Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Choosing an education premier

Ontario Liberal Party members will choose this province's next premier starting Jan. 25 in Toronto. As I did with the selection of a new Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario leader back in 2009, it's time to look at the six candidates for OLP leader and what their outlook on the government's second-largest expense is.
Straight off the top, this campaign's candidates feature experience in the portfolio not seen in any recent leadership campaigns provincially in quite some time. Gerard Kennedy was the Liberals' education critic before they won the election in 2003, jumping into the minister's seat until he stepped out of provincial politics to run for federal positions. Sandra Pupatello slid into the seat -- the leadership candidate education minister who ended up spending the least time in this portfolio. Then Kathleen Wynne, who has been the longest-serving education minister of this government's mandates.
Enough familiarity with the ministry to know its importance and how it runs, but at the same time each of those three has some distance from the government's more recent track record relating to things like Bill 13 and the painful round of contracts.
Summaries are based on keyword searches of each candidates' websites, as well as whether they've made any specific statements on education that have received coverage. The debates have dodged direct questions on Bill 115, which has left candidates to address that on their own terms and time. With the pending repeal of the bill, it also changes a little bit of the dynamic.
Anyway, onto the candidates, in alphabetical order.

Eric Hoskins
  •  Hoskins has no particular education platform, other than motherhood and apple pie-type statements scattered throughout his various addresses and speeches.
  • The most specific thing he says of interest to K-12 is a statement from back in December asking the government to hold off on implementing any contracts under Bil 115.
Gerard Kennedy
  • Kennedy came out of the gate with perhaps the strongest education content as part of his campaign. As the first of the Liberal education ministers, it was under his tenure the first provincial discussion tables were held leading to the 2004-08 deals for teachers' unions. For those who forget, that was the Campaign 200 round of negotiations. He's not afraid to remind everyone of this since education was the only portfolio he held in the government.
  • Kennedy has not shied away from saying Bill 115 was a mistake.He has a whole section (OK, one page) of his campaign site dedicated to his "plan for peace," which would tear up Bill 115. It was written back in December, but Kennedy is still saying this bill would be repealed and that bargaining between locals and their school boards would replace it, with provincial discussion tables being struck. I haven't seen, lately, whether he has strayed from this position now that contracts were imposed on OSSTF and ETFO. I'm not aware of whether or not he's committed to tearing up the imposed contracts (or all of them) and re-opening negotiations.
 Sandra Pupatello
  • As Kennedy's successor in the portfolio, I've been surprised she doesn't tout her education experience more often than she has. As the only candidate I've personally seen speak (I covered her appearance in Brantford in December) during the campaign up to this point, she leads with jobs and economy and follows with community and social services, the portfolios she held after and before education. Her various "plan forwards" address education only in the Northern Ontario section, but address post-secondary more than K-12.
  • Her only statement on the labour strife came in January, a plea to teachers to continue volunteering for extra-curricular activities. In its content, Pupatello states the circumstances leading to Bill 115 were regrettable, but doesn't convincingly state either way whether she'd repeal it or how she would deal with its continuing impact. It's a carefully worded statement that doesn't indicate how she'll handle the file if she wins the leadership.
 Charles Sousa
  • Sousa actually has an education section to his platform, though I wish it said more on K-12. He mentions only encouraging entrepreneurship and labour-market focused career planning for high school students, as well as "protecting the integrity" of the Ontario Secondary School Diploma. Both of which could mean entirely different things depending on who you ask.
  • He does, however, kick off his education page by thanking McGuinty's leadership on the file.
 Harinder Takhar
  • I hadn't expected to find as much K-12 content as I did on his campaign website. Scouring through the place however, Takhar has some pointed, interesting elements that touch on K-12, more than the candidates alphabetically ahead of him on this list.
  • From the fiscal side, on his road map to eliminate the deficit, Takhar picks up on the declining student enrolment vs. increasing numbers of non-teaching / non-classroom staff in the system (straight out of the Drummond Report), saying he'd find $600 million a year in reducing this number through attrition and retirements over three years. He also would find $200 million in rationalizing full-day kindergarten through student-staff ratios and staffing based more on Pascal's recommended model than the one that's being implemented. That was also, more or less, straight out of Drummond.
  • In a few sections, such as the Northern Ontario one, he mentions school accommodation guidelines to accommodate smaller populations-- which I thought many already did.
  • On the labour front, he commits to meeting with unions, "while keeping in mind the financial realities faced by the province at this time."
Kathleen Wynne
  • As the candidate who's spent the longest period of time in the education minister's portfolio, one should expect she would have a beefy section in her platform on education. Let's remember that full implementation of the primary class size initiative, the negotiation of the 2008-12 round of education-sector contract (and standing up to ETFO when it stayed away from the PDT for too long, losing its members wage parity with their colleagues) and the start of FDK all came under her term as minister. She's also the only candidate who has experience as a trustee and school board chair (TDSB, prior to her election as MPP).
  • Her "The way we learn" section, while brief, contains substantive points on curriculum review, student achievement, parental engagement, early learning, experiential education (co-ops, apprenticeships, etc.), school board governance and most interestingly to me, establishing a Premier's Youth Advisory Council -- a concept not seen in Ontario since Bob Rae was premier. Also, a commitment to Aboriginal education by working with the feds to share the province's experience in K-12.
  • There's a commitment to sit down with "education partners" to strengthen the bargaining process at provincial and local levels, but that's not enough detail for someone wondering how she would handle the impact of Bill 115's imposed contracts.
 Overall, with a few surprises, I'm quite disappointed at the lack of substantive material posted to candidates' websites or public statements regarding education. In many cases, education commentary focuses on post-secondary, not K-12. I'm not surprised by this, as K-12 is not the sexy element you sell your platform with in the midst of a headline-grabbing dispute between the current administration and its unions.

More importantly, the lack of substance on K-12 is troubling. Elementary and secondary schooling is the province's second-largest expense after health care costs. It's a government-funded service, like health care, that everyone uses at some point in their lives, often at multiple points (first as students and then as parents).
To those who are part of the process of selecting the new leader and who care about K-12, choose carefully. I hope the information above helps.