. Because not only does the available research suggest it would have minimal impact on student outcomes, there is also reason to believe Ontario's educators are relatively open to it.
Insider accounts of Ontario's previous round of teacher negotiations in 2012, which went badly off the rails and ended a decade of labour peace, explain why that is.
Early in those talks, according to sources who were around them, the province flirted with increasing class-size averages – currently 25 students or less in elementary schools, and 22 or less in high schools – by a couple of students. Even if the province had left in place hard caps for primary grades, which in most cases are 20 students, these changes alone would have achieved almost all the savings the Liberals were targeting.
By the time the negotiations heated up, the government had dropped any talk of class-size increases. But that was not because of push-back from the unions.
On the contrary, the sources say, the unions actually expressed openness to putting class sizes back on the table, if not through an increase to caps and averages then through a softening of them. The message was apparently that they would be willing to at least explore the issue, if it meant the province would back off from plans to cut benefits and change the salary grid that sets teachers' pay increases.
Counterintuitive though it may be, the Liberals' unwillingness to reconsider asking teachers to take on slightly bigger workloads may have actually contributed to the labour strife. It wasn't that teachers were eager for a change that would trim their work force, but the inability to put it into the mix led to inflexibility on cost-cutting options that they wanted even less.
The further irony is that much of the reason the government aggressively lowered class sizes during Dalton McGuinty's early days in office, despite some of the former premier's own advisers cautioning the impact on outcomes would be limited, was to win goodwill from teachers. The idea was that it would help get buy-in for other changes, such as more intervention for struggling students.
Mr. McGuinty had his reasons for keeping the caps and averages in place at the end of his run, even if they had evidently outlived their original purpose. A better teacher-student ratio was a signature policy popular with parents, and the government had continued to cite it (rather than more nuanced factors) as a reason for improved student results. So he was loath to backtrack when there were easier targets for savings, such as teachers' banking of sick days.
In this fall's negotiations, though, there will be less low-hanging fruit. Ms. Wynne has a bit less of a personal stake in class sizes than did Mr. McGuinty. And ultimately reducing the teacher work force by several percentage points, as even one or two extra students per class would allow, would offer big structural savings for a government in dire need of them.
Asked about the issue recently, government officials have indicated they'd still prefer to keep class sizes where they are. But they've been less unequivocal than they would have been around this time two years ago.
Just because teachers' unions may have been willing to consider bigger classes in the face of other options they found even less palatable, of course, doesn't mean they still would be. But the door was opened just enough last time that it could be hard for them to slam it shut now.