Ontario's Bill 74

Clawing back democracy
June 1, 2000

Bill 74 is the most recent step in the Ministry's goal of centralizing control and decentralizing responsibility in education--so long as the carrying out of those responsibilities is in accordance with Ministry demands. This is all about improving the "quality," and "accountability" of education, according to the Minister. But there is no less effective or destructive a system of public education than one that is severely underfunded, or one that has no significant level of responsiveness to local needs. And this is precisely the type of education system that legislation of this sort will create.

Contrary to the provincial governmentâs claims of "innovation," there is nothing innovative about silencing public debate, about ignoring those most vulnerable in society, about seizing control of a public investment to compensate for a tax cut that the public has indicated is not a priority. There is nothing innovative here because it's been done before--in the United States, in Europe and the Third World. It's been tried before, in a variety of incarnations. And as a means to improve education or society it's failed miserably. In fact, it's given rise to the privatization of public education which overwhelmingly benefits the private players, not the public good. And this link between restructuring of this sort and the privatization of public education is no coincidence, because there is a lot of money to be made from privatizing our public programs.

The global education industry is worth $2 trillion annually. In North America that's $700 billion. In Canada, $60 billion. In Ontario, $14 billion. That's the amount of public investment in the education system. That's also how much money the private sector stands to benefit from privatizing the system. And when we talk of profiting from public education with quantifiable "returns on investment," the only way to do this is by cutting the number of services offered, or by reducing the number of people eligible to receive those services.

But changes must be legislated to facilitate the privatization of our system--changes which, as heralded by Bill 74, will centralize control over the funding of education at the Ministry level, and destroy any public accountability or local responsiveness, which was once the role of the democratically-elected school boards.

The role of the boards is to maintain that balance between central decision-making and funding, and local need or public reality. Bill 74 will make school boards nothing more than lapdogs of the Minister--maintaining the illusion of democracy through regular elections--because if a Board disagrees with the Minister's decisions for education, or how this mandated restructuring is to be carried out, the Board and its members are personally, legally and financially responsible. Additionally, the Minister's decisions are not even subject to the law of the land. They cannot be questioned by our legal system.

This is an extraordinary seizure of power sought by the provincial government. And it makes a mockery of democratic elections, of the legal system, and of the necessarily inherently responsive nature of public education.

Furthermore, by renaming extracurricular activities "co-curricular," and by making these once-voluntary activities--in which capacity they were remarkably well-staffed--mandatory, the Minister is facilitating a substantial reduction of teaching staff, as well as violating the personal and labour rights of teachers. This will mean, among other things:

The further reduction of student/teacher contact; Enormous stress placed on teachers' personal and family life; A weakening of the inter-school relationships between teachers, parents, students and principals.

Again, I remind you that these initiatives are not even remotely new. They have been implemented widely on an international basis. And they have directly contributed to:

A demoralized and overworked teaching staff; Rifts--often insurmountable--between teachers and principals; The establishment of a hierarchy between "restructuring-supportive" teachers and those punished for insubordination to an unjust and unresponsive system, played out in the strategic allocation of co-curricular duties; Further entrenching socioeconomic inequities between communities, schools and students.

I remind you also that the public has spoken. In a recent ComQuest poll, the public indicated their recognition that as funding is cut the quality of education will continue to decline; and their overwhelming support of teachers. Indeed, even parent groups previously on-side with the government (including the Organization for Quality Education) have indicated their concern with Bill 74.

But this is the same government for which a previous education minister announced his intention to create a crisis in education to justify its overhaul. And these mechanisms of crisis-making include:

Chronic underfunding; Reduction and massive control of the Boards of Education; Removal of mechanisms of democratic accountability or local responsiveness; Demoralization of the character, the professionalism, and the ability of teachers; Massive criticism of the quality of education our students receive--in spite of bragging of the superiority of our system internationally

When we document these mechanisms, we have to recognize what this is really about. Bill 74 has nothing to do with improving the quality of the system because it rests fundamentally on making the education system less locally responsive, less accountable to the public, of a lower quality, less harmonious between all public stakeholders--in short, less democratic.

Education is not only a public investment, it is a guaranteed human right. But there are no rights without the means to attain those rights, and therefore it is the government's responsibility to ensure adequate public funding to meet the needs of its citizens. And it's the communities' responsibility--represented by the democratically elected school boards--to remind the government what those local requirements are, and to ensure that education meets the needs of those communities. It is this balance--one which has worked admirably in the past, and one which we need to continue to improve upon--that, along with the excellence and dedication of our teachers, has contributed to a system that has been the envy of the world. And it is this system, that has educated so many so well, that is being eroded through sweeping legislation of the sort embodied by Bill 74.

Bill 74 is nothing new. In fact, the seizure of public wealth, and the control and punishment of opposition, is as old as the hills. Surely we have progressed too far towards a more just society to allow such a blatant return to a less civilized era, and a less civilized government.