Focus On

Teach our children well | Jerry Levitan

Monday, September 14, 2020 @ 2:20 PM | By Jerry Levitan


Jerry Levitan %>
Jerry Levitan
Ground Zero of Ontario’s Education Act (in legal terms, R.S.O. 1990, c.E.2, Section 0.1(1), (2) and (3)), grandly pronounces, as the Act’s “Purpose,” the following:

Strong public education system

0.1(1) A strong public education system is the foundation of a prosperous, caring and civil society. 2009, c.25, s.1.

Purpose of education

(2) The purpose of education is to provide students with the opportunity to realize their potential and develop into highly skilled, knowledgeable, caring citizens who contribute to their society. 2009, c.25, s.1.

Partners in education sector

(3) All partners in the education sector, including the Minister, the Ministry and the boards, have a role to play in enhancing student achievement and well-being, closing gaps in student achievement and maintaining confidence in the province’s publicly funded education systems. 2009, c.25, s.1.

Prior to COVID-19, the Ford government was embroiled in a bitter political battle with teachers and their unions. Its clarion call was for larger classrooms, a move to integrate online learning and massive funding cutbacks including those for school repairs. With shades of the Mike Harris years, the government and teachers were at loggerheads that resulted in strikes, stress to children and their parents and uncertainty. All in all, not a great start for a comprehensive and integrated approach to education policy.

Catastrophic events have a way of changing things and in the early weeks of the pandemic the Conservative government and teacher’s unions engaged in agreements to end the collective agreement and education policy bickering, no doubt in the interests of students, but as well, so that the focus could be on the pandemic. Let’s face it, there was too much on everyone’s plate.

Where are we now as the school term commences? The Ontario government spews out press releases applauding itself for how attentive it is to the “reopening” of schools and how much funds will be spent for that purpose, including the retro fitting and repairs to schools. The government taketh away and giveth. Up is down and down is up. The reality is that both the pre-pandemic approach to education in Ontario and the present approach are symptomatic of a harsh focus on funding and reaction to crisis as opposed to all of the right statements in the Education Act preamble.

That first section of the Act sets out the right priorities. If we are to have a “… caring and civil society” and if a “strong education system” is to be its foundation, then education policy should flow from those principles rather than from principles of rampant cutbacks or seat of the pants and crisis responses. That is not policy, it is chaos and our children and their futures suffer.

Subsection 2 of section “Ground Zero” states that the “… purpose of education is to provide students with the opportunity to realize their potential and develop into highly skilled, knowledgeable, caring citizens who contribute to their society.” As parents, teachers and students scramble in fear and uncertainty can we say that subsection 2 is being adhered to? Is the focus really on education and potential? Subsection 3 proclaims that all “ … partners in the education sector, including the Minister, the Ministry and the boards, have a role to play in enhancing student achievement and well-being, closing gaps in student achievement and maintaining confidence in the province’s publicly funded education systems.”

Is that being achieved?

Teachers, understandably, are frightened for their health, the health of their students and families. So are parents and so are students. The rules of going back to school do not seem to be the product of partnership amongst the players for the purposes of “enhancing student achievement and well-being” or “maintaining confidence in the province’s publicly funded education systems.” Lawyers know and statutory interpretation requires that preambles of enactments set the tone of the statute to assist in understanding the legislation’s purpose and object. This government is failing to get past section zero of the province’s own Education Act.

As with access to justice, access to education should be facilitated by the preamble to the Act. The judiciary and lawyers should be guided by these principles in interpreting the Act in the undoubtedly many court challenges to come emanating from the Conservatives’ helter-skelter approach to education.

As with so many things in this Great Transition, we need to think long and hard about how we can transform our education system, with a focused mind on the future, cognizant of massive technological and digital change and its impact on what our children need to learn and what choices they will have to make and skills they will need for their future lives.

Our children need a properly funded educational system that is led with courage and vision, ever conscious of their needs and appreciative of their teachers who will guide their young lives in this ever-changing and challenging world.

Jerry Levitan is a Toronto lawyer who practised litigation, administrative and liquor licensing law. He as well is the producer of the Academy Award nominated and Emmy winning short animated film I Met The Walrus about the day he spent at age 14 with John Lennon and author of the Canadian bestselling book with the same title.

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