As the Dust from US Midterm Elections Settles, Some Improvements in the Public Education Situation

.Mike Petrilli is the key player at the Thomas B Fordham foundation, an important corporate reform outfit. He summed up the situation by saying, “We are at a very low point. We have lost some of the magic in this polarized era. There is just no appetite for [corporate] reform.”

 

Much of the depression of the reformers is coming from actual results on the ground which are reflected in political results. Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute AEI opines that “reformers overpromise and underdeliver.” The facts bear him out. Many privatizers shifted focus to charters (public and private) as the Voucher system failed to get any real traction. Poor kids, sent to more affluent private schools on vouchers actually regressed, especially in math. Charters growth has totally stalled out at about 4% enrolment and is poaching more from private and parochial schools than the public system. Charter advocates have turned increasingly against standardized testing as they have totally failed to demonstrate any academic advantages over public education. Trump’s education secretary touts “parent satisfaction over test results” as her guiding principle, largely meaning conservative and religious values propagated in charter and voucher schools which was her main purpose from the get go.


 

https://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/school-privatization-agenda-took-major-beating-midterms

 

The list below feature only some of the main highlights.

Although this site does not have a lot of faith in the American, institutional Democratic Party, coming out of the midterm elections, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. We concern ourselves with American educational politics because both bad and good ideas have a history of spreading to other jurisdictions and including across international boundaries. The zealots of standardized testing and privatization are weaker in Canada, but ever present.

One of the best litmus tests of progress is that the American corporate reform movement in education, suffered some stinging losses that has put them into a blue funk, literally. Since the 1990s at least, corporate education reform, centered on testing and privatization, has had bipartisan support from Bush 41 to Clinton, to Bush 43, to

Obama, but that has seriously shifted thanks to the efforts of the AFT, NEA, Bernie Sanders and Liz Warren. There are still Democrats that still favour charters but they are significantly weakened as “reform” has become strongly associated with the GOP, Betsy DeVos and Trump

There are real reasons to be optimistic. Testing is clearly no panacea and neither is privatization through charters or vouchers. This right wing corporate movement however, cannot be expected to simply disappear. It has existed, in one form or another for more than a century. On the other hand the movement has stalled out and it is advantage progressives. It is the time to press the advantage in every forum.

Trying to restrict this piece to education is the point here but the overlap of fundamental charter rights is unavoidable. Ford, at any time can pull out the  NWC bazooka to override any enumerated human rights. Many of the aggrieved over sex ed, cap and trade, future Tesla type issues might just find their normal court remedies have been severely circumscribed. Ford basically is saying, “talk to me in 4 years”. He has announced he “won't be shy about using the NWC again”.

 

The sex ed curriculum:

 

We all know the background by now, to placate a very small group of socially conservative Evangelicals, Ford, both for leadership and general election purposes, caved into their demands. What would seem to progressives to be a blunder has two highly strategic political goals. The first is the ever present threat, that mainly white Evangelicals will break off and revive the Christian Heritage Party if the Tories don’t keep them sweet. Understand, even a 5-6% social conservative party, built on the anti-abortion base, could wreck Tory chances in a general election. Secondly, the Tories have found a huge group of mainly traditional south Asian and Chinese voters who agree with the Tories on these issues. Safe seats like Scarborough Agincourt {known locally as Asian Court) with Liberal MPP Soo Wong were blown away due to Sex Ed and Marijuana policies of provincial and federal Liberals. Many Chinese voters have a deep and instinctive fear of drugs dating back to the opium wars in China, over 100 years ago. Conservative immigrants look at the 2015 sex ed curriculum as far too much too soon.

 

The Liberals did what Sir Humphrey Appleby the civil servant in the British sitcom Yes Minister, always warned the minister of by  saying “that would be a very courageous decision Mr Minister” which the minister interpreted as a foolhardy, vote losing proposition and reconsidered. This bravery, which we support, may have dealt the Liberal Party a crippling blow in the June election.

 

Expectation: After the provincial government sex ed consultations, Tories will huddle and eventually produce recommendations half way between 1990s version and 2015 version of the HPE sex ed curriculum They’ll probably raise the grade level for the introduction of some topics. The very most controversial topics (gender identity, gender fluidity)  may still be dropped or pushed to high school level. Equity for Tories is not a motivator.

 

Recommendation: Progressives need to organize across the province to swamp the consultation hearings with well reasoned professional argumentation, while continuing the court cases. Do not be surprised if Ford uses the Notwithstanding clause on every single legal case where he is allowed from here on. Ford has to demonstrate to the social conservatives that they must stick with him while also showing some conservative centrists that he can be flexible if, in his opinion, they don’t ask for too much. Progressives must get what they can while making Ford spend political capital that he may need later. The public issue has become to some extent,  a “LGBTQ rights” issue. The Tories may look at the voter demographics and see just 3-5% LGBTQ voters. They should look at the 74% (CROP polling) of voters who support same sex marriage as a barometer of how this could go sideways for them. Witnessing the student strikes already means this issues may be an ongoing toothache for Ford.

 

The snitch line:

 

Tories were a bit blindsided by the strong stand taken by the teacher unions, particularly ETFO, as the Sex Ed issue is primarily a K-8 issue. To please the Tanya Granic Allen, Evangelical crowd, they stumbled onto a snitch line as a solution but they forget that they are not the teachers employers and the best the snitch line could do is to forward info to the college of teachers and the school boards, the teachers real employers who, for the most part support the 2015 curriculum. Nobody likes a snitch anywhere. This one may have already backfired on them.

 

Expectation: This issue will soon fade into irrelevance.

 

Recommendation: Temping as it is, to flood the line with fake calls, the media will blame teachers and turn a PR win into a loss. Grin and bear it.  


 

EQAO testing and math scores:

 

It looks now as if all of the work by the review committee ordered by Kathleen Wynne and the recommendation to eliminate grade 3 testing will probably be lost by the change of government. Why are math scores down if in fact there is any actual decline? Anyone with a vague notion of education data on a world scale knows that it is poor kids overwhelmingly, and almost exclusively who do badly in school generally speaking. The Tories cannot be blamed for the present state of math since poverty in Ontario, increased markedly under the Liberal regime 2003-2018. This is a shameful legacy for the Liberals. The Tories, however, have basically announced that they intend to increase poverty by stopping the minimum wage increase at $14/h, slowing scheduled increases in welfare payments and ending the Liberal experiment in guaranteed annual income prematurely.

 

This deliberate policy of increased immiseration will directly lower student scores . For those who want to pump up scores to compete with Asian countries, almost the only nations ahead of Canada on PISA OECD math for 15 year olds, the items below offer the prescription.

 

1) Itinerant math specialists from grade one on.

2) more curriculum time

3) balance traditional and discovery math,

4) Memorization of multiplication tables.

 

This will pump up scores to please governments but  not do much to help with the far more critical ‘problem solving’ aspect of mathematics. Two non Asian nations have higher math scores on PISA testing than Canada, Estonia and Switzerland. Only Japan and Korea in Asia (real nations not artificial city states) have higher scores.

 

https://www.businessinsider.com/pisa-worldwide-ranking-of-math-science-reading-skills-2016-12

 

Expectation:

Ford is highly unlikely to abolish the EQAO although this should remain the teachers’ federations position. They should also push for a policy of testing only on a 3-4 year cycle. This may be possible as a cost saving measure. This at least, makes it awkward for a government seeking ‘efficiencies’.

 

Recommendation:

Turn every complaint about scores around by 1) explaining that poverty is the cause, 2) pushing above cost free mitigation, 3) pointing to outstanding PISA and TIMMS results and undermining the credibility of EQAO which is out of step with international scores. Canada has the world’s highest % of post secondary graduates. It isn’t even close.

 

School repairs

 

The backlog of school repairs across Ontario is $15 billion. This is a staggering sum of money. One might think that the school boards have been negligent in allowing these repairs to get out of hand. The problem, however dates back to another Conservative government, the Mike Harris/Eves government of 1996-2003. We have never fully recovered from that government establishing such a ridiculously parsimonious funding formula for K-8 education that crumbling schools are the natural result. We must acknowledge the McGuinty-Wynne Liberal government had 14 years to fix it! School funding generates teachers as a direct result of the number students. A given number of students generates a given number of teachers with some adjustments for demographics, special education and so on. The support staff are not tied to the number of students but have been cut so severely over both Tory and Liberal regimes, that they simply cannot be cut further. The last school where I worked is much larger than when I left in 2003 and functions with about half the support staff.

 

Over 70% of a school board budget is teacher salaries. Another 10-15% is support staff. There must be some level of management. The lights and the heat must come on, There is a need for paper, computers, and other supplies leaving little to nothing for maintenance under the current formula. That can can always be kicked down the road or “Deferred” hence $15 Billion with a B. This is actually creates an unbelievable opportunity to stimulate the economy by putting thousands of tradespeople to work at good wages which circulates throughout the community.

 

Sadly, a government that is going to make magic by slaying a multibillion dollar (they say $15B, deficit, offering a tax cut to the already affluent, “without cutting a single job”, will also end hallway medicine, will need to perform this David Copperfield escape without taking on new spending.

 

This will all be done through ‘efficiencies’. Mike Harris and John Snobelen believed slashing teacher prep time in half was an efficiency. Kathleen Wynne even slashed the banking of teacher sick days. This is what governments mean when they say ‘efficiencies’.  

 

Expectations: Almost nothing will be done to put even a dent in the repairs backlog until some kid, or kids are killed due to lack of maintenance. I’m not being be alarmist here. It took a Walkerton water tragedy to get Harris to move on any community safety.

 

Recommendation: The ‘Fix our Schools’ people will need to continue to focus the media on the issue by going directly after weak Tory MPPs in vulnerable seats, by name, on a slow but methodical, four year, relentless campaign which is all we got. A snitch line for repairs may be in order.


Funding Formula:

In fourteen years, 2003-2018, the hapless spineless Ontario Liberals did little more than tinker around the edges of the notorious Harris funding formula. This was not bad cop good cop, this was bad cop useless cop. Something has to give, at the present the obvious one is that walls and ceilings will soon start falling in on the kids if proper maintenance is not done. Deferred maintenance is a fool’s economy. Everyone knows maintenance deferred becomes more expensive and minor problems become major problems. The funding formula needs a serious rethink but it will be hard to escape the fact that shifting money around simply won’t do it. The total provincial budget for education K-12, need to be increased by $3-4 Billion to offer even the same level of education that has been offered in the past.

 

Expectation: It is highly unlikely that the Ford regime will produce a budget anywhere near what is necessary to meet the needs of the students in Ontario.

 

Recommendation:  In this area, pressure can only be maintained by pushing the very worst aspects of Ontario education which seems to be the maintenance and repair budget, highlighted by the Fix our Schools people, in their campaign. We should key in on schools in ridings held by Tories, especially Tories with low victory margins like those listed below. Leafleting a school neighbourhood focused on 1-2 schools and blaming the local MPP for the situation is highly recommended as is courting friendly sympathetic, trustees and media outlets.

 

Negotiations with teachers and support staff

 

This could be the major educational rumble of Ford’s four year term. The teachers’ contracts are in place until 2019 and procedural wrangles and negotiations could drag them into early 2020. At some point, however,  the rubber hits the road. A government determined to slay a large deficit while giving tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy will be looking at negotiations with both teachers and nurses with a green eyeshade, a sharp pencil and a calculator.

 

Health and education are about 70% (including post secondary) of provincial spending and remuneration of their staff is 80% of health and education. Ford ‘says’ he is not firing anyone, teachers are tied to enrollment and have a very organized parent and board constituency behind them. The sensitivity to high number of happy nurses is critical if he hopes to put a dent in hallway medicine. This has all the drama of Europe in 1913 as they hurtled towards Armageddon. Neither teachers, nor increasingly nurses, are inclined to roll over to a bully and an authoritarian. Hopefully this does not degenerate into a York University labour fiasco but who knows, strikes, back to work orders, work-to-rule responses, court orders, notwithstanding clauses of s33 anyone?

 

School closings:

 

One of the single best ways for a political party to lose a seat is to close a school or hospital. Their opponents will make them wear it in the next election and promise to reopen. Nevertheless, a cost conscious government can't seem to keep its hands off the schools even though closing schools tears the guts out of communities. The smart solution is the full service community hub model  that uses any empty space for libraries, childcare, school board offices, municipal offices, public dental clinics, seniors centers and so on. Not closing a school can be equally lucrative for a school board. Seven years rent is usually equal to the sale price and they retain the asset.

 

Expectation: Ford will want to close some schools but the dirty part of politics, of which he is a master, is to try to make sure that the schools are not in swing ridings. Closing schools in super safe or unwinnable ridings has little political cost.

 

Recommendation: Keep up the good fight to save schools, use the community hub model as the bet defence, make Ford pay a stiff political price for school closings. If he gets his fingers burned a few times, he will become more reluctant to close schools, especially as we approach 2022.

 

Conclusion:

Education activists, parents, teachers education workers, students, Liberals, NDPers, independents and radicals need to get to work preparing for the attacks and using them to undermine the Tories and reduce their chances to win in 2022. Ford already has fallen to a 17% approval rating measured by Abacus polling.The most likely thing that will reign them in is falling poll numbers and fear of losing in 2022. Major ‘Days of Action’ demonstrations, strikes, whether on the bricks or work-to-rule, court cases, are all tools that may be needed but going after vulnerable Tory seats in triage fashion is the most effective strategy.

 

Leafleting the ridings of the vulnerable Tories and blaming them personally for funding, repairs, labour relations, math scores, and so on is what scares the bejesus out of politicians who pass that fear up to caucus, cabinet and the premier.  The Toronto activists involved in the Campaign for Public Education know how this is done. The front of the leaflet blames the local MPP personally for the state of education and includes their picture. Caption “Joe Bloggs is our MPP here in Upper Rubber Boot riding and he is destroying our local schools” The inside panels is based on details data, graphics common to all leaflets. The back panel includes contact info and how to get involved. These are distributed by volunteers, postal walks or distribution companies. Some keyboard warriors will suggest their must be a social media way to accomplish the same thing. Social media can help but is no substitute. The most vulnerable Tory seats are listed below. The Tories won these seats by the thinnest margins and they are highly vulnerable next election.