I remember meeting up with Sun Media’s Christina Blizzard at a party one time and the two of us shaking our heads at the Ontario Liberal government’s runaway spending projects. I was covering education for the news chain at the time and Blizzard was and still is its Queen’s Park columnist.
“At some point, they’re going to hit a wall,” I said. “It’s unsustainable.”
So that all three front-runners in this weekend’s Liberal leadership convention have nothing to say against their party’s record on education spending – just that wee bugaboo about how the Liberal government has treated teachers lately – should tell you something about what’s in store from any one of them on the education file, whomever succeeds to the leadership, and to the Premier’s office in this province.
That said, I can tell you a few other things about each of them from my observations of Gerard Kennedy, Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne when each successively held office as Ontario’s education minister.
Gerard Kennedy came into the role fresh off his position as education critic in 2003. As critic, Kennedy did a good job of schooling himself on Ontario’s education system, criss-crossing the province’s school boards and meeting with teachers, students and trustees, which surely didn’t hurt him at election time. As education minister, he came in well-versed and promising that Ontario schools were too different to be micromanaged from Queen’s Park. History has shown how ironic that was, considering we have seen nothing but an ever-increasing grip on control of local schools and boards since the Liberals came to power.
It was Kennedy who put a moratorium on school closures while the province came up with a policy on how they should be done, and Kennedy who introduced the quasi-province-wide contract bargaining process with teachers that predictably crashed and burned over the last year because it lacked legally-defined roles or rules to keep things in check when goodwill and more importantly, cash, evaporated.
At the time though, the process worked reasonably well, partly because it was new and unknown, and nobody had yet had the chance to develop a strong strategy for it going in. As well, that first contract under Kennedy finally put Catholic teachers on par, money-wise, with everybody else. It wasn’t all easy though – Kennedy did have to apply the screws towards the end by threatening to withdraw parts of the monetary package if recalcitrant unions and school boards did not agree to the deal before provincial deadlines.
Whatever you want to say about him, Kennedy was hands-on, and I appreciated his custom of returning my calls to his ministry himself (he sounded fairly horrified once though when I had to close a door on my screaming toddler son while interviewing the minister over the phone at home).
But it was under his watch that the Liberals began their massive spending on education with such policies as capping primary grade classes at 20 (hello split grades), and adding more specialty teachers into the system – policies well-timed to preserve teacher jobs just as student enrolment was beginning a serious plummet across the province. Under the first Liberal budget, one line on the graph went starkly uphill – spending on education – intersecting with another that curved sharply downward, enrolment. The Liberals were proud of that and as I recall, Kennedy was pleased to see I had noticed the message in the graph.
Sandra Pupatello spent the least amount of time as education minister of the three leadership frontrunners – just five months, between April and September, 2006. But in her short tenure she showed a more demanding attitude towards school boards, one that said she was willing to support them, but that she also wanted them to be accountable for their spending and management. By June, 2006, she had already called the ever-challenged Toronto District School Board on the carpet, telling them to quit whining about their budget and pointing out that if the board needed more money, it could start dealing with its vast amounts of surplus school space (more than six years later and we still have the same problem). It would have been interesting to see what else Pupatello would have done in the role if she’d had more time. But I suspect she might not have had the patience to put up with the shenanigans the education sector is so used to pulling.
Kathleen Wynne has been criticized for being soft on teachers and in their back pocket. It’s true Wynne has been union-friendly, has enjoyed its support and had plenty of teachers working on her campaigns. She is also a former TDSB trustee who was part of the left-wing rebellion against the previous Tory government, leading to provincial takeover in 2002 when trustees refused to pass a balanced budget. And under her leadership as minister, the Liberals continued to roll out their pro-teacher, education spending agenda.
But Wynne is also the only politician among the three front-runners who actually penalized a teachers’ union, for overreaching on negotiations. Since 2009 teachers belonging to the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario – the same ones leading the protest charge against Bill 115 – have been paid less than all other teachers working in the province thanks to a salary penalty Wynne imposed when ETFO pushed for more than what the government was offering. After ETFO defied one deadline after another, Wynne finally dug in and announced the union would lose out on a 12.55% raise over four years, getting instead just 10.4%. Still not too shabby, but less than everybody else. And now members are frozen at the same rate for another two years under the most recent provincially-imposed contract.
Wynne is also the only minister among the three leadership frontrunners to put a school board under supervision – both Dufferin-Peel and the Toronto Catholic board were taken over by the province under Wynne’s watch. She’s shown she’s not a pushover. She’s also shown she can toe the party line publicly even if, as part of the Liberals’ left, she might disagree with some of it privately. But it remains to be seen what she would do if she were the leader or Premier calling the shots – not a minister subject to party discipline. I suspect we might see Wynne use her mettle in a different way.
All three top Liberal contenders have said they would extend olive branches to teachers. Well what else are you going to say to party delegates, who know the fight the Liberals have with teachers has burst the party’s school-peace-and-stability balloon? Unless somebody is prepared to keep going headlong into a bigger deficit, the money needed to buy labour peace is not there. And so it’s all a question of how much charm and promises the leadership candidates have to sell — and how much of it unions are willing to buy.