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Bill introduced to increase provincial control over education

Legislation aims to reform school boards and allow the ministry to set provincial priorities in student achievement
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce speaks at a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park. The following story has been updated from its original version.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce tabled legislation on Monday to increase provincial control over education, reform how local school boards are governed, and give the province control over excess school properties.

The education minister told the media Monday the changes are about making boards more accountable in order to improve student outcomes.

Lecce read a quote given to the province’s 1995 Royal Commission on Learning about boards being “a kingdom unto themselves, with little need to report to parents or to the world at large what they are doing with our kids, and whether they’re doing it successfully,” that he said remains true today. 

Meanwhile, opposition politicians criticized his bill both as ineffective “smoke and mirrors” and as a stealth plan to sell off school board assets to the premier’s developer friends.

The Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act, if passed, would allow the province to set priorities on student achievement and require school boards to implement and report on those priorities with “multi-year Board Improvement Plans.”

Lecce said those priorities are a “back-to-basics” approach that ensures students have the foundational skills in reading, writing and math that they need to succeed in any career.

The bill would require boards to report their progress on those goals publicly. The Ministry of Education will hold them accountable if they fall short, Lecce said.

Boards will also face stricter requirements to report on their spending and be required to cooperate with municipalities on child-care planning once the bill is passed.

Another component of the bill would improve the governance of school boards, Lecce said. The bill would allow the government to establish standardized training for trustees and school board officials to ensure "they have the skills and competencies to deliver on provincial priorities."

It would also require codes of conduct for boards of trustees and create a process under the integrity commissioner to resolve code-of-conduct complaints. The ministry would also be given the power to create a standardized performance appraisal process for directors of education.

The legislation would also give the province regulation-making power to enable the accelerated apprenticeship pathway already announced by the government for consultations beginning in the fall, plus the authority to establish formal guidelines from the curriculum review process.

Lecce was asked if the reform was prompted by two high-profile controversies: a teacher in Halton who attracted worldwide headlines for reportedly wearing huge prosthetic breasts to class and dysfunction and racism at the Peel public board that prompted the province to temporarily seize control of the board.

He responded that there are many examples, and cited the problems in Peel specifically, where the trustees “were more interested in personal beefs than putting kids first.”

The bill would also allow the Ministry of Education to work with the Ontario College of Teachers and faculties of education on teacher education, expand the eligibility of an Ontario College of Teachers program to support victims of alleged sexual abuse by members, and speed up disciplinary processes in sexual abuse cases.

Another section of the bill proposes to "maximize capital assets" with several new measures.

They include allowing the ministry to direct a school board to sell, or otherwise dispose of, school sites or property if it is not needed to meet current or future student needs. Regulations would be established that would give the province the first right of refusal of that property, to identify if it's needed by another school board covering the same area and, if not, other provincial priorities including long-term care and affordable housing. If it is not needed for those purposes, it would be sold on the open market.

The legislation would also make it easier for schools to be built in multi-use buildings, including condos. It would also set out requirements for joint-use facilities — the shared use of school buildings by separate boards — after consultations with trustee associations.

It would also require school boards to use particular functional specifications, designs or plans when building, renovating or making additions to schools.

Lecce also announced that base education funding, known as Grants for Student Needs (GSN), will increase by $693 million, a 2.7 per cent increase, putting per-student base funding at $13,125.

The official Opposition seized on that, with NDP education critic Chandra Pasma accusing the government of under-funding education to the point of crisis so it can set the stage for privatization down the road.

The total funding falls $2.5 billion short of where it should be if it had kept pace with inflation since 2018, she said.

“We know why our kids are struggling. It's because they are in overcrowded classrooms where they can't get the supports they need after three years of disrupted learning,” she said, adding that there are insufficient special education and mental health supports. 

“But instead of taking responsibility for that and making investments and providing the supports what we have is a bill in which the minister is trying to shift blame to schools, to teachers and school boards for the fact that kids are struggling and he's not providing the investments that they need.”

The Liberal and Green parties focused on the parts of the bill that would see the province take over school board properties not needed for education.

“It's all about publicly owned, publicly funded, local school board property and the government taking control of that property,” said interim Liberal leader John Fraser. 

“And I don't know about you, but I don't have any confidence in this government when it comes to the public interest in public land when you look at things like the Greenbelt, and Ontario Place. I don't trust them as far as I could throw them.”

“I'm deeply worried about what they're gonna do with public lands, that they now want to take over control and sell off given what we've seen with the Greenbelt,” said Green Leader Mike Schreiner. “And so, from my perspective, the priority should be prioritizing student achievement and proper investments in the kinds of supports that students need in our classrooms, not on selling off public land.”

Meanwhile, education unions also raised concerns. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said it was “caught off-guard” and not consulted on the bill.

“Instead of working in partnership to improve our world-renowned education system, the Ford government is focused on creating a crisis in public education where none exists,” the union said in a statement. “In the government’s own materials, they state that ‘Ontario is among the top-performing education systems nationally and internationally.’ So why is an overhaul necessary? What is their agenda? A refocusing of the education system should not include government overreach.”

Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) president Karen Littlewood said she believes the government is trying to monetize education by selling off schools, which it’s playing with like monopoly pieces on a game board. 

“What students need right now is caring adults in the building to be able to support them,” she said. “That's what's not happening.”

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Jessica Smith Cross

About the Author: Jessica Smith Cross

Reporting for Metro newspapers in five Canadian cities, as well as for CTV, the Guelph Mercury and the Turtle Island News. She made the leap to political journalism in 2016...
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