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Toronto, Feb. 21: Picketers from the four main teachers' unions march around Queen's Park during an Ontario-wide strike.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

For the first time in Ontario’s history, the main education unions have united in strike action as contract talks with the province about class sizes, benefits and other issues have continued to stall.

The four main unions, who have been without a contract since the end of August, walked off the job together on Friday and planned mass rallies at Queen’s Park and across the province. Those unions have also been involved in rotating strikes and work-to-rule measures, but Friday was the first co-ordinated strike by 200,000 members that shuttered all publicly funded Ontario schools.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the country’s largest education union, threatened more action when its “Phase 6 strike protocol” is revealed next week, though its memo to members gave few details about what Phase 6 would look like.

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Education Minister Stephen Lecce called the strike “unhelpful” and said the province was redoubling its efforts to get negotiated deals with the unions. So far, though, union leaders have said the Ford government’s deep cuts to education are non-starters. The Globe and Mail looked at some of the main issues that have kept talks at loggerheads.

The heads of Ontario four teacher's unions hold a media scrum at Queen's Park. From left: Sam Hammond of the ETFO, Harvey Bischof of the OSSTF, Remi Sabourin of the AEFO and Liz Stuart of the OECTA.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Benefits

Benefits funding is one of the key issues on the table, according to government and union sources who were not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly.

The ETFO asked the government for a 7-per-cent increase to its benefits plan, which is under pressure from inflationary costs and demand. The government offered around 4 per cent, then negotiators changed tack. According to a bulletin sent to ETFO members, the province said it would consider increases to their initial offer for teaching supports in special education, as long as the union abandoned its benefits-funding proposal.

More: Ontario teachers’ benefits remain a sticking point in bargaining talks with government

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

Class sizes

Former education minister Lisa Thompson announced last March that class-size averages would increase in high school to 28 students from 22 over four years. School boards were forced to cut elective courses. Government figures showed that class-size increases would result in thousands of teaching positions being phased out.

Mr. Lecce, who took over the portfolio in June, softened the government’s stand on increasing class sizes in high schools to an average of 25. That’s still an increase from last year’s average of 22, and the current one of 22.5. Mr. Lecce also indicated the government would consider backtracking on the province’s plan to increase class-size averages, provided the union comes up with ideas on how to save money elsewhere.

The minister has said the government was making a reasonable offer to avoid disruption to the education system. However, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) pointed out that the offer to lower class-size averages also came with a condition to eliminate all local class-size caps, including those for some special needs classes and workplace courses, at school boards across the province.

ETFO has also asked the government to reduce kindergarten class sizes, and classes in junior and intermediate grades. The union told its members in a bulletin outlining its proposals that it is not uncommon to see more than 30 students in a typical Grade 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 classroom.

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Teachers from St. Jerome Catholic Elementary School picket outside St. Maximillian Kolbe Catholic High School in Aurora, Ont., on Feb. 4.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Wages

Teachers in the province earn an average salary of around $86,000, according to data provided by Ontario’s Ministry of Education. Only in Alberta are average teacher salaries higher, around $89,000.

A pay grid allows salaries to climb over 10 years based on education and experience, and several teachers earn more than $100,000, according to the provincial list disclosing public salaries.

Mr. Lecce has said that wage hikes remained the main stumbling block, with the unions asking for a 2-per-cent increase reflecting the rate of inflation, in the face of the government’s wage-cap legislation meant to limit public-sector pay increases to 1 per cent.

Union leaders are challenging that legislation in court.

Harvey Bischof, president of the OSSTF, said that while compensation is in dispute, it is not the only issue, and for the minister to portray it that way is “inflaming the situation.”

Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, said compensation is “not the only issue being negotiated. Premier Ford and Minister Lecce should be ashamed of how they are trying to mislead Ontarians.”

Online learning courses

The government recently walked back its proposal on online courses, and said it will now require high-school students to take two courses to graduate instead of the province’s initial plan of four.

Even with two courses, Ontario would be an anomaly among jurisdictions around the world. Several U.S. states, including Michigan and Florida, require students to get one online credit.

The details around the online credits are unclear, including who will be developing the courses. Mr. Lecce said that the courses will be delivered by certified teachers and that students who graduate in the 2023-24 school year will be the first cohort required to complete online courses. He also said that exemptions would be made for some students on an individual basis.

A government official said the online courses would have an average of 35 students. This would ultimately lead to fewer teaching jobs in the sector.

The government has said that interest in online courses among students has increased, but it has never presented any pedagogical evidence on their effectiveness.

Mr. Bischof said that mandating online credits is bad policy. He has said that it exacerbates inequities among students, especially when some don’t have access to the internet. Further, he said about 5 per cent of students voluntarily take online courses and their success rates are lower than with face-to-face instruction.

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More: Is e-learning the way of the future or an ineffective teaching model?

Full-day kindergarten

Ontario’s kindergarten program is unique in Canada because it incorporates two years of full-day, play-based learning, with a teacher and an early-childhood educator in front of the classroom. Research has found that full-day pupils are ahead of their half-day peers in reading, writing and number knowledge by the end of Grade 2.

They also make emotional and behavioural gains, which include the ability to follow instructions and co-operate with peers.

Mr. Lecce has said his government is committed to “strengthening” the full-day kindergarten model.

Despite his assurances to the media, ETFO said the government’s negotiating team has failed to make a commitment at the bargaining table that the full-day kindergarten program with a teacher and an early childhood educator would remain intact. In fact, president Sam Hammond said negotiators have only offered to keep the program as it stands if the union agreed to the government’s 1-per-cent wage-hike cap.

“Don’t play games with full-day kindergarten,” Mr. Hammond said, asking Mr. Lecce to put his commitment to the program in writing.

More: Canada should spend more on early childhood education, new report says


With reports from Jeff Gray

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