The Ford government gets straight F’s for its ill-fated effort to revamp our once proud educational system
Photos by Mansoor Tanweer/Government of Ontario/Flickr/Wiki Commons

The Ford government gets straight F’s for its ill-fated effort to revamp our once proud educational system

You might have heard a true story like this one. There’s a woman who's been married six times – twice to the same guy. The last one was her “ever-after” man. That was before he cleaned out her bank account and caught a late flight to Cabo. Yes, she continually ignored that wise old adage: 'fool me once, shame on you, but fool me again and again and again, and shame on me.'

Which brings us to Doug Ford. Since taking office last year, the Ontario premier has done his utmost to abuse the trust voters gave him last June. And he’s done it again and again and again.

Ford lied when he said he’d stop the gravy train at Queen’s Park. Cases in point: chief of staff, Dean French, the king of nepotism (fired!); and his buddy Ron Taverner, who he tried to install as OPP head (withdraws his candidacy!). We’re still wondering about Ford’s buddy-buddy Ron Chatha getting a PC government appointment to sit on the Peel police board. How a real estate agent with zero experience in law enforcement is going to help turn around the force, is beyond bizarre. But welcome to the bizarro world of our premier.

He fibbed about not allowing development on our sacred Greenbelt lands, and only reversed course when public outrage reached 10 on the decibel meter. But then flip-flopped again with a new bill that paves the way for developers to plough over our protected greenspaces.

He even channeled his inner Pinocchio when he told this whopper: no healthcare cuts to key programs, like autism and cancer.

He vowed to be a populist premier whose government would be a godsend to the little people – yes you, the working stiffs.

When his party passed Bill 108 which turned out to be a blatant give-over to his rich friends in the development industry, after pledging to back off during the election campaign when a video leaked showing him making promises to builders – The Greenbelt is all yours if you help get me elected – his Trumpian credibility became crystal clear.

So, like duh, the inevitable happened: Ford’s poll numbers began to wash away faster than footprints in the sand. They now register in Kathleen Wynne territory, when she limped with her party’s rotting carcass to their demise. His approval ratings are now in the high teens, very Wynne-like.

But Premier Doug knows when the people are restless. Feeling the heat lately, he did what all bad leaders do: he blamed everyone but himself for his unpopularity. He reshuffled his cabinet, which meant the ouster of education minister Lisa Thompson, who will be forever remembered for her Betsy DeVos-like response to criticism leveled against her ministry for undermining its central purpose, the caretaking of our public education system, which millions of Ontario families rely on. She cut per-student funding and announced larger class sizes.

Former education minister Lisa Thompson

Her reasoning is that it would toughen up students. That seemed to clang against the reality of a rise in anxiety levels in students, captured in the latest government-sponsored report called The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS). Among the concerning trends is a growing number of students – particularly girls – having clear symptoms of depression and anxiety. According to Statistics Canada, 23 per cent of people over the age of 15 report they have “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressful levels each day. How these levels will drop by jamming even more students into classrooms is anyone’s guess?

Professor Charles Pascal of the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE) called the Ford government’s damage to the public education system “catastrophic”.

Minister making changes

Now we have a new education minister named Stephen Lecce, MPP (King-Vaughan) who hopefully comes with ideas and is ready to put his government back in the good graces of a public that has lately turned rather cynical, even nasty.

New Education Minister Stephen Lecce speaks to students

The Ford team is preparing changes to Ontario’s high school offerings (largely the loss of specialized classes due to the decrease in teachers as a result of larger class sizes). The changes also include new lessons that will help our beleaguered and over-crowded students learn how to handle money, and prepare for the future job market, as it goes through transformative change in a rapidly innovating global economy.

A revised Career Studies course curriculum will begin in September, and Lecce is promising to add new elements of financial literacy so students get even more learning in the practicalities of handling money, paying bills and tuition fees, using credit responsibly, while also getting more prep for a job market that is being driven by rapidly innovating technology.

The jobs today and tomorrow and five years from now, might be made obsolete, but our students will be ready – Lecce and Ford say. The latter is a former Humber College dropout who was unready for higher learning and peeled it back to dad’s lucrative labelling business in Etobicoke after only a couple of months of hitting the books. 

Lecce’s new initiatives were unveiled at York University earlier this week.

Giving students better tools to handle money in a mandatory half-semester course will see them actually formulate a budget for the year after they graduate. They will be pressed to determine options regarding higher education or how to get scholarships and provincial loans. The course intent gets high marks from Stan Cameron, chair of the Peel District School Board who championed something like this back in 2010. He was “delighted” by the news.

Others were less so. Wes Jackson, a Brampton real estate lawyer and former candidate for mayor in the 2018 race, said if the teaching concludes that all debt is bad, “then this course will be of no point.” 

The addition of more teaching hours in the career course devoted to the jobs of the future, so students can choose course work and pathways that will lead directly to the opportunities of tomorrow, is a welcome move. Those countries that create education systems aligned with the realities of the world will out compete others that are left behind. But critics point out that a purely market-driven approach to education, disregards the fundamental purpose of any schooling, to prepare students for LIFE, not just work.

The new minister was literally bubbling over with enthusiasm, and released this statement after the new initiative’s roll out: "This transformation will help inspire our students to think big, to aspire for better jobs, and to support the creation of a credible career pathway so they can succeed in a competitive global marketplace.”

Besides financial literacy, Ontario will sharpen focus on pathways like STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and careers in skilled trades. The province offers a Specialist High-Skills Major program that fills them with an array of career specializations, including aviation, aerospace and food processing. The idea is to develop skills that are transferable and keep up with technology and redundancies.

Or so the thinking goes.

A forward-looking Career Studies program hopes to steer students to occupations likely to survive this massive technological shift. It might even look into some of the transferable soft skills – creativity, collaboration, and technological fluency – that employers are increasingly looking for in new employees.

But like with everything the Ford government touches, or tries to fix, there are critics lining up at the microphones. Some question what real difference a revised career studies curriculum for Grade 10 students will make. Some say this has a nostalgia vibe to it – and reminds them of the last PC government to hold office under the Premierships of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves.

Harris was a North Bay Grade 7 and 8 math teacher who never seemed to embrace the profession, abandoning it to become a full-time ski instructor with his father’s family business and eventually taking on a role managing a golf course.

Former Ontario premier Mike Harris

After entering provincial politics in 1981 and climbing to the head of the PC party and eventually premier in 1995, his seven-year run at the helm will forever be remembered for his systematic dismantling of the education system largely created by the man who was premier when Harris first sat as a backbencher under Bill Davis. Brampton Billy, who upheld the “progressive” philosophy of the party he had helped create, believed a strong public education system is the cornerstone of a healthy society. He greatly expanded the education budget, promoted a number of learning initiatives, launched OISE and created the province’s community college system to give families post-secondary options other than university.

Harris, who despised much of Davis’s progressive agenda, especially his work with prime minister Pierre Trudeau to patriate the Canadian constitution, transferring power from the British to our federal and provincial governments, saw such moves as an affront to his core beliefs. He first entered politics, with a background as a teacher, ski instructor and golf course manager, as an act of defiance against Trudeau, who he loathed.

Having watched his father build a successful business, Harris believed the private sector held the key to future prosperity. Trade unions and government were barriers to the potential of entrepreneurs.

In a bid to shrink government he helped create the Common Sense Revolution. He cut the number of school boards across the province, changed the funding formula for schools while removing hundreds of millions of dollars from the education budget and changed the model for classroom sizes. He then eliminated the fifth year of high school, the OAC program, which helped prepare students for university. All of it was done swiftly, a decisive blow to Ontario’s schools, with little to no consultation, catching parents and educators off-guard.

Private schools flourished and were given certain benefits that allowed the sector to expand, while the public system was in chaos.

The low point was a two-week teacher walk-out in November, 1997, that closed public schools across the province.

After the Liberals took office under Dalton McGuinty in 2003 they began to restore education funding and soon embarked on a plan to reduce class sizes, a key factor in improving educational outcomes for students.

But Ford has brought things full circle. His first year in office was a blueprint taken right from the Harris playbook. He immediately increased class sizes for this coming fall and his budget included a dramatic cut to education funding that has forced Peel’s two public boards to rethink how they will stretch a shrinking envelope of money.

Former education minister Lisa Thompson suggested the larger class sizes will force students to become more resilient, it will toughen them up, while many parents again mull over abandoning a declining public system under Ford, for the sake of their children’s future.

Higher end private boarding schools cost about $50,000 annually per student. The lower range in Ontario is about $20,000 including all fees, student trips, daily transportation, uniforms and other additional costs. That means parents with two children would need between $40,000 and $100,000 of post-tax income to opt out of the public system. According to the 2016 census the median household pre-tax income in Ontario was just over $74,000. You can do the math.

But now, Ford and his new education minister, apparently under intense pressure from the federal Conservative party ahead of October’s election, are trying to restore the trust of parents and educators ready to stage an uprising over the education cuts. And the new additions to the career studies course are part of the ploy.    

But critics smell an empty plan, slapped together as Ford’s cabinet had the knife taken to its back.

The $2.25 million in funding allotted to all school boards in Ontario for the expanded career studies course is paltry, a drop in the proverbial bucket. We’re talking 257 schools here in Peel's largest board alone, with an enrolment of 156,000 students. There are 72 other district boards impacted. Education critics in Peel, where the PDSB, is dealing with a $28 million shortfall thanks to Ford, say if his government doesn’t provide the required resources, boards will have to foot the costs for the new course work themselves. Gail Bannister-Clarke, president of the Peel Elementary Teachers’ Local, said the ministry is just diverting attention away from the real issues: money being removed from education, bigger class sizes, and a lack of teachers, while many of the specialized courses that actually would help enhance student competitiveness and performance are already being dropped by boards across the province because of the Ford government’s simultaneous funding cuts and class size increases.

Teachers protested the Ford government education cuts in front of Queen's Park this spring

The average class size for fourth to eighth graders will go up by one and from 22 students to 28 at high schools. To save about $850 million, just under 3,500 high school teachers will also be phased out over four years beginning in September.

How this gutting will impact on the psyche of students, parents and teachers is again, anyone’s guess, but an educated one would be: it won’t be good.

When The Pointer talked to OISE professor Charles Pascal, his one-word answer to the current situation was not comforting: “catastrophic,” he said. 

He thinks a course in financial literacy and tweaking a careers program is simply window dressing – “compared to the damage of all the things they [Ford and company] have done to education.”

He echoed Gail-Bannister’s opinion that the newly minted Minister Lecce should be talking to educators, experts, teachers, parents and schools to get to the bottom of the issues, instead of trying to appease the public, and plump up Ford’s evaporating poll numbers to appease the federal party ahead of its big test in Ontario this fall.  

Pascal says focusing on narrow labour-market skills, most of which are going to be redundant in the coming years, is a rejection of the notion that a good education system builds broad, confident learners who are complex thinkers and can easily adapt to the ever-changing labour market.

Ontario’s education system was once a world wonder. It was conceived by giants like Egerton Ryerson and Brampton’s own Bill Davis, the education minister in the late 1960s and early 70s.

Sorry Doug, F doesn’t stand for Ford

Here’s a report card on Ford’s educational initiatives after just over a year in office:

• F for cancelling funding for universities, like the Ryerson campus in Brampton;

• F for raising class sizes, and upping the pressure on students and teachers;

• F for mocking teachers as soft for getting three months off each summer, and setting the stage for very tough negotiations this summer; and

• F for dumping thousands of high school teachers starting in September, the men and women who prep our kids for a post-secondary career, or entry in the workforce.

No wonder Premier Doug dropped out of college when he did! He’s a walking F and was never going to university, for an ivory tower education that he despises.

Sure, there are legitimate concerns that some liberal arts courses in university are useless, and don’t help students bring anything to the table when they go out to seek a job. It’s also unclear what a course on medieval weaponry or the philosophy of Klingon does to help students in more abstract ways.

But our Premier seems to only want practical learning, things that prepare them for the jobs of the future. His own preparation was his birthright, that’s how he inherited the printing business built by his father. The way he’s now running the province, it’s a wonder if there will be an economy or any good jobs to prepare for.

Public sentiment toward the Ford regime has soured considerably, and the personal animus toward the PC leader came into sharp focus recently when tens of thousands of giddy Toronto Raptor fans gathered in front of Toronto City Hall after the team’s victory parade to pay homage.

Ford sat on the stage as all the players and dignitaries were introduced. In this festive mood, only Ford was met with a resounding chorus of “BOOOOOOO!”

If the Ford government has a plan that will make Ontario a better place to live and do business and teach our children, it’s getting harder to see.

A government that guts the three pillars of our modern-day world (healthcare, education and transit), does so at its peril.

Ford has broken any trust he had with the millions of voters in this province.

There are a lot of aggrieved souls in this city who can’t afford to send their children to private schools. Many depend on public education, good healthcare, and well funded daily transit.

The cuts in funding which will lead to overcrowded classrooms, and end the hopes for a new downtown university, don’t make Ford a populist premier in these parts, but a pariah.

His plan to change this province in his image is no plan at all.

A revised Career Studies curriculum with maybe some enhanced financial literacy for one Grade 10 course, is really just a dressed-up notion of things students should obviously be taught about.

Ford has fooled us again and again and again, but the good news is this: even those misguided souls who put him into the premier’s office in the first place, have now lost faith.

That might make for a long three more years. But no one’s being fooled by cheap tricks, like the one rolled out this week by our new education minister. Ontario has watched this game before.

Just like Harris, who undid our public education system twenty years ago and is now seldom seen in public, Ford’s legacy will be short and bitter.

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