Archive for December, 2012

Watching Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty put on a brave face for Global-TV’s Focus Ontario (December 22, 2012) was a stark reminder that since 1985 governing Ontario has been “an unforgiving business.”

RaeDaysCoverSince  the collapse of the 42-year old Progressive Conservative dynasty in 1985, there have already been four major changes of regime, from PC to Liberal (1985-87), from Liberal to NDP (1990), from NDP to PC (1995), and from PC back to Liberal (2003).  Each of these regime changes has run smack into what historian Randall White has aptly termed “the bureaucratic behemoth” (Ontario Since 1985, pp. 159-60)  Challenging the strategic position and prerogatives of the Ontario education service state, defended by public sector unions, will likely be the political death of you.

The Ontario Premier and his Liberals are on the ropes and he seems not to have heeded the sage advice of his own father, the late Dalton McGuinty, the Elder.  Since 1985, the roots of the problem lie in what the McGuinty’s father described as  “Operation Alienation.”  Getting into power at Queen’s Park is far easier than staying there.  Powerful interest groups like the OHA, OPSEU, and OSSTF,  hold sway in the Ontario public service state. Interest group consultation can and does give way to “promiscuous courting of special interests’ that “eventually come back to haunt you” (John Ibbitson, Promised Land, 1997, pp. 44-45).

The sheer size of the Ontario public service state means it is difficult to manage let alone rein in when faced with economic downturns or mounting provincial debt.  The provincial public service in 1985 numbered 85,000 employees, having increased by 11 times since 1943, a period when the provincial population had doubled.  By the middle of Liberal Premier David Peterson’s regime, the public service had ballooned to 96,500, and under Bob Rae’s NDP government it dropped to 91,500 in 1991-92, only to return to its highest levels in 1993, shortly before the introduction of the ill-fated July 1993 Social Contract.

Rae’s infamous 1993 plan of spending restraint was the first to attack the problem, but it set out to achieve $2 billion in savings by offering  public sector job security in return for “days off without pay” which were quickly dubbed “Rae Days.”

The Mike Harris regime championing the Common Sense Revolution took power in June 1995 determined to tame the Ontario bureaucratic behemoth.  In the 1995 election, the Harris platform pledged to reduce the size of the public service by 15% (or about 13,000 employees). Fear mongers in the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) predicted that some 27,000jobs were at risk if the Revolution proceeded as planned without interruption. In actual fact, by the late 1990s, after the Rae NDP and Harris Tory cutbacks, the public service had 25,000 fewer employees. Even within the NDP inner advisory councils attitudes had hardened and reducing the public service was no longer spoken of as bad for the province.

The Ontario social service state survived both the Rae and Harris regimes, especially the hospital and school sectors, and provincial public employees still represented two out of every five members of the total workforce.  Since 2003, the McGuinty Liberal Government has favoured the education sector, pouring millions into the P-12 schools and, reversing the trend, by hiring 14,000 more teachers (up 10%) while student enrolment dropped by 6 per cent. Prior to proposing a two-year wage freeze and introducing Bill 115 (August 2012), the McGuinty regime had also increased teacher salaries by 24 per cent.

Ontario teachers unions have fared much better under McGuinty’s Liberals than under Rae’s NDP from 1990 to 1995.  When the Social Contract was introduced in March 1993, rolling back public sector compensation was presented in a fashion markedly similar to the McGuinty two-year salary freeze. Facing a debt trap, the NDP sought to prevent a $10 billion deficit from reaching $17 billion.  Within the NDP cabinet and Ontario labour ranks, the teachers were viewed with quiet distain. “To many of the OFL affiliates,” Tom Walkom wrote in Rae Days, “the teachers were spoiled, not real workers. They had become fat at the public teat during the previous twenty years and had never been confronted with the central reality of labour relations –sometimes you win; sometimes you lose (p. 135).”

Ontario’s complex progressive conservative political culture may be slowly dying, but it’s taking its time. The NDP under Bob Rae tried to be creative with “Rae Days” to tackle the staggering deficit when debt servicing overtook educational spending.  Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution (1995-98) re-sized the social service state significantly, then the PC’s lapsed back into more mainstream progressive conservatism.

Five years ago, former Premier Mike Harris insisted that his Common Sense Revolution was stymied by, and ran aground in, the educational bureaucracy.  “The education ministry implemented reforms the only way it knew how: telling school boards what to do,” he commented. “Nobody volunteered that the government’s ‘partners’ might benefit instead from increased flexibility, less provincial oversight and greater competition.”

What proved to be Harris’ main nemesis?  By 2001, Harris said, “we realized that the pendulum might have swung too far. That year’s Throne Speech disavowed ‘expanded central bureaucracy’ and ‘one-size-fits-all solutions,’ and publicly chided the Ministry of Education that it could not possibly run 4,746 schools and 74,895 classrooms.  In hindsight, we were too hesitant to introduce competition and choice into these public (school and hospital) systems.”

The McGuinty Liberal regime (2003-2011) reversed the tide, then instituted an Austerity Drive to reduce its alarming $14.4 billion deficit.  After increasing education spending by 45% between 2003 and 2011, the two-year salary freeze and end to sick-day banking came like a lightning bolt and precipitated a teacher labour disruption rivaling that of the Ontario teachers war of the late 1990s against Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution.

What do Bob Rae’s NDP Social Contract plan, Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution, and Dalton McGuinty’s Putting Students First agenda all have in common?  Was Ontario’s first “revolution” from 1993 to 1998 really a precursor to the second phase of the current Austerity Drive, two decades later?  Do Ontario educational regime changes follow a cyclical pattern?  If so, what’s the likelihood of it happening all over again?

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In September 1979, the York Region Public School Board locked me out. After reporting for school one morning, my OSSTF Representative Dick Barron stopped me in the Thornlea Secondary School parking lot. Huddled together with the other teachers, I was told that the Board had shut down the schools and we were advised to go home until further notice.  As a youngish teacher in my sixth year, all I wanted to do was teach – and the frustration welled-up inside, not really knowing who to blame for the shutdown.

OntarioTeachersWalkoutD12That infamous York Region dispute, following a year of OSSTF “work-to-rule” actions, came back to me last week as hundreds of elementary teachers marched outside the York Region Board offices on Wellington Street in Aurora, Ontario.  Back in 1978-79, the York Region teachers succeeded in holding the line, but not much more was really gained. It is also a safe bet that history will repeat itself again.

The raging Ontario teachers’ dispute with the Dalton McGuinty Liberal Government, sparked by Bill 115, has led to bitter denunciations, a breakdown in contract negotiations, the suspension of voluntary secondary school extra-curricular activities, and a rotating round of teacher walkouts. Walkout, lockout, or mini-strike –it’s the worst rupture in labour peace since the Ontario teachers’ war against Mike Harris Conservative Common Sense Revolution in the late 1990s.

The essentials of education are all too often mistaken for the “extras.”  Suspending voluntary extra-curricular activities and “walking-out” of school may serve some purpose in defense of teacher rights and current salary levels, but such actions tend to have damaging long-term effects. Students remember being held hostage waiting out the disruption.  Provincial governments come away with a blackened public reputation, striking teachers feel persecuted and underappreciated, and school boards are left to put the shattered pieces back together again.

Everyone in the public education sector these days claims to be “putting students first.” That phrase rings mighty hollow in the throes and the later wake of labour disruptions like those in Ontario and in British Columbia over the past year.

Students come first in schools when principals and teachers, supported by school boards, provide those “extras” above and beyond the normal contracted services. It’s only visible when school authorities run the risk of sponsoring student-run conferences, principals support Ottawa or Washington experience field trips, and teacher professionals volunteer to coach the low profile, time-consuming track or tennis teams.

Student engagement is what transforms opportunities into real, deep learning experiences. Filing into class each day, taking classroom notes, and writing tests or examinations rarely stay with you at the end of a school year. “A theatre club can build all those life skills that matter more than knowing how to calculate a math equation,” says Dr. Doug Willms, Director of the Canadian Research Institute on Social Policy (CRISP) at the University of New Brunswick.

Dr. Willms’ ongoing CRISP Student Survey, now in its eighth year and including close to 500,000 students, has demonstrated conclusively that student participation in teams and clubs has a very positive influence on class attendance and overall student success, and, to a slightly lesser extent, on individual academic grades.  A 2009 U.S. study involving 8,000 students, cited recently in The Globe and Mail, showed that active, engaged high school students, a decade after graduation, were earning more money than their less involved contemporaries.

Teacher labour disputes, just like band program cuts, can adversely affect critical relationships in schools.  Toronto educator, Stephen Hurley, founder of VoicEd.ca, perhaps put it best: “Look what people do when they leave school,” he recently told The Globe and Mail. “Everything is grounded in relationships.”

Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty invested heavily in public education, increasing spending by 45 per cent between 2003 and 2011, not even counting the massive amounts for full-day junior kindergarten. Most of that money went to salary increases to the very teachers now cheering his downfall.

McGuinty’s prized Ontario educational legacy now lies in tatters and not even a strategic climb-down can salvage the broken relationship with the teachers’ unions.  Regular elementary classroom teachers, fired up by the EFTO’s Sam Hammond, are sure to remain embittered for months or years to come.  Militant secondary school teachers may, once again, harbour resentment and continue to punish kids by refusing to initiate or supervise voluntary extra-curricular activities.  Pity those new teachers entering the profession amidst the poisoned labour-management environment in schools.

Who is responsible for the current breakdown in negotiations and teacher walkouts in Ontario and earlier labour disruptions in British Columbia?  After pouring millions of dollars into public education, how can reversing field be justified, let alone explained?  Who gains from such bitter labour disputes — and what are the long-term consequences for students, for student-teacher relationships, and for public support of our provincial systems?

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Being “anti-this” and “anti-that” is the political fashion in the 21st century world of social reform, educational politics, and state policy-making.  Since the tragic suicide of British Columbia teen and bullying victim Amanda Todd in the fall of 2012, provincial premiers, education and health ministers, school boards, and even federal politicians have been falling over each other calling for a nation-wide crackdown and championing tougher “anti-cyberbullying” laws aimed at curbing bullying, cyber harassment, and criminalizing  repeated acts of cyberbullying.

AmandaToddProvincial and state policies, new laws, and incident reporting regulations are growing like mushrooms from Nova Scotia to BC and beginning to resemble crusades in “anti-bullying” states like North Carolina.  Most of this frenzied state intervention activity aimed specifically at combating cyberbullying and its horrible cousins, homophobia and racism, flies in the face of educational research and accumulating evidence that state policy and regulations attack the branches rather than the roots of the problem –teenage anger, pent-up frustration, and the breakdown in family relations.

Bullying and cyberbullying in and around schools has prompted quite a range of new laws, regulations and guidelines. Canada’s first province to declare “war on cyberbullying,” Nova Scotia, has now moved to require school staff and bus drivers to report all incidents of bullying and cyberbullying, as recommended in Wayne MacKay’s ground-breaking early 2012 report, Bullying and Cyberbullying: There’s No App for That.   In the fall of 2012, the Alberta Government amended its Education Act to hold students accountable for not reporting online incidents of bullying.  Down in Raleigh, the North Carolina state legislature expanded its 2009 cyberbullying law to outlaw cyber-harassment of teachers and other school employees.

Will any of these prohibitive and deterrent laws and regulations actually work to reduce the incidence of bullying and cyberbullying?  Most importantly, are laws targeting cyberbullying attacking the right end of the problem?

WearPinkDayThe first wave of the anti-bullying campaign , “Wear Pink” School Days, and so-called community “flash mobs,” did little more than raise awareness. A year ago at an Edmonton mall “flash mob” dance performance, Alberta’s then Minister of Education Tom Lukaszuk made this statement: “It’s an in-your-face campaign. We’re waging a war on bullying and making Albertans aware that bullying happens everywhere.”

A new Dalhousie University study conducted by Dr. John Leblanc and his research team provides the facts. Of 41 cases of bullying-related teen suicides from 2003 until April 2012, in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia, 78% involved both bullying and cyberbullying (face-to-face and online harassment), and in only 7 cases (17%) was it cyberbullying alone.

That key finding supports a 2012 Norwegian research report by Dan Olweus, based upon two large-scale studies covering 2006 to 2010, that identified traditional bullying as the core problem, suggesting that cyberbullying was “an overrated phenomenon.”  American researcher Danah Boyd told Education Week in March 2012 that the Internet doesn’t necessarily increase bullying but it has heightened what she described as “a youth culture of fear.”

The root of the problem, according to Dalhousie University pediatrician LeBlanc, is likely to be found in family dysfunction and its toll on today’s teens. “for the most part,” LeBlanc says, “the vast majority of children and youth are not psychopaths. They’re not out to get you.; they’re not callous. They are reacting themselves to what’s happening to them.”  It also manifests itself in many forms from physical assaults to social exclusion, name calling, and gossiping.

A November 2012 report, Family responses to bullying,  produced by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, gets to the real nub of the problem.  Anti-bullying laws and regulations are limited and insufficient in their reach and potential effectiveness. “Families are an important part of the solution to bullying,” the IMFC report points out, and “a solution that has been overlooked for too long.”

Wayne MacKay’s 2012 Nova Scotia report is identified as a positive exception to the rule.  His approach, the IMFC notes, recognizes that “parents are the most influential role model in communicating appropriate behaviour” and takes a “less coercive” more preventative stance, attempting the admittedly difficult task of “engaging parents” in the effort.

The IMFC’s senior researcher, Peter Jon Mitchell, commenting on Alberta’s tough new anti-bullying law, was blunt in his assessment, telling  Postmedia News that “government makes a lousy parent.”  Instead of imposing more punitive legal measures and refereeing in family matters, he called for “more emphasis” on building “positive relationships between kids and adults.”

The IMFC is not alone in raising a red flag.  Even Canadian anti-bullying experts like Simon Fraser University’s Brenda Morrison agree that threatening teens with punishment for not reporting bullying is most likely to drive the problem further underground.

Will tough anti-bullying laws and further punitive state measures actually reduce the incidence of bullying and cyberbullying in and around schools?  What’s missing in the current array of “silver bullet” solutions proposed by provincial and state governments?  Will we eventually come to realize that rebuilding family life and fostering positive, mutually respectful parent-child relationships might be the best longer-term approach?

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