Despite widespread opposition, Bill 160 passes in Ontario
For better or worse, the passage of Bill 160 (or 'Education Quality Improvement Act') marked the beginning of a new era in the education of Ontario's students. Despite the massive protests by 126,000 Ontario teachers, Bill 160 passed in December of 1997. The bill represents a severe departure from Ontario's educational tradition by transferring control of the most important aspects of education from elected school boards to the government and its representatives. Perhaps the most controversial stipulation within the Bill was to remove critical parts of teachers' working conditions from the realm of collective bargaining. Chief among these was the loss of control over preparation time and class sizes. The bill also eased the transition of commercial advertising into Ontario classrooms. Although these amendments have been offered as a means of improving education, the Ontario public acknowledges that is purely an economic policy. Bill 160 removed approximately 1 billion dollars from Ontario's education budget. None of the savings from the Bill were reinvested into education. Teachers and educators of all walks of life have argued persuasively that Bill 160 was essentially a cash grab needed to help the government achieve its tax cut.
The teachers strike marked the largest in North American history and succeeded in drawing public attention to education. The media presented an electorate which seemed to be polarized on the topic. Private sector employees tended to applaud the government for eliminating the waste in the system. Parents tended to be split on the subject. Not surprisingly, socioeconomic status figured into this debate with the majority of higher income families supporting the Bill and the majority of lower income families disagreeing with the Bill.
There tends to be consensus in academic circles that Bill 160 essentially paves the way for charter schools and a two-tiered have/have not system of education. Although the government may argue that school choice enhances overall education the current research does not support this assumption. After reviewing various studies, Professor Kari Delhi concludes that "directly or indirectly, race and class figure in popular schools enrolment decisions, often in ways that increase segregation, social divisions, and school achievement."
When viewed in context, Bill 160 appears to be part of a larger trend within Canada towards privatization. Similar right-wing governments in Alberta have enacted educational reforms which are comparable to Bill 160. In general, there tends to be a decrease in the status of teaching within Canadian borders. These problems also extend to the post-secondary level. There has been an increased push towards limiting tenure in University professors. Changes within British Columbia have been geared towards limiting professors academic freedom. For instance, the government of that province has passed legislation establishing a "university" (the Technical University of BC) with no senate, no tenure, and no conventional forms of academic freedom.
It is clear that the current educational decision making process rests entirely in the hands of the government. Despite a recent OISE/UT survey which indicated only 10 percent support for decreased funding to education, downsizing is still the driving principle of the Conservative government. As indicated by Professor David Livingstone, "Bill 160 is clearly out of step with present public sentiment". The obvious disparity in public support for the Bill may account for the way in which it was passed. The Conservative government refused to offer a referendum on the matter stating that it would be a waste of taxpayers money. Public debates on the bill were given stringent time restrictions. The bill was passed in the Ontario legislature. It was based on a partisan vote by the Conservative majority.
Doug Devine, editor of the local Richmond Hill newspaper (25-09-97), summarized the criticisms towards Bill 160 with these words: "So let's recap. The Education Quality Improvement Act will result in fewer teachers teaching more students and fewer subjects in overcrowded schools with less time to prepare, less time to offer remedial help and less money to buy books, supplies and computers. Now, that should put
Ontario's education system back on track!"
Although it is still to early to assess the impact of Bill 160, it seems that the concerns raised by educators, parents and the community were not unfounded. A close look at today's educational system within Ontario reveals a system in turmoil. School boards are struggling to maintain programs in vital areas such as special education, guidance, music, etc. Similarly, non-teaching personnel such as librarians, school psychologists, speech pathologists, and school board consultants have all had their jobs threatened or eliminated. Perhaps the most drastic consequence of Bill 160 has been to demoralize teachers. It is not surprising that Universities are seeing an unprecedented drop in the number of applications to teachers college. Deans of education have argued that less and less university graduates are being attracted to the teaching profession. An educational system is only as good as the people working within it. How can we expect excellence from our students if we do not offer them excellent teachers?