For public education, class size matters

Why class caps are the crucial issue for anti-austerity organizing

by Joel Harden

Last Friday, in my hometown of Ottawa, I walked an information picket organized by District 25 of the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation (OSSTF). What I saw and heard confirmed the stakes involved in defending (and improving) public education.

class size mattersIt was a day when three such actions took place across Ottawa, along with similar events province-wide. Our rally was held at the constituency office of Yasir Naqvi, a Liberal Cabinet Minister whose current obsession, I understand, are the Pan-American Games to be held this Summer in Toronto.

But the teachers gathered at Naqvi’s office weren’t interested in games. They were furious for being without a contract since August 2014, and facing a series of attacks in bargaining on their working conditions.

In 2012, the McGuinty Liberals imposed Bill 115, effectively legislating a wage freeze for public school teachers, and several cuts to benefits. The Government later repealed Bill 115 before it could be effectively challenged in court.

But now, along with other concessions, the Wynne Liberals want limits on class size removed from OSSTF collective agreements. They want more flexible “guidelines” that could allow upwards of 40 (even 50) students in certain classes.

Under the current rules, administrators must ensure an average of twenty-two students per class. But according to Michael Barrett head to the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, “…the concept of hard caps is a very difficult thing for school boards to work with.”

Working conditions are learning conditions
And yet, class size isn’t a conceptual issue. The research is clear: the smaller the class, the greater the ability for educators to offer support, notably for learners with challenges. This has been openly acknowledged by previous governments, and prioritized by teachers in bargaining. It is a concrete example of teachers’ working conditions impacting students learning conditions.

One would think this means people would support teachers in their efforts to fight concessions. And yet, in my own typically progressive neighbourhood, opinion is often divided. Teacher-bashing is widely-heard in our local stores, streets and community parks.

let teachers teach“Salaries are too high”, some suggest. “The quality of curriculum isn’t there”, others say. “The problem”, a frequent explanation goes, ”are unions, who are reluctant to change. That’s why administrators want more control — to make the changes that are necessary.”

For those aware of the issues, there are effective answers. We can note the modest pay of teachers (who start, in most places, at about $55k), and how officials stifle efforts to move up a many-layered salary grid. We can explain the government imposes a flawed curriculum, but teachers frequently work miracles despite its shortcomings. We can remember that 92% of OSSTF members volunteer in extracurricular activities, creating important opportunities for students and their families.

Still, for most people who live with a harsher reality, arguments like these tend to fall on deaf ears. We urgently need a more effective strategy to galvanize public sentiment against austerity boosters.

The teachers I met last Friday think class size is the issue that can shift public opinion, a fact confirmed when the OSSTF recently sent its communications team to speak to ordinary people. It’s worth remembering this when explaining why teachers, through their unions, deserve our support.


Joel Harden teaches in Carleton University’s Department of Law and Legal Studies, and is Chief Steward for Unit 2 of CUPE 4600 (representing Contract Instructors at Carleton University). Find out more about Joel through his website at



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