Monday, January 30, 2012


Though the speculation today is all about what changes may be coming to the healthcare system (delisting things from OHIP, etc.), I have no doubt the players in our provincial education system are watching carefully.
The reports came out earlier this month across all media about consultant Don Drummond's pending report to the McGuinty government with its cost-containment recommendations. As health and education are (in that order) the province's biggest bills, keeping an eye on how the overall report is released and its recommendations received is important for both sectors.
What did we learn earlier this month?
The biggest ed-related item was a call for the province to re-evaluate its primary class size (PCS) program. As most familiar with it would know, this investment in education came out of the Liberals' first mandate, when it was a centrepiece of the party's education platform. With the odd exception here or there within a handful of years, 90% of the province's kindergarten through Grade 3 classes had ratios of 20 students to one teacher. The remaining 10% had a hard cap of no more than 23 students to one teacher.
That ratio changed a bit in the early years / kindergarten classes as full-day kindergarten gets rolled out across the province, as it allows up to 26 students to one teacher and one early childhood educator.
The edu-academics were all over the PCS from when it was first announced -- as were some school boards who identified they would have issues with providing the necessary physical classroom space. The research is, to be fair, varied on class size vs. other factors when it comes to student improvement. Fewer than 20 students with a poorly trained teacher do worse than 30 students with a well-trained teacher, etc.
The PCS always sold well with parents however. Parents who vote. Who were tired of seeing a blended class size average in elementary of 26 (with boards being allowed to push that to 27 under some circumstances). Some of that excitement faded with the increase in split-grade classes caused when PCS was implemented, but a big portion of that was how the system reacted to a class cap combined with overall declining enrolment.
Will it become the sacrificial lamb to squeeze money out of education spending? I'm doubtful a government led by a premier who has long fashioned himself as an "education premier" would start hacking away at one of the key parts of the platform that won him a first majority government.
Similarly, most new funding in education is being directed at FDK implementation-- something all three parties supported in the campaign, so it's doubtful there'll be many chainsaws taken to that program unless people change their tunes (again).
Something that didn't come out? Both the PCS and FDK initiatives have helped stem job losses in the ranks of teachers as they bolstered staffing in years that declining enrolment was having its biggest impact. That population decline is now set to move through high schools twice as fast as it moved through the K-8 panel-- and with all of the Learning to 18 programs now fully implemented, there won't be many new programs to save jobs when the student numbers are no longer there to support them.
Given it's doubtful the province will ask its education-sector employee federations to agree to zero-increase contracts, the path ahead for the Liberals may be in trying to balance the expected decline in staffing (particularly in secondary) with any increases in wages and benefits. Keep it at a net-zero level and you can make it through a mandate without allowing education spending to balloon.
More on this once Drummond's recommendations go public.