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Canadian teachers unions are fighting to preserve public education

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Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teacher's Federation. Image: OSSTF

Canadian secondary students have been graduating high school and excelling. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment test compiled by the OECD, in 2015 Canada's secondary students were among the few who were in the top 10 for math, science and reading (Canada and Finland were the only non-East Asian countries to make the top 10). Over the 20 year period from 1990-1991 to 2009-2010, the number of Canadian young people ages 20 to 24 without a high school diploma dropped from 340,000 (16.6 per cent) to 191,000 (8.5 per cent), and since then these rates have been maintained. This was largely the result of investment by governments, educational professionals, parents and students in building our public education systems. There is room for improvement, but we are committed to, and proud of, Canada's public education system.

Right now seven of Canada's 13 provinces and territories are led by conservative governments which are taking aim at teachers and at our public education system. Unions are fighting back for their members and for their students. rabble.ca's Activist Toolkit is interviewing teachers, union activists and leaders in a series called "Back to School." We start off with the interview below with Harvey Bischof, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Secondary School Teacher's Federation (OSSTF/FEESO). We hope you join the fight to defend and improve public education across the country, instead of letting politicians gut it.  

Activist Toolkit: In April 2019, OSSTF member Jason Kunin published an article in rabble.ca predicting what Ontario high school students have found when they came back to school in fall 2019: classes they need to graduate cancelled and 40 students enrolled in certain classes. What is going on in schools?

Harvey Bischof: In April, when these cuts were announced, educators and their unions raised the alarm. All the teachers federations have been saying that Progressive Conservative government has been underplaying the impact of their cuts. Now we see the impact. In Peel, despite an increase in secondary student enrollment, there are 73 fewer teachers and 420 fewer classes for students. Similar circumstances have been encountered in Hamilton-Wentworth and Halton. In school districts across the province, there have been layoff notices and classes cut.  Students have returned to chaos this fall and it will get worse. The Ford government's intention is to cut one of four high school teachers and an unstated number of support staff out of the Ontario education system over the next four years.

AT: Do Ontario schools have a lot of funding?

HB: In 1986, one fourth of Ontario's adult population had stopped their education before completing high school.  In 2016, only 7 per cent of adults stopped their education before completing high school. What does that mean for our economy and society? Instead of reaching out to a left-leaning think tank to analyze the impact of the concerted investment in education, we asked the Conference Board of Canada, which is not known to be a left-leaning organization, to conduct an independent analysis. Not only did they find that each dollar of public education spending generates $1.30 in total economic impacts to Ontario, they also found that each dollar we take from public education will cost us about $1.30. Why? Because right now, if classes and teachers continue to be cut, the high school graduation rates will fall and each additional high school non-completer costs the province $3,128 each year. Mike Harris cut social services to give the rich tax breaks, and it took decades to get to the level of education we have currently have, which has changed the economic profile for families across the province and saved Ontario millions of dollars. We should be working together to improve the education system. We should not be gutting it again for short sighted tax breaks and to reduce the cost of beer. 

These cuts are going to hurt students. That was quite clear to those of us who work with students. That is why all the Ontario teacher union federations, parents and students are working together to oppose the cuts.

In short, to respond to your question, Ontario schools do not have "a lot of funding" and the cost of gutting our school funding is going to be enormous.

AT: So what are some of the things we can do demand the government act?

HB: Our school boards need to get more active. They are being stripped of power and it is not right. They should be helping to make sure that local needs are being addressed in our school systems. You can find your school board trustees here. Contact them and tell them to stand up for students. 

Since spring -- including in the summer -- teachers, parents and students have been contacting their MPPs, by rallying outside their offices, scheduling appointments with them, calling them and writing to them.  You can use this site to find out who your MPP is and also to find information and talking points. Then contact them, and make sure they hear what you think of the current school cuts.

AT: What are some resources the community can use to organize?

HB: The OSSTF has launched a campaign called Here for Students. If you are a parent, student, or educator, you can use this site to get tools and updates, and to contact us. If you want to learn more about the impact of better schools on the economy, please visit our Better Schools, Stronger Economy website.

There are parent groups emerging across Ontario fighting these cuts. They all have a lot of useful information on their website and can serve as guides for those of us fighting back. Some of these are Parents Say No, Coalition for a Fair OntarioOntario Families for Public EducationOntario Alliance against School ClosuresEast End Parents for Public Education, West End Parents for Public Education, Toronto Centre Parents for Public Education.

Author's note: We also received toolkits from the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Associations' Know More Campaign (along with a statement from OECTA president Liz Stuart), and the Elementary Teacher's Federation of Ontario's Building Better Schools campaign.  Here is a list of tools the Activist Toolkit compiled in June 2019.

 Image: OSSTF

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