It's a conversation familiar to every parent and grandparent. Your child starts talking about what they want to be when they grow up and their hopes become your dreams. You tell them they can be anything they want. But you know, as a parent, that your child must do well in school.
A great education helps our children become whatever they want to be and prepares them for whatever they might face. It's no different for a province. In all we strive to be – a powerful economy built on strong communities, supporting a caring society – we need to do well in our schools.
In a competitive, global economy, there is no greater advantage than having highly educated people. And in an age when a single idea can quickly give rise to an entire industry never before imagined, we need every student sitting down at a desk this morning to gain the confidence that unlocks their true potential.
And we can do it. In Ontario, we're already on our way. When our government was elected in 2003, we made education our No. 1 priority.
We lowered class sizes in the early years. We worked with teachers to improve their training, increase their preparation time and enhance their pay. We provided more help for struggling students. We brought in full-day kindergarten – the first program of its kind in North America – and it will be in every school by September of 2014. And to better engage our high-school students, we created Specialist High Skills Majors in fields like construction, manufacturing and information and communications technology.
Student performance has been nothing short of amazing. And our teachers have been indispensable partners in this success.
Today, 70 per cent of students in Grades 3 and 6 are achieving the provincial standard (a "B" grade). That's up 16 points from nine years ago. In 2003, only 68 per cent of students finished high school. Today, that number is 82 per cent. More students are moving into postsecondary education. Ontario's university enrolment is up 26 per cent. That's double the rate in the rest of the country. College enrolment is up 24 per cent.
Now, we're facing a new challenge. It's not unique in Canada. We have to protect our public services while eliminating our deficit.
In Ontario, we have a plan to balance the provincial budget by 2017-18. Our plan will grow the economy, create more jobs and support our schools and health care. It calls for hitting the pause button on public-sector pay – this affects all public servants, including our teachers.
We had a choice to make: a pay raise for teachers and continuing with bankable sick days that could be cashed in upon retirement, or focus education funding on the classroom. We can't do both. So, we chose the classroom.
We reached an agreement with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association that focuses on the classroom. They represent about a third of Ontario's teachers. We spent 300 hours negotiating. We had hoped to reach a similar agreement with all our teachers. We'd hoped they would come to the table and stay at the table. But that didn't happen. One union left after only one hour.
The agreement we did reach formed the basis for the Putting Students First Act. We brought the Legislature back two weeks early so we could get the bill passed as soon as possible.
We needed to reverse an automatic Sept. 1 rollover of teacher contracts. This rollover will increase pay and grant more bankable sick days at a cost of $473-million this year. We can't afford that. Our legislation also maintains stability in our schools by preventing any labour disruptions for the next two years. Because we can't afford that, either.
If passed, our new education law secures $2-billion in savings. This makes it possible to finish rolling out full-day kindergarten and keep class sizes down – so our students can keep improving their test scores and graduating in even greater numbers. In short, our plan continues our progress in our schools.
It's disappointing the New Democrats have chosen a pay raise for teachers instead of preserving progress in the classroom. The Progressive Conservatives, for their part, have been very clear. They would cancel full-day kindergarten. Both positions are shortsighted.
We can all see how much our world is changing. Consumers want products that are continually improving. Industry is keeping up with shifting trends. New trading partners emerge. But a high-skills, high-knowledge, innovative work force will always be in demand. So investments in classrooms always rise in value over time.
Our government will keep partnering with teachers by focusing on our shared priority: students. Together, we'll ensure that Ontario has the engaged, thoughtful citizens and the highly educated work force needed to build a bright future for our province and a stronger Canada for all.
Dalton McGuinty is Premier of Ontario.