Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013 in review

Though it's been the sparsest year on record for new posts in this space, I have been paying attention to the K-12 sector in Ontario over the past 12 months. You can get a flavour of that from the Tumblr page where I aggregate the coverage of the sector from things I trip across while muddling through my social feeds or other news alerts.
Easily and without hesitation, bargaining (or lack thereof) again dominated the landscape in 2013. From the implementation of contracts under Bill 115 to the subsequent repeal of massive portions of the bill in late January. Not forgetting the resumption of extra-curricular activities across all high schools in time for the third of the three high school sports seasons.
Summertime offered no respite, as boards individually worked to implement the provisions of the mandated contract while pushing back to the ministry on those elements whose real costs they'd not been truly funded to cover.
Then in the fall, the new minister brought her first substantive piece of legislation to the floor that could actually alter the bargaining landscape when it comes to the next round of contracts that are coming due in 2014. Bill 122 was just sent to committee for its line-by-line before the legislature rose for the Christmas break, setting it up for a potential third reading and final vote prior to the spring budget.
Other items that are worthy of reflecting upon from the year in education in 2013, in no particular order:
  • Accommodation, again: This one will not so easily leave the sphere of coverage or importance. While many of the easier (and by no means are any of these decisions easy) decisions when it comes to school accommodation have already been made, it was another year of headline-grabbing decisions. Be it in Kingston (pending any reviews there) or Toronto (delay delay delay) or London, school boards are still facing important and tough decisions on what sort of spaces students should be learning in as we enter 2014. With virtually no money provincially to support projects (outside of FDK, but more on that below), school boards have to be smarter about these decisions. Do they make decisions that benefit the greatest number of students? Or do they make decisions that benefit the most vocal constituency? Those are often different decisions.
  • Stagnant results: I have pondered this over the years in this space, but more are now questioning why / whether Ontario's students have peaked when it comes to the large-scale standardized assessments such as the EQAO testing at Grades 3, 6, 9 and 10. Witness the panic this fall when the much-lauded PISA results showed Canadians (including Ontario, but interestingly, not Quebec) had been languishing in math results in these international sample-based assessments. The far-too-easy answer? We've poured a lot more money into literacy skills than numeracy. This is the result.
  • FDK's final two years of implementation: This year had the first lauded and criticized study on the early success (or lack thereof) of the program. Of course, the province's ongoing deficit and debt leads to this program constantly being targeted for cuts. What I didn't see a lot of in media coverage this year? Parents whose kids are in the program or were in the program dissatisfied with the results or still insisting on calling it babysitting.
  • Toronto, Toronto, Toronto: A few reminders throughout this calendar year that Toronto still pretty much makes its own rules when it comes to its school system. Particularly at the public school board, where money for capital was questioned, the province threatened (again!) to withhold money and then later backtracked and where it was found that like many other boards, they'd found a way to skirt wage-freeze regulations being applied to the broader public sector. The board remains the one with the largest inventory of vacant space and the greatest need for school renewal and potential consolidation.
  • New minister: After the brief term of Laurel Broten (since resigned from politics altogether) we had a new minister with the new premier in Liz Sandals. Politically experienced in education, Sandals has made a few missteps on accountability measures (once admitting she hadn't read a briefing, only taking the summary from her staff members). By and large, she's helped Premier Wynne with bandaging relationships and she and her parliamentary assistant will shepherd the next generation of bargaining in the sector through the legislature.
Predictions for 2014?
I think bargaining will again be at the forefront as Bill 122 sees its day at third reading and royal assent. If it's passed, it will guide how the next round of contracts within the sector is settled. Look for the unions to try and catch up for two years of less-than-ideal wage and benefit provisions. Look for the government to continue its austerity push-- regardless of which party politically sits on the other side of the table.
The real question is whether it leads to a repeat of 2012-13 or whether it provides a more fulsome solution.