The Ontario Liberals would spend $1-billion and hire 10,000 teachers to cap class sizes at 20 students for all grades, Leader Steven Del Duca says, if the party forms the next government.
Elsewhere on the campaign trail for Ontario’s June 2 election, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath revealed the details of her dental care plan; and PC Leader Doug Ford, while highlighting his recent move to cancel road tolls on two highways in Durham Region, said former PC premier Mike Harris’s move in 1999 to sell off the tolled Highway 407 was a mistake.
Mr. Del Duca announced his class-size plan on Thursday outside a Woodbridge school not far from his home in Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto. The Liberal Leader also pledged to scrap the PC government’s two mandatory online high school courses.
The issue of class-size limits has come up repeatedly in the last four years. Before the pandemic, Mr. Ford clashed with teachers unions over the issue. And in the summer of 2020, his government vetoed a Toronto District School Board plan to lower class sizes in order to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19 because it would have cut instruction time.
In Scarborough on Thursday, Ms. Horwath released more details on her party’s dental care plan for Ontarians without benefit coverage. If elected, Ms. Horwath said, the NDP would provide free dental care starting this year to households with an annual income less than $90,000.
The plan would then be expanded within two years to partially cover uninsured families with annual household incomes between $90,000 and $200,000. Families in this range would have a portion of dental costs covered based on a sliding scale, for a minimum savings of 50 per cent of the bill.
The party says the plan would cost $680-million in 2022-23, but just $380-million annually when added on top of a planned federal program that is due to be phased in this year, as part of the deal between the governing Liberals and the NDP in Ottawa.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ford was at a Chrysler dealership on Thursday in Pickering, east of Toronto, where he highlighted his government’s recent moves to scrap tolls imposed by the previous Liberal government on two highways, the 412 and the 418, in Durham Region.
Questioned by reporters, he would not firmly commit to eliminating tolls on the newer, publicly-owned eastern portion of the 407, but he said he did not believe in tolls and “gouging the people.” He also said the Harris government, for which Mr. Ford’s father served as an MPP, was wrong to sell off the now-privately owned 407 – comparing it to the Liberals’ decision to partially privatize Hydro One.
“That goes a way back. I would have never sold it,” Mr. Ford said of the highway.
Asked about the NDP’s dental plan, Mr. Ford said his government had “that program in place already,” but appeared to be referring to his government’s dental coverage for low-income seniors. (Ontario also offers some free dental services to children under 17 from low-income households, but braces are excluded.)
Responding to Mr. Del Duca’s class-size cap, Mr. Ford said the Liberals closed hundreds of schools when in power and said the PC government “spent” $14-billion on new ones, although this is its planned spending over the next decade.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario called the Liberal class-size plan a “necessary first step” toward addressing the learning gaps created by the shutdown of classrooms during the pandemic.
Few other issues in education get families and teachers as worked up as class sizes. But experts say the evidence on their effects is not conclusive. While smaller classes have an effect on achievement in elementary school, there is limited research on high schools.
Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, a researcher and assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, worries that lowering class sizes is not feasible given a teacher shortage.
“It is not the only way to improve schooling and it is very expensive,” she said.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation reached a deal with the Ford government in early 2020, ending months of job action. The deal saw average class sizes in high school of 23 students, up from the previous average of 22, and imposed two mandatory online learning courses with an opt-out policy for families.
Currently, classes in Grades 1 to 3 can’t be above 23 students, and 90 per cent of those classes must have 20 or fewer students. Kindergarten classes, which have both a teacher and an early childhood educator, have a soft cap at 29 (10 per cent of classes in a board can be as high as 32). For other elementary grades, there are no caps, but boards must maintain an average of 24.5 students.
In its platform, the NDP pledges to hire 20,000 educators, cap classes at 24 students for Grades 4 through 8 and for kindergarten at 26. The party also promises to reduce high school class sizes but doesn’t include a cap.
In a statement, the NDP said the previous Liberal government, of which Mr. Del Duca was a part, let classes “balloon” while freezing educators’ wages and failing to hit a previous pledge to cap class sizes.
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