In a snap press conference held Tuesday afternoon, Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced that the government is backing off key demands for Ontario’s teachers including increased class sizes and e-learning requirements. The move puts the ball back in the court of the teachers’ unions less than 48 hours before another province-wide strike by Ontario’s Catholic school teachers.
“The time to end this is now. Parents are frustrated, students are losing educational days, and teachers are uncertain about their future,” said Lecce in a statement. “I am asking the teachers’ unions to return to the table, in light of this reasonable offer, to reach the agreement parents want, and students deserve.”
According to Lecce, what parents want, and what students deserve, is to keep the maximum average class-size at 23, maintain all-day kindergarten, maintaining the current level of funding for the Local Priorities Fund (now the Support for Students Fund), and to rollback the call for mandatory e-learning. The announcement is seen as a major capitulation to the teachers unions after months of stalemate at the negotiating table.
When asked about the reasons why the government is changing its mind after months of staying the course, Lecce phrased it as matter of putting parents concerns first. “At the end of the day, we’ve listen and heard that parents want to be in the drivers seat of that decision [on e-learning], so I accept that parents should make that decision, and not the unions,” Lecce said.
“The unions have known for weeks about our classroom size decision but were still negotiating today largely because of benefit asks,” Lecce said. “What I’m doing is transparently telegraphing that the government has listened, and that we’ve made decisions in the interests of students because we’ve spent 300 days bargaining.”
Lecce’s desire to break the log-jam comes less than a day after documents that the Provincial government refused to release were posted by the opposition NDP. That public consultation done by the government reveals that 70 per cent of people want to keep class sizes low at an average of 20 students per class. They also recommended that the mandatory e-learning provisions be phased in on a volunteer basis starting with a pilot program of one course in the 2020-21 school year.
Lecce called on all unions to come back to the table, but the teachers’ unions responded to Lecce’s press conference by saying that they’ve never left.
“ETFO does not bargain in the media and we have not seen details of the Minister’s proposals at the central bargaining table,” said Sam Hammoind, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, in a statement. “We have learned from past experience that Minister Lecce’s public announcements do not necessarily translate into negotiating proposals at the table.”
“Catholic teachers are fed up with this government’s games and spin,” said Liz Stuart, President of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, in a statement that was released shortly before Lecce’s press conference. “While our preference has always been to keep details of negotiations at the bargaining table, the repeated misrepresentations by Premier Ford, Minister Lecce, and other members of this government are undermining the bargaining process. It is time to set the record straight.”
After Lecce’s press conference, Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation president Harvey Bischof held his own impromptu presser in front of Queen’s Park and said that Lecce’s good news story is still bad news for teachers. Bischof said that teaching jobs are still going to be lost, parents will have to opt out of e-learning versus opting-in, and all that investment in education that the minister talked about isn’t coming back till September.
“It’s disappointing that [Lecce] decided to hold a press conference that didn’t advance good faith discussions at the bargaining table,” Bischof said to reporters. “At this time, the government continues to hold positions that cut off any path to an agreement. We remain ready to negotiate”
Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner agreed with Bischof’s assessment.
“The Education Minister’s new position will still see at least one thousand teachers losing their jobs due to increased class sizes and frozen funding levels. And the Minister refused to tell us whether class sizes would go up after this year or whether he would reverse cuts to per-student funding,” Schreiner said in a media statement.
“By retreating from their disastrous education plan, hopefully this proposal can provide a starting point for negotiations, but let’s be clear, the Education Minister isn’t promising to improve education. He’s just softening the blow,” Schreiner added.
“The Minister should put his proposals on the bargaining table before announcing them at a media conference.”
Although Lecce has asked that all unions cease job action, there’s at least two strikes scheduled for this week. The OECTA will be engaging in a one-day, province-wide, strike on Thursday March 5, along with the OSSTF in select school boards (but not the Upper Grand District School Board).