In announcing Bill 98, the Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act, the Ministry of Education is looking to increase its oversight over school boards and bring in further regulations on how they operate.
The bill, which got second reading on Monday, focuses on five key areas: accountability and transparency, governance and leadership, maximizing capital assets, teacher training and oversight, consistent information, and approaches to student learning.
The act would require school boards to report on progress and student outcome priorities and require them to be more financially transparent.
It would also give the minister more powers to strengthen financial accountability and transparency rules and limit school boards from participating in business activities depending on risk.
The bill would allow the ministry to establish a performance appraisal process for directors of education. It also permits the province to take unused lands from the school boards for other provincial projects such as affordable housing or long-term care homes.
The bill also aims to further protect students by expediting disciplinary decisions for educators convicted of a criminal offense and expanding eligibility for therapy funding to all students that have been impacted by sexual abuse by teachers through the Ontario College of Teachers (OTC)
Finally, the bill would “strengthen parent involvement” by “authorizing the minister to require school boards to provide parent-friendly information about their child’s education.”
While the OTC supported the announcement, several unions, including the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), voiced their opposition to the plan.
“I think most educators feel frustrated that frontline education workers have not been consulted in many of the announcements that this government makes,” said Jeff Pelich, president of ETFO Waterloo.
“We’re looking for consultation with frontline workers, frontline education workers, and we’re looking for actual investments in public education.”
His comments echo a statement from the provincial union, which claimed the legislation was drafted without their input.
“We were asked to provide input by mid-May. But given their track record, we do not believe the request for feedback is genuine. The voices of ETFO’s 83,000 members, who have a vested interest in better student outcomes, deserve to be heard,” the ETFO said in a release.
However, Diana Miles, chair of council for the OTC, said the act would better equip the college to serve the public.
“Protecting the well-being of Ontario’s more than two million students is the college’s top priority,” she said.
The college’s mandate as Ontario’s teaching regulator is to serve and protect the public interest by protecting the safety and well-being of students, said senior communications officer Andrew Fifield.
“As such, we are supportive of legislation that will strengthen our capacity to do so by enhancing the college’s investigation and discipline processes. For example, providing the College’s Investigation Committee with increased authority to order remedial training or education for members,” Fifield said.
Bill 98 does include proposed amendments that the college requested “improve our investigation and disciplinary processes and better protect student safety and well-being,” Fifield said.
He added that it would be inappropriate for the OTC to comment on the position of other organizations or stakeholders.
Both school boards in Waterloo Region declined to comment on the act, with chief managing officer for the Catholic School Board John Shewchuk saying via email that “The boards senior team has not yet had an opportunity to review the legislation or to understand the implications of what it may or may not mean for our schools and students.”
The same week as Bill 98 was unveiled, the ministry announced $180 million in funding, including $71 million for a new math plan and $109 million to boost literacy rates.
Under the plan, the province will support more than 300 educators to support student learning in math, double the number of school math coaches in classrooms, and hire one math lead per board to aid in the implementation of the math curriculum. It will also cover the costs of additional math qualification courses for teachers.
The province will introduce an overhauled language curriculum in September of 2023, including early reading screening requirements for all students in year two of kindergarten to Grade 2, along with a standardized and fully funded screening tool and training for educators. It will also fund additional specialist teachers for those who need additional support in reading. It will also invest in almost 700 educators.
While Pelich welcomed the additional educators to improve literacy skills, he noted the funding is time-limited.
According to Peilch, the announcement was born from the 157 recommendations in the Ontario Human Right Commission’s Right to Read report, released last year.
“[Being] able to read is the great equalizer. We know that and so the minister’s announcement really looks at one of those 150 recommendations and that is the investments in reading screening tools. And, unfortunately, that is not enough,” he said.
Pelich called for additional funding per student, saying that funding only went up 0.83 per cent per cent compared to inflation estimated at around 6.8 per cent.
“We have huge concerns, because that means cuts to education, that means school boards are going to struggle to pay the bills. The short-term investments are not enough to actually address the concerns,” he said.
While the ministry made both announcements under the guise of bringing more consistency to the education system, Pelich disagreed.
“We already have a consistently mandated curriculum across all school boards. We already have expectations about the topics that are supposed to be covered and how we’re supposed to be addressing them. The government’s new interventions do very little to actually improve transparency.”