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Editorials Globe editorial: In Ontario, a fight over class sizes is the wrong fight

Just as spring surely follows winter, when a Progressive Conservative government is elected to power in Ontario, teachers’ strikes will ensue shortly thereafter.

That is where the province is now headed, and students and their parents should prepare to be collateral damage in a war between two constant combatants.

On one side is the PC government of Doug Ford, which announced Friday that it wants to increase average class sizes starting in the fall. On the other side are the province’s powerful teachers’ unions, who have declared that they will not submit to larger class sizes in their upcoming contract negotiations.

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Class-size averages are protected in union contracts and can’t be changed arbitrarily by the provincial government. One union leader has vowed that any attempt to increase them will provoke “massive resistance."

“We’re absolutely not going to be in a position where we’re going to give away the class-size caps that we have achieved over years of negotiations,” said Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.

Another union president, Liz Stuart of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, said her members will “use all means” to fight the changes.

This is a knee-jerk reaction, but it’s not surprising. The teachers’ unions have been the sworn enemy of the Ontario PCs since the era of Mike Harris.

They have aligned themselves with the Ontario Liberals and have been handsomely rewarded for their loyalty. In 2015, it came to light that, since 2008, Liberal governments had been secretly paying some of the unions’ negotiating expenses, to the tune of $3.74-million.

The unions would oppose pretty much anything a PC government proposed, but they are especially wary of any attempt to reduce their membership.

The government’s proposal, if implemented, could cut as many as 1,000 grade-school positions and 6,000 high-school positions over four years, according to the lobby group People for Education.

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The government says the reductions will be done only through attrition, but there is no question that it will increase the workload of teachers who stay on.

So the stage is set for fall strikes, or, at the very least, work-to-rule protests and heated exchanges between the government and the teachers’ unions.

It will be disruptive and painful, but the real shame of it is that it will amount to a battle over next to nothing, at least in terms of what matters most (and it grieves us to have to remind both sides what that is): the children.

There is little evidence that a moderate increase or decrease in class size after Grade 3 has a substantial impact on student performance. One study in particular has shown that smaller classes can be important in preschool and Grades 1, 2 and 3, but there has never been conclusive research demonstrating that an increase or decrease of four or five students in higher grades made a significant difference.

The Ford government wants to increase average class sizes for Grades 4 to 8 by one student, and for Grades 8 to 12 by six students. It is not changing class sizes in the critical earlier years.

If the two sides allow this one issue to degenerate into strikes or lockouts, students will be the big losers. They risk missing part of their school year, without the prospect of being better off for it in the long run.

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The government, on the other hand, stands to cut its cost by hundreds of millions of dollars. For a government that promised to shrink the provincial budget without ever explaining its plans to do so, this counts as a potential windfall.

As well, both sides stand to gain politically from a fight. The Ford PCs would be delighted to feast on the lazy populism that sustains them by battling the unions in the name of “the people,” while the unions can score points by bravely resisting another heartless PC government. It’s a simplistic ideological matchup made in Twitter heaven.

But making class size a hill to die on, as the two sides appear to be doing, is a failure on both their parts. Public schools serve a critical purpose, and signs – such as Ontario students’ falling math scores – suggest that all is not well. Education deserves to be managed in a thoughtful fashion, and not used as a pawn in some tired political game.

Editor’s note: (March 21, 2019) An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Ford government wants to increase the average class size for Grades 8 to 12 by four students. In fact, it is by six students.
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