Months after it swept to power, Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government has quietly rolled out what it’s calling an “unprecedented consultation” on the province’s $29-billion education system.
The chances for input, which will take a variety of forms, including phone town halls and emailed submissions, are the result of Premier Doug Ford’s election campaign pledge to consult more with parents.
But Education Minister Lisa Thompson of Huron-Bruce, who’s repeatedly been unavailable for London Free Press questions since the Tories took office, wasn’t available to discuss the coming consultations.
Instead, answers to questions were provided in a written statement from Ministry of Education spokesperson Kayla Iafelice.
“We are continuing to move forward with our commitment to provide provincewide consultations through our recently opened online submissions, online survey and telephone town halls,” Iafelice wrote. “The Ministry of Education will compile and analyze the data, and the findings will be used to shape our work going forward.”
Toronto MPP Marit Stiles, the NDP education critic at Queen’s Park, said she’s disappointed by Thompson’s failure to communicate.
“She’s been ducking the media for so long – it’s crazy – that’s obviously their strategy,” Stiles said. “She needs to be available to media. It’s one of the ways people in province know what is happening.”
Avoiding the media, Stiles said, leaves “people wondering what they are trying to hide.”
“I won’t deny I’m skeptical that she is interested in what people have to say,” Stiles said, citing delays, lack of communication and last-minute information. “I question whether the minister wants meaningful consultation.”
Stiles said information about a phone town hall meeting Friday in Northwestern Ontario was released on the Ministry of Education website only one day prior.
“It gave people four hours to register,” she said.
The Progressive Conservatives have said they also plan to develop something they are calling a first – a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Stiles said when asked what she knew about the initiative. “Nobody knows what they are talking about.”
In ministry statement, Iafelice described it this way:
“In other jurisdictions, a Parents’ Bill of Rights is used to support parent education rights – to provide timely access to resources and supports, and to protect against exclusions.”
During his election campaign, Ford and his supporters pledged to “take back” schools with a “promise package” that included scrapping discovery math and inquiry-based learning, reforming standardized testing in schools, making math mandatory in teachers college programs and banning cellphones in all classrooms.
They also said they would boost autism funding and uphold the Liberals’ moratorium on school closings.
According to the ministry website, the consultation process, which closes Dec. 15, is focused on getting feedback on improving student performance in several categories, including science, technology, engineering and math, the skilled trades, standardized tested and financial literacy.
It will also gather feedback on the use of technology such as cellphones in the classroom, age-appropriate health and physical education curriculum encompassing subjects such as mental health, sexual health and legalization of cannabis.
Ford raised eyebrows earlier this year after proposing a snitch line for parents with concerns about the classroom and planning a new sexual education curriculum that many called a throwback meant to appease social conservatives.
Also worrisome to many is the uncertain fate of hundreds of half-empty schools in Ontario, a casualty of falling enrollment and shifting demographics that have left Southwestern Ontario school boards alone with an estimated 55,000 empty desks between them.