Familiarity Breeds Resistance: Harris-era parents know there’s nothing innovative about Ontario’s education cuts

I came of age as an activist and researcher when Mike Harris blustered his way into power in the 90s. His education minister, John Snobelen, famously a high school dropout, was much more comfortable referring to students as “clients,” parents as “customers” and teachers as “front line service providers,” and spoke approvingly about “creating a crisis” to justify overhauling the system.

And so we got labour unrest, gutted public infrastructure, and a funding formula that pulled over $2 billion out of public education.

This resulted in a number of trends which have only grown more prevalent: an insufficient basis of funding or other resources to meet the needs of all kids, particularly students for whom English or French was not a first language, or kids with special needs. Increased normalization of private financing to inequitably address the shortfall through fundraising, user fees, corporate and community handouts…which exacerbates the problem of how already-vulnerable communities are further marginalized. And continually deteriorating infrastructure, on top of a $16 billion backlog.

When they were elected, the Liberals implemented some good policies: full-day kindergarten is a positive addition, though absent the wrap-around care it proved less transformative than it could have been. An updated Health and Phys-ed curriculum update was also welcome (and though it became a political football in the provincial election, to a large extent the government reinstated it after cancelling it).  And certainly the money the Liberals provided for various projects and top-ups was welcome, after years of deliberate and what seemed to be almost gleeful underfunding.

But the Liberals did not address the structural flaws of the funding formula, so a number of student needs still went unmet, and the systemic underfunding continued…because things we consider to be a fundamental human right and a public good can’t be provided through good will and temporary or quick-fix pockets of cash. They require codified policy, long term financial guarantees, and measures to ensure accountability.

So when a new government is elected, and further under-resources public education, limits services, and in their media comments tries to pit teachers, education workers and unions against parents and students, parents of a certain agelike mefind that this feels all too familiar.

Except now it’s being done to our kids.

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Currently we have a population increasingly disenfranchised, dealing with inequality and precarity which makes it even more difficult for people to build community and engage with each other, let alone be as involved in their kids’ education as they would like. And because of overlapping vulnerabilities, this impacts some families and communities more than others. We also have the deliberate undermining of programs that exist to help mitigate this disengagement, or the money required to keep them operating in a dependable way.

To counter this disengagement, we need to ensure that we are talking with and listening to each other, because this is the only way we can advocate for well-funded, high quality, publicly accountable schools, where kids’ needs are met, and where educators and education workers have the resources required to meet kids where they’re at, and communicate effectively with parents and caregivers. This commitment to broad engagement is fundamental to pushing back against the cuts that will not serve any of us well, and will disproportionately hurt those who are already most marginalized and vulnerable.

So long as the current funding formula remains in place, schools and kids will continue to be under-resourced, even if the government of the day is less right-leaning. This is why we need to reject the argument that turning back the clock to just before this current round of cuts is good enough. It’s not. And while I am deeply concerned about the direction of any funding formula review that this current government might undertake, we need to start thinking about not just protecting the schools we have nowwhich leave too many people out in the coldbut building a movement to advocate for the schools we need and that our kids deserve.

These days the government’s rhetoric and policy direction is getting a rough ride. As a recent Environics poll makes clear, parents understand that larger classes do not build resilience. All school boards are experiencing cuts in total operating funding, in per pupil funding, or both. Mandatory e-learning does not create more choice for students. A market-based service model is extremely detrimental for kids with autism. Limiting course options for kids is short-sighted and contradictory. In five years there will be 6,000 to 10,000 fewer teaching positions (depending on which government number we’re using). CCPA Ontario’s Ricardo Tranjan mapped this to show what this means to communities across the province.

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My partnerwho I met during the Days of Actionand I have two kids; one in high school, one in elementary. They provide me with all sorts of opportunities to rethink the world, live my research and question my assumptions.

They’ve also given me insight into how differently kids learn, what works well for them, what doesn’t, and how that can change. And this provides me with a number of opportunities to really think about how I, as a parent, best work with their schools to support them.

Both my kids have had excellent ECEs, educators, education workers and administrators. These are people who have worked hard, listened well, and as patiently as possible navigated larger than optimal classes and the additional demands of school plays, school clubs and team sports.

My eldest is creative, but a fairly traditional learner. She takes instructions exceedingly well, has a good sense of what’s expected, navigates social situations with aplomb, is emotionally mature, works well independently, and has always been able to advocate extremely effectively for herself.

My youngest is less predictable, more out-of-the-box, with less patience for “playing the game,” some of which of course has to do with how we socialize boys and girls differently. He needs more time to express himself clearly, more time to settle, and more breaks. Adults and caregivers require more time and patience to navigate his leaps of logic (and recover from their laughter at his quirky sense of humour).

I know my daughter will be shortchanged by what’s being done to public education. This infuriates me.

My son, however, won’t just be shortchanged. He will be damaged academically and socially by these cuts. He’s more likely to be that kid who will get caught in the shuffle, whose silent signals of discomfort or confusionthat often look like disinterestcan go unnoticed in a larger classroom; whose requirements for a more flexible approach while he gets comfortable with his surroundings and what’s expected of him are less likely to be met. And not because educators and education workers and schools aren’t working as hard as they can, and operating with the best of intentions, but because of the erosion of the system’s ability to care for and meet the needs of kids who are already more vulnerable.

Of course, we’ll mitigate that to the best of our ability, with meetings and tutors and extracurricular activities and extra attention that the school can simply no longer providenot for lack of trying, but because of the higher number of kids each educator and education worker is responsible for. When it comes down to it, my son is one of the lucky ones. But access to a human rightand quality education education is a human rightshould never be about luck. And it should certainly never be about privilege.

And surely our kidsall our kidsdeserve more than, at best, being merely shortchanged.


A version of this commentary appears in the winter/spring 2020 issue of Our Schools / Our Selves, which is included with the January/February CCPA Monitor. OS/OS will now be appearing twice a year in the Monitor, and available on the CCPA website. 

Erika Shaker is interim director of the CCPA National Office and Editor of Our Schools / Our Selves. She is on Twitter at @ErikaShaker. 

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