Ontario considers removing caps on kindergarten, primary class sizes

By Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

Ontario is considering removing caps on class sizes in kindergarten and in Grades 1 to 3 as the Progressive Conservative government tackles a multi-billion-dollar deficit.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced Wednesday that she is launching consultations with education partners on class sizes and teacher-hiring practices.

Currently, the kindergarten class size cap is 29 students, and the average of class sizes across any board can’t be more than 26. For the primary grades the cap is 23 students, but at least 90 per cent of classes in any board must have 20 or fewer students.

A government consultation document poses questions such as whether hard caps on class sizes should continue, and if they were removed, what would be an appropriate way to set effective class sizes.

“The province’s current fiscal circumstances require an examination of whether changes to class size would allow school boards to deliver better value for government investment,” the document says, noting that educator staffing costs make up about 80 per cent of government funding to school boards.

Sam Hammond, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said in a meeting with government officials Wednesday, the officials made it clear they need to work toward balancing the budget.

“Given that, they’re going to have to make some difficult decisions and there’s no doubt that some of those decisions are going to affect publicly funded education,” Hammond said, adding that moving from hard caps to a system based on averages “would be an absolute disaster.”

The government document says the ministry has heard in previous talks that implementing hard caps on class sizes is expensive and difficult for school boards to manage.

“It has been suggested that board-wide class size averages offer more flexibility for classroom organization and allows for more efficient use of board funds,” the document says.

The consultations are also looking at changes to teacher-hiring practices.

The Tories are in the midst of trying to trim a deficit they peg at $14.5 billion — though the financial accountability officer says it’s closer to $12 billion.

Hammond thinks Wednesday’s meeting and consultation is a harbinger of both what’s to come in the budget for education, and negotiations that are to start this year ahead of teacher contracts expiring in August.

The previous Liberal government negotiated the last round of teacher and education worker contracts as two-year extensions to existing deals, which ensured they wouldn’t have to contend with heated teacher bargaining ahead of the 2018 election.

That deal for elementary teachers came with $56 million to hire teachers and early childhood educators so the current kindergarten cap could be implemented.

Under the existing contracts, high school, elementary, English Catholic and French teachers, as well as support staff, got four per cent salary increases over the two years.

They also got a one-time payment for professional development, supplies and equipment equivalent to a 0.5-per-cent salary increase.

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