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By Sid Ryan

A topsy-turvy combination of political grandstanding, broken promises, conflicting priorities and chronic underfunding continues to rock public education in Ontario.

The education policies of the McGuinty Liberals are so dysfunctional that even their high-profile announcement of smaller class sizes has been buried under concerns and complaints from parents, trustees, teachers, staff and students.

After nearly three years in office, the McGuinty Liberals have opted for piecemeal measures instead of comprehensive rebuilding.

There has been no clear break with the education policies of Mike Harris. 

The system is so out of whack that Education Minister Sandra Pupatello grandly boasts that school boards across the province have succeeded in balancing their budgets — and fails to mention that they are doing it by making cuts that matter to the quality of education. When did imposing cuts become the new standard of “success” in education policy?

The minister’s “success” is really a major failure. It means students are using outdated textbooks and school roofs are not being fixed. It means that special needs students won’t get the programs they need. Boards are cutting staff and closing school doors to seniors and the community.

The minister’s “success” means that communities that have been hammered by cuts to every imaginable social program will experience even deeper alienation and hopelessness. It means a further reduction in the number of adults in our schools and therefore a further decline in student safety.

In Sarnia, the minister’s “success” means cuts to school librarians, in Timmins and New Liskeard it means cuts to educational assistants and in northern communities it means cuts to programs for at-risk youth.

The Minister’s “success” also means that school boards are opting for one-time measures to scrape through for another year. Boards are closing schools and selling property. (Sweet for developers but bad for communities.)

And they’re using up reserves. So, if you think this year is bad, wait until next year — just before we head into a provincial election.

Threatened with serious personal financial penalties, school trustees across the province have made damaging cuts. Yes, that’s right — the Liberals tweaked, but did not rescind, the Harris-era legislation that threatens trustees who refuse to make cuts.

Fortunately, both the Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board refused to be intimidated. The Liberals responded by sending in “fact finders.” This bought them some time (until after the by-election in Parkdale-High Park).

The Tories used a similar tactic and got unexpected results. The Rozanski Report of 2002 cut through the propaganda smokescreen and made many important recommendations. The Liberals would have done students a service by dusting off the Rozanski Report instead of setting up another “fact finding” detour.

The Liberals are also using their favourite tactic of social control – bogus consultation to legitimize cuts.

Interrogators have long known that if you put someone under a lot of pressure and ask the same question repeatedly, there’s a pretty good chance that they will eventually get the desired answer.

Over and over, the Liberals have set up “consultations” with parents and asked them, “Which programs should we cut?”

Over and over, the reply is the same: “We refuse to play ‘pick-your-poison.’ We refuse to support further cuts to public education. Fix the funding formula!”

The issue of the funding formula keeps coming to the fore because it is the number one source of the problem. Countless efforts to pin the blame on teachers, trustees and the caretakers have failed.

The funding formula was so destabilizing and so destructive to our schools that it was perhaps the single greatest cause of the defeat of the Conservatives – including the defeat of every single Conservative MPP in Toronto.

When it comes to imposing education cuts, the Liberals’ problem is this: Too many people know too much. Too many people care too much.

Contrary to the claims of former Harris-appointed supervisor Paul Christie, it’s not caretakers or communist trustees running the Toronto school board. It’s a well-informed and caring community of parents.

That’s the lesson Mike Harris had to learn. And it’s the lesson the McGuinty Liberals seem determined to learn — the hard way.