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toronto school boardIt didn’t take long for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, a former school board trustee, to become the education sector’s worst nightmare. Almost 70 schools are under “review” for closure in Toronto alone, with potentially hundreds slated for closure across the province. These developments follow pressure placed on the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) from an austerity bent provincial Liberal government to close “under-utilized” schools. 

The exact number that will eventually be closed is unknown, but the fact that many cherished schools will see their doors closed indefinitely is a harrowing certainty. This is in addition to the sacking of hundreds of staff, elimination of special education programs and imposition of wage freezes across the broader education sector under Premier Wynne. This all adds up to a total of $500 million in “savings” (i.e. cuts) by 2017-2018. With this provincial government essentially declaring war on public education, it should come as no surprise to anyone who recognized that the Liberals were seeking to eliminate the budget deficit at any cost.

In arguing for school closures, Liberal Education Minister Liz Sandals often chides that student enrolment has decreased by 10 per cent since 2003. In fact, it is true that Ontario has witnessed declining enrolment of elementary and secondary students over the past decade or so. This frequently recited statistic, however, is incredibly misleading as it overlooks a number of other fundamental issues. Although enrolment might be in decline, according to the 2015 TDSB report entitled TDSB Capital Planning, “total enrolment [in the TDSB] is projected to decline from 2014 to 2019, and then gradually increase to 2039”. It notes that for elementary students, enrolment has already started increasing, and is expected to continue on that path for at least the next 24 years. Therefore, by the time these schools under review are shut down, the need for them will have increased significantly. The TDSB, being by far the largest school board, has been under significant pressure by the government to enact closures.

Another argument made by the Liberals is that one-in-eight schools are “under-utilized” i.e. operating at below two-thirds capacity. This again is misleading, as it measures capacity on a student to square footage basis, and neglects the roles schools serve in the broader community. This methodology conveniently overlooks centrally assigned special education classes, on-site daycare, before and after school child care programs, parenting centres, adult literacy programs, adult English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, senior programs and school permit community events; all of which are made possible by these same “under-utilized” schools. To close them would mean not only uprooting students, but also abandoning hundredsif not thousands of frequently vulnerable people who rely on the services schools provide.

It is difficult to find figures measuring the extent of these community programs across Ontario, but a recent report on school closures by the Elementary Teachers of Toronto (representing 11,000 public elementary school teachers) helps to shed some light on this matter. In the document, they provide profiles on the 48 elementary schools most at risk for closure in the TDSB, and discovered that:

23 schools (48%) have daycare programs

13 schools (27%) have parent and family literacy centres

37 schools (77%) are used for community programs

The report also found that the schools under threat of closure are disproportionately those that service some of the poorest regions in Toronto. 22 of the 48 schools (45 per cent), for example, are part of the Model Schools for Inner Cities Program, whichare selected when the student population faces significant economic and social barriers in relation to other schools. Moreover, in certain regions of the city, two or more of these Model Schools are slated to be closed within just blocks of each other – leaving little to no options for local schooling and community programming in these neighborhoods. If social mobility is currently unlikely for impoverished Torontonians, the closure of inner city schools will make it a pipe dream.

It’s not only cities which will feel the pain of school closures. Rural Ontario will also be adversely affected, as less concentrated demographics will mean that many schools will be characterized as “under-utilized”. Even the Progressive Conservatives, who are no friends to the working class, were forced to concede that school closures would inevitably fall on rural Ontario - where schools can sometimes serve as the only community hub. Closures would also result in students travelling much farther to attend the school closest to their community, which could be dozens of kilometres away.

After being met with public outcry against the proposed closures, Liz Sandals released a statement which said: “Our government understands that schools are more than just buildings – they are community hubs. That’s why the province requires school boards to consult with the community…before a decision about an underutilized school is made”. However, as always, actions speak louder than words. Rather than help facilitate community input, the Liberals have cut the required number of community meetings to discuss closures from four to two, and the amount of time allowed for review from seven months to five. This makes it quite clear that the provincial Liberals do not share the same priorities as local communities, but rather with fast-tracking closures.

School Closures & Provincial Austerity

The real motive behind these cuts does not stem from a declining enrolment or “under-utilization”, as the Liberals claim. Rather, they are linked to the broader austerity agenda of the Wynne Liberals, who are committed to balancing the provincial budget by 2017-18. Education Minister Liz Sandals made this clear when, in response to education cuts being made by her government, she told reporters: “Let’s face it. We do have a deficit, so we’re going to have to look at every government program and make sure we’re managing it efficiently”. Of course, “managing it efficiently” for the Liberals naturally implies closing schools, firing staff and increasing class sizes.

Austerity is more than an ideological construct of the Liberals or Progressive Conservatives. Kathleen Wynne has said herself that it was education cuts under former Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris which drew her into politics. The irony, of course, is that her Liberal government is now carrying out the deepest cuts since Harris was in office. This demonstrates that there is more to austerity than the intent, whether positive or negative, of individual politicians. The motive behind a balanced budget is rooted in much deeper economic and class forces.

The net debt level of Ontario has reached an astonishing $284.1 billion, earning it the not so trumpeted title of being the largest sub-sovereign debt load in the entire world. The capitalist class, frightened by what this unsustainable debt load may mean for their investments in Ontario, is putting enormous pressure on their friends in the pro-business Ontario Liberal Party to balance the budget. However, the bosses will not be the ones to pay; rather, it will be working class people who will carry the burden. A community ruined by the closure of a school is evidently of no interest to the bosses who think in terms of profits and not the average person. $500 million in lost educational opportunities is the price they are willing to pay for peace of mind in the high offices of Bay Street.

However, there is no reason why we should give the capitalists the final word on our schools. Though school closures devastate entire communities, they also draw those affected into the struggle against education cuts and austerity in general. The fight has already begun in earnest, with affected communities voicing their discontent, and secondary teachers on strike or set to strike in seven school boards across the province. Isolated protests and strikes, however, will prove too weak to win their demands from the government in a period of deep austerity. The necessary strength can only be found through united and concerted action. The current moment provides an excellent opportunity to organize the needed united action.

Teachers and their unions, who can wield considerable pressure on the government, should ally with communities and students and demand the complete reversal of public education cuts. An expanded Ontario-wide strike mandate, bolstered by coordinated support of communities and students, will prove far more powerful than movements in isolation. 

The barons of Bay Street are laying Ontario's schools on the chopping block, and only through the united action of teachers, students and communities can the axe standing over education be pushed back.