Monday, July 11, 2011

A campaign briefly centred on education

A week ago today, it seemed as though the front was opening for a 2011 Ontario campaign defined by education. Ministers Leona Dombrowsky (Education) and John Milloy (Training, Colleges and Universities), took to the podium at the legislature's media studio to tout progress in education over the past two terms of the Liberal government. This as the provincial government released the first in a series of progress report cards on how it sees itself doing in key areas. The education progress report is here, with the PDF here.
Overall it's a lot of high-fiving and back-patting amongst the government and its Liberal Party for a job well done. It points out measures such as 68% of students meeting the provincial standard — defined as a "B average" for the first time I've noticed it in print —in the Grade 3/6 standardized tests, along with pointing out that 50,000 more students are meeting the standard than when the Liberals took office in 2003. It has several nods to the first years of implementing the full-day kindergarten program, as well as the completed primary class size initiative that has reduced student teacher ratios in 90% of the province's classrooms to 20:1. Not to mention the increased graduation rates, which the Liberals are attributing to their portfolio of 'Learning to 18' programs and initiatives. High school grad rates sat at 81% as of the the 2009-10 school year.
It was no doubt a calculated move to kickstart this series of progress reports with education. Especially given the opportunity to poke at the other issues (hydro, the economy) that comes so much easier. With a few small exceptions here and there over the past seven years, the opposition parties have been pretty much silent when it comes to education. The Progressive Conservatives, burnt by this platform in both 2003 and 2007 have not appeared eager to engage the Liberals on this. The NDP haven't touched it substantially either.
The challenge though, as indicated by People for Education's Annie Kidder on the day of in a CBC Radio report (and likely elsewhere) by Mike Crawley (sorry, can't seem to find a link) is that when things are going OK in education, it's not a sexy issue. They're preaching to the choir on that one, considering the reasons this space exists, but it's a valid point. Who's going to come out and, in the midst of a campaign, actually admit they're going to slash the education budget? Or that they're going to cancel one of the programs or initiatives this government has implemented?
The most excitable we might get is the doom-and-gloom scenarios coming from the Liberals trying to scare people into not voting for someone else. Dombrowsky gave a taste of that in the media conference on July 4, and it's not good campaigning (yet).
The Liberals' lead plank in both their 2003 and 2007 platforms was education, so it's no surprise they're leading with it again in 2011. However in both elections I don't think it was the ballot-box question— despite the impact of John Tory's faith-based plank on his campaign.
As much as I'd like it to, I don't see it being the ballot-box question in 2011 either.