Tuesday, October 16, 2012


After the surprise move by Premier Dalton McGuinty Monday, I've been left wondering as someone whose interest in education has come to fruition in years dominated by his mandate, what McGuinty's legacy to K-12 education in Ontario should be.
There are many who were pouring their thoughts onto social media Monday, particularly from the education sector, who were only too eager to take credit for McGuinty's decision to resign and, frankly, crap all over his record on this file. Certainly, 2012 has not been the year where McGuinty has endeared himself to the education sector.
  • A budget passed in February that made it clear there would be no increases outside of the government's chosen priorities -- full-day kindergarten chief among them -- and decreases to other budgets to accommodate the necessary growth in spending for those priorities.
  • Acrimonious labour relations with sector unions and federations, starting immediately from the first discussions where the government walked in with bankruptcy lawyers.
  • A controversial memorandum of understanding with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association signed in July. 
  • A dubious move to apply the provisions of that MOU across the entire sector through Bill 115-- which, having received Royal assent, does not disappear with McGuinty's resignation. It has been challenged in court by all unions and federations for the limits it places on job action. It would take an NDP majority or a court ruling to rescind that legislation.
To lose sight of what was done by this government under McGuinty's mandate is incredibly short-sighted however and the apparent abandonment of the Liberals by those in the sector should be continually reconsidered depending on what happens in the months ahead.
This government took a sector that was reeling from two terms of Progressive Conservative rule (and still bitter from one term of NDP government) and buttressed it through decisions that saw the education ministry's budget grow dramatically from 2003-12. That's budget growth that continues, by the way, in the face of the provincial deficit and continued declining student populations that have seen an average drop of two per cent per year in the number of bums in seats in schools across the province.
Let's review.
  • The Good Places to Learn program invested billions into school renewal projects. Long-deferred building and maintenance projects that school boards had been putting off to solve budget crunches were funded, on a somewhat priority basis. Chances are your neighbourhood school today has up-to-date boilers, windows, life-safety systems and other building elements because of this program.
  • The 2003 education platform centred on the primary class size initiative. Regardless of your personal view on the impact of smaller class sizes on student achievement, this was a crucial investment in primary education in Ontario. It allowed many, many elementary school teaching positions to continue to exist at the exact moment many boards across the province were facing a drop in elementary student populations. This initiative also came with capital dollars that led to construction in schools provincewide.
  • The province also requested a moratorium (mostly followed) on school closures until its new pupil accommodation guidelines were in place. There's too much to be said about that process to fit into this post, but I argue it's a better, if still at times flawed, process than what was in place beforehand-- where boards who couldn't earn new pupil place funding were strapped to address shifting populations in growth areas and schools were closed to create the pupil-place funding needed to build new ones.
  • The 2004-08 teachers agreements, following the first provincial discussion table outcomes, saw investments in things that federations wanted in addition to provincial priorities. Thank this agreement for minor increases in specialty teachers in the elementary panel, increased prep time for elementary teachers, student success teachers in secondary schools, professional development funding and a generous wage and benefit increase.
  • The literacy and numeracy secretariat came into its own during this mandate and frankly, so did the Education Quality and Accountability Office. Not to mention the Ontario Teachers' College, which in this mandate not only saw control shift to union-elected members on the board, but also became fully responsible for sanctioning teacher-education programs.
  • The New Teacher Induction Program replaced the PC's teacher certification and re-certification initiatives with one built on mentorship and practical application of the skills new teachers need to be successful.
  • The 2008-12 agreements for the entire sector cannot be simply ignored now. At a time when the current deficit was in its infancy, the agreements gave good wage and benefit increases. While not necessarily the case for support staff, teachers in this province earn a fair wage given their education and experience and are among the best-paid in Canada and North America. These agreements also built on the improvements from the 2008-12 round.
  • Lastly, in the big-stuff roundup, full-day kindergarten. Against the advice of his own adviser, McGuinty chose to have a full-time teacher lead each of these classes (again maintaining and creating positions that continued to be threatened by declining student populations). This continues to be an unprecedented investment in early learning both in terms of people (teachers and early childhood educators) and buildings. Costs will run to $2 billion in capital and almost as much in annual operating and it's unclear heading into a new election at some point where the other parties stand on fully implementing this program.
Which isn't to say they hit all the right notes until 2012.
  • The early promise of a whole-scale revision of the education funding formula was never completed. Substantive changes to the formula have been made since 2003, but its foundations weren't dramatically altered.
  • A number of omnibus bills were passed that continued to centralize control of education at Queen's Park and the ministry offices on Bay Street.
  • A diversion into matters of character education and social engineering that has been controversial and distracted many from other issues in education.
A legacy should be evaluated taking the long view, not the short one. While one's final acts can serve to define a legacy, they don't tell the whole story. For those in K-12, we're now left with the task of weighing the full scale of this legacy against the legacies of others (such as they remain) and the proposals of those who wish to replace this government.