OSSTF/FEESO’s education platform: strengthen public education—rebuild Ontario

OSSTF/FEESO’s Education Platform: a blueprint for supporting the province’s growth using publicly-funded education as the cornerstone.

OSSTF/FEESO released Strengthen Public Education—Rebuild Ontario, its current education platform last spring. The culmination of six months of consultation within OSSTF/FEESO, the platform outlines the steps that the Ontario government can take to “protect and enhance Ontario’s publicly-funded education system.” Education sector unions, OSSTF/FEESO included, want an education-friendly government out of the upcoming June 2022 provincial election. OSSTF/FEESO members use the platform to lobby elected officials and as guidance when talking with members of communities across the province, with specific interest in electoral politics. The platform gives members the power to shape hearts and minds through conversations with friends, colleagues, and family members. It makes perfect sense that an education sector union like OSSTF/FEESO would advocate for better working conditions and better benefits through its platform. After all, OSSTF/FEESO is a member-driven organization. According to OSSTF/FEESO’s Election Organizers, Strengthen Public Education—Rebuild Ontario is all about moving beyond the status quo. Given that OSSTF/FEESO organizers have been using the platform to support the efforts of local Districts, these advocates have also been developing narratives about the platform’s content.

What makes this platform particularly exciting for organizers is that our vision of the best possible student-centred education system not only involves smaller class sizes, improved access to school services, and more professional support jobs, but also that the platform makes the case that investment in social and community growth is one of the best paths forward. Again, the plan asks for more attention paid to hiring and retention practices and dedicated violence prevention initiatives. OSSTF/FEESO members have been consistent on these issues over the years. This platform, however, inspires us to think beyond the classroom, beyond the school, and into the larger community. Teachers and education workers are keenly aware of the challenging situations in schools, families, and in the wider community. People in Ontario require a living minimum wage to afford increases in housing, food, and daily expenses for their families. There is a sense of urgency for concrete actions and accountability from the next government to address and provide universal child care, permanent paid sick days, and proper funding for supports and access to post-covid mental health resources. Lower tuition fees are needed to reduce the burden on students and to improve access to publicly-funded post-secondary school.

Thankfully, all of us have stories to tell that connect with the big ideas. Listening to or sharing a story in a conversation is powerful, and the platform is a guide to having meaningful conversations about the future for communities and of publicly-funded education in Ontario. For example, we know from our experience with COVID-19 that all workers need permanent sick days now, and in the future, to keep communities safe. We have seen how a sick worker who feels the need to work affects families. We know our government is failing to invest in us and we see it all around us. We can talk about things like cancelling the rewriting of curriculum to centre the knowledge of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people which should be reversed and reimplemented to demonstrate real leadership towards reconciliation. We can tell of our experiences in schools and the classroom and how they point to a need for better staffing models that provide fair ratios for students with needs. We see the need for support for newcomers in all communities, small towns, rural areas, and in our cities. Stories can go many places and open our eyes to perspectives we were not aware of, building relationships even when we do not completely agree. No matter where you are in the province or what job class you belong to, the platform is about you and for you and your family and your community. The plan is about moving forward and rebuilding. When stories of wait lists, kids falling into cracks, evidence of deteriorating mental health, violence in the classroom, post-secondary tuition costs, lack of services or affordable housing, fractured learning, workload, systemic racism, reconciliation, or so many other possibilities are used to demonstrate inequalities in our systems, we can connect with others in a meaningful way meant to build supportive communities. Each story has a place in the platform planks: increasing student-centred supports and services, centring schools as part of our communities, improving learning conditions for all, addressing systemic inequities, and providing safe, healthy learning and working conditions in all places and for all citizens in this province.

OSSTF/FEESO’s platform focuses on centring schools as the nucleus of our communities, and as such, tangible actions must begin to happen in 2022. Strengthening the social, economic, and culturally relevant supports in our communities in a holistic and just manner provides for the “We” in society and not simply the “I.” This formula would allow for equitable access and usage of public education. W.E.B. Du Bois argued that education is the true form of liberation for Black people, economically and politically. It is necessary to actively address system inequities in public education to fortify the future for the next generation. Part of this formula involves decentring whiteness, colonialism, and white supremacy in our curriculum, resources, training, and hiring, leadership, and funding. The system must be retooled to embed Black, Indigenous, and racialized histories, to further excellence in public education, and implement a purposeful unlearning and relearning of hundreds of years. A clear example of this action is de-streaming. De-streaming must involve an accountable and measurable process which, if done correctly, considers adequate funding, proper training, hiring practices within Boards, forward thinking resources and, most importantly, the inclusion of voices and communities that de-streaming is to impact: Black, Indigenous and racialized peoples. It is essential that Indigenous peoples be recentred in public education in order to strengthen the whole system. OSSTF/FEESO’s platform realizes that ensuring the history, contemporary culture, and spiritual teachings of Indigenous people is taught, and that appropriate teacher/education worker training is provided, in order to change our practices and processes. In addition, as we move through 2022 we recognize the interconnectedness between the social fabric of our society and a strongly funded public education system.

OSSTF/FEESO’s platform is about the big picture, about the connective economics of putting schools at the centre of communities. When governments create policy and regulations to help families and working parents, students have the best chance to begin each day ready to make the most of learning opportunities. Investments in social programming like paid sick days for everyone have a direct impact on the familial lives of children. Parents who can stay home to care for sick children, without fear of employer reprisal or loss of income, raise their children in better living standards. Schools and communities are inextricably linked and depend on mutual success. This is why when social capital in communities grows so too does the success of Ontario’s students, at all levels—students return the investment as graduates and as caring adults, family leaders, and productive workers. Services such as universal child care and universal basic income help children become stronger learners. Universal child care, for example, dramatically increases affordability for parents, helping families enrich the lives of children. Since a significant majority of women stay home to care for children, a universal child care system allows women the opportunity to work during school time hours, in turn reducing income inequity. Newcomers to Canada and Indigenous learners will benefit from improved community services as well, especially access to internet and community training. Prioritizing community-based supports and services makes schools the centre of our communities.

We know that paying for a robust publicly-funded education is an economic investment, both at the micro or private/personal level and the macro fiscal level. According to a Conference Board of Canada study, each dollar invested in education in Ontario has an economic impact of $1.30, a whopping 30 per cent return on investment. The inverse is true; removing spending from education decreases economic growth. When considered together, increasing spending on community-based services and investing in publicly-funded education equates to an up-ward, compounding spiral of social and economic success. James Baldwin wrote, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” We as OSSTF/FEESO members are laying out a public education platform that is about the interconnectedness of our identities, values, voices, and communities. Most importantly, it is a public education platform that is centred in action, accountability, and a projection that we are stronger together, as the liberation for one, leads to the liberation of all.

Jared Hunt is a teacher in District 4, Near North, Rose Lepage is an Early Childhood Educator in District 4, Near North and Vanessa Stoby is a teacher in District 16, York Region. All three Members are currently on secondment to the Provincial Office of OSSTF/FEESO as Election Organizers.

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