On the day the Ontario government announced the repeal of contentious legislation used to impose contracts on teachers, two men vying for the premiership outlined proposals for education reform certain to court further controversy with the province's unions.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said he would rewrite teachers' job descriptions to add more responsibilities. Among other things, he would compel them to put in extra hours after school to work with children outside class.
Blaming "teacher union bosses" for the current work-to-rule – which has seen public-school educators withdraw voluntary services, including running clubs and coaching sports teams – Mr. Hudak pitched his plan as a way of getting students their extracurricular activities back.
"The relationship between the teacher and her students is unique, it's human and it goes past 3 p.m.," he said Monday at a gymnasium in suburban Toronto.
Meanwhile, Harinder Takhar, a Liberal MPP running for his party's leadership, proposed cutting some 9,700 school support-staff jobs as a cost-control measure. The idea, first outlined by economist Don Drummond last year, would eliminate 70 per cent of non-teaching staff jobs created since 2002, and save an estimated $600-million every year. Those affected would range from educational assistants to maintenance workers to guidance counsellors. "We have a student population that is going down and we have employment levels going up," Mr. Takhar said after a speech at the Toronto Board of Trade. "If the student population is going down, the employment level, in fact, should go down."
Mr. Takhar said the job reductions could be phased in over the course of three years by simply not replacing people who retire or quit. But the union that represents most of the province's non-teaching school staff contends that such a reduction of jobs would require layoffs, and vociferously opposes them.
"It's disturbing that a leadership candidate would be touting this as an option," CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn said. "It would fundamentally change the educational experience of children in schools."
Annie Kidder, executive director of advocacy group People for Education, credited the increase in support workers over the past decade with helping boost test scores and lowering the dropout rate. "Cutting so many of them raises concern, and also feeds division between what happens inside the classroom and what happens outside. Education is about more than just the teachers," she said.
She also expressed reservations with Mr. Hudak's plan, which she said proposes permanent legislation to solve a short-term problem.
While the Liberal government has built its brand on education, the current spat with the teachers has proved damaging to outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty. In an effort to control costs, his government enacted Bill 115 last fall. The legislation prohibited teachers from striking and gave Queen's Park the power to impose new contracts, which it did earlier this month. Teachers hit back with the ongoing work-to-rule campaigns. On Monday, Education Minister Laurel Broten announced the bill would be repealed Wednesday, just three days before Liberals gather to choose Mr. McGuinty's successor. The contracts imposed under the legislation will stay in force.