Rainbow Board, special education committee and teachers unions pan changes in education system

SUDBURY—A loss of teachers due to increases in class sizes, as well as funding cuts to the provincial autism program are two of the many concerns that the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) have raised with the changes being made by the provincial government to the education system. And, the issue of cuts is something that concerns the Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) as well.

At an RDSB board meeting this past Tuesday, Manitoulin trustee Margaret Stringer told the board that at the recent board special education advisory committee meeting, “we discussed the changes and cuts in funding for children with autism and the effects it will have on them. A large group of local parents have held rallies against the cuts that will create substantial challenges for families and those with autism and a petition is being sent to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario,” said Trustee Stringer. The petition calls for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services to invest in equitable, needs-based autism services for all children who need them.

“They (parents) have requested that the board (RDSB) send a letter to the Ministry of Education in regard to the changes and stating our concerns with the adverse impacts this will have on these students,” said Trustee Stringer. 

A motion to this effect was passed by the board with an amendment, suggested by one of the board trustees, who said the letter also needs to be forwarded to all provincial education federations in Ontario.  

While the OSSTF has described provincial announcements last week as a war on Ontario’s public education system, a representative of the ETFO says the changes will mean larger class sizes in some cases and be especially hurtful to secondary schools. They say it will cause a loss of teaching jobs in the province and that the changes go against collective agreements. 

Barb Blasutti of the ETFO for RDSB told the Recorder on Monday, “we have heard from the province that they are maintaining the class size for Kindergarten to Grade 3; that’s good and we know this decision was made because of the collective actions of the ETFO, boards, parents and the public putting pressure on the ministry concerning this.” 

“However, that the province increased the class size caps in Grades 4-8 is troubling,” she said. “Larger classes mean less support for individual students, and there are a lot of special needs students in school that require a lot more one-on-one individualized class instruction. Larger class sizes means less individualized student help. And the increase in class sizes will be much larger in secondary schools, which is even more troubling.”

“And the province has made cuts in autism program funding, including not to continue funding of the Applied Behaviour Analysis program, a program that children with autism need,” said Ms. Blasutti.  “Most of these children will now have to go into the public school system. The province is providing $12,300 (per student) for autistic children to enter the public school system beginning April 1. This is not new funding, it is the standard amount the province provides for every student in the school system. And for teachers, the province is providing for a professional development day for teachers to be trained in working with students with autism. Most, if not all teachers are not going to be able to meet the learning needs of autistic students, not in one day of training. That is ludicrous. Parents who have been rallying against these cuts get it, but the government doesn’t.”

With the increase in class sizes there are fears among teachers’ unions that there will be job losses as well. 

OSSTF/FEESO’s response in defence of the sweeping changes made to education last week, “will be commensurate,” the union representing English public high school teachers stated in a press release.

Among the changes announced March 15 are increases in class sizes caps by six students at the high school level and by one student at the Grade 4-8 level. The changes also include new math and sex-ed  curriculums, banning cellphones in classrooms and revising teacher hiring practices.

The OSSTF release called the changes “devastating,” adding that they “will have a direct negative impact on OSSTF/FESSO members and the students they work with every day.” Most significantly, the press release said, average class size ratios in secondary schools will rise from 22:1 to 28:1.

Phased in over four years, this will result in a loss of 3,630 front-line OSSTF teachers from Ontario’s public education system—a loss that cannot possibly be absorbed without a significant impact on student learning and education, the release stated.

The union also spoke out about the changes to the Ontario Autism Program, which will put more pressure on the school system, and the reduction of funding to school boards.

“These moves, along with other measures announced today, amount to an appalling betrayal of the public trust,” the union said. “Not only do they make a mockery of the claim that there is fat to cut in Ontario’s public education system, but given the premier’s repeated election promises that no jobs will be lost, the government quite simply has no mandate to make the changes they have announced this morning.”

The ETFO also criticized the changes to the education system. The Minister of Education has heard elementary educators and parents and will maintain class sizes caps in Kindergarten through Grade 3,” said ETFO president Sam Hammond, in the release. “However, raising class sizes in Grades 4-8 will have a long-term negative impact on Ontario’s students. Larger classes mean less support for individual students and will disproportionately impact students with special needs.

“The government has announced hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts at the same time as thousands of students with autism are about to enter schools with no additional supports or resources. The minister’s proposed changes to current hiring practices are also concerning,” the ETFO noted. “Research on new hiring practices introduced in 2012 found that the changes resulted in a more consistent, transparent and fair hiring process for Ontario’s occasional and new teachers when implemented properly by school boards. There was no increase in unsatisfactory teacher performance and no negative impact on hiring for diversity.”

“The government’s intention to increase class size, modify hiring practices and reduce supports for students with special needs outside of the collective bargaining process is a violation of collective bargaining rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. All of these items were the subject of the last round of negotiations and we will use all means at our disposal to defend our right to collectively bargain these matters,” explains the release.
“While teachers will continue to use their professional judgment, there is still a need to consult further on the curriculum as to when these topics are taught. Our educators will require resources to support implementation of the new curriculum,” the ETFO release adds.

RDSB superintendent Bruce Bourget pointed to the fact that while the class sizes in Kindergarten to Grade 3 will remain the same, and there will only be a one-student increase in class size for Grades 5-8, in the secondary school level there will be a significant increase—from 22.1 students per class to 28.1. He also stated the minister has indicated no one will lose their jobs with these cuts and that reductions will come through attrition.

Mr. Bourget said more details pertaining to how the changes will affect RDSB will be detailed in the near future. “And the statement that no one will lose jobs, factoring in attrition, we will be staying on top of.”

Doreen Dewar, chair of the RDSB noted that for many months now the minister of education has been boasting about its consultation on the changes they were going to make in education, with parents, students, teachers, boards and all stakeholders. “And recently, the minister said the province conducted its largest consultation on the changes made in the past few days. The devil is in the details. But I would like to know which group they consulted with that said student success will improve by increasing class sizes and which group said to get rid of the waiting list (for students with autism) and move them into the classroom with increased class sizes?” she stated.