Rachel Huot is a mom of three kids and a parent organizer in the west end of Toronto. She is part of a group called West End Parents for Public Education, which has been central to the emergence of the province-wide Ontario Parent Action Network. Scott Neigh interviews her about the cuts that the province’s Conservative government under Doug Ford are making to public education, about fighitng those cuts, and about the importance of solidarity among parents, students, teachers, and other education workers.
From the minute the Ford government took office in 2018, it was clear that they had the education system in their sights. Early targets included Indigenous-related curriculum processes and queer-inclusive and consent-focused sex education curriculum. Then in the spring of 2019, they announced changes to education funding that are estimated to amount to about $1.4 billion of cuts over four years. The ways in which these cuts have been discussed by the government in the media can most charitably be described as confusing, but it is clear that they are already resulting in significant reductions in average funding per student, increases in average class sizes, reductions in high school course availability, and loss of teacher and other education worker positions at many school boards.
Some of the first mobilizing against the Conservative government’s measures came from students, and education workers and their unions have been active as well. Indeed, this fall has involved collective bargaining processes for many unions in the sector. The non-teacher education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) narrowly avoided a province-wide strike in October. Among other things, their collective agreement won the restoration of tens of millions of dollars previously cut from the system by the Conservatives – a victory that will mean there will be more workers in schools who in one way or another support students. Currently, teachers’ unions are in bargainning, and more than 95% of members have voted in favour of giving their unions strike mandates.
According to Huot, the seeds of parent organizing against the cuts could be found in lots of places, but a public meeting called by parents at a single school in the west end of Toronto was particularly important to the emergence of the network that exists today. The parents at the core of the network are clear that we need an education system that is both strong and public – that we must not only defeat the Conservative cuts, but we must recognize that the education system already fails many students and it must be strengthened and enhanced.
A key approach to building parent action, whether within a given school or to expand the network across jursidictions, is conversations among parents about the cuts and about the need to oppose them. Huot’s group has developed tools, published on their website, to help parents start having those conversations. One important place to have them can be in school councils. In many places, school councils have been able to take a strong position and express both their opposition to the cuts and their solidarity with workers in letters to workers, to school boards, and to the Ministry of Education. But really, such conversations can happen at drop-off and pick-up, and anywhere that parents encounter other parents, or even teachers and education workers.
Another approach used by Huot’s group and the broader network has been “walk-ins,” a tactic adapted from education struggles in the United States. In a walk-in, students, parents, teachers, and other education workers rally in front of the school before the school day starts, and then enter the school together. The first walk-in happened in June, primarily in Toronto, and had participation at around 500 schools. Another walk-in was organized in October, while CUPE was in bargaining, with participation from more than 750 schools across Ontario.
As teacher bargaining unfolds, parent organizers are continuing to focus on bulding solidarity – indeed, their latest offering for parents in different communities is a “solidarity kit” that can be downloaded or ordered by mail. They argue that parents, students, and workers have a shared interest in a strong public system and that, as the CUPE settlement hinted, workers have a unique power at the bargaining table to win victories towards that end.
It is the public character of the system that is ultimately threatened by the Conservative government’s measures, according to Huot. She predicts they aim to introduce some sort of privitization measure, perhaps a voucher system or charter school system along the lines found in many places in the United States. And we only need to look at the impacts that such measures have had there to see how they have harmed the education system, workers, and students, particularly marginalized students.
Image: Used with permission of the Ontario Parent Action Network.
Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.