School's Out for 2 Million Kids As Ontario Teachers Plan to Walk

Teachers accuse government of seizing power with new bill, and plan a strike for today.

A cheer went up from most students when the announcement came over the intercom at Centennial High School. Teachers across the province were going out on strike this morning, in protest against the Ontario government's education reforms. But for other students, the news could not have been worse.

"It really makes me angry," says Sarah Wright, a senior preparing for college. "This is going to ruin my [school] year."

The showdown between teachers' unions and the government in Ontario, Canada's largest province, will keep 2.1 million students out of class starting today.

Last minute talks were still going yesterday, with former Chief Justice of Ontario Charles Dubin as referree.

The teachers' union, in announcing the strike, said their actions were a 'political protest' as well as a strike. At issue is who will make policy: the cost-cutting Conservative government, or the unions that represent the 126,000 teachers.

The teachers oppose education reforms in Bill 60, legislation now before the Ontario Legislature. They say certain sections of the bill cut them out of the decision-making process.

"Teachers across this province are concerned about the undemocratic nature of this bill," says Eileen Lennon, president of the Ontario Teachers' Federation. "Schools are put into the shared trust of teachers, parents, communities, and government. We want the parents, teachers, and communities to have some input into school policy."

The government wants teachers to spend more time in the classroom, to extend the school year, and to have one standard set of examinations so students across the province are measured uniformly. The government also wants the freedom to make significant spending cuts.

The premier of Ontario, Michael Harris, bought television time after the strike was announced to explain his government's reforms. Harris, who was elected on a promise to cut taxes, said Ontario school taxes had doubled over the past 10 years while performance on international test scores had declined.

"Our plan is about moving the focus on education away from the blank-check spending mentality that has failed, to a new accountability where we focus on the student in the classrooms," said Harris. "Choosing an illegal strike punishes only parents and their children."

Harris criticized the time high school teachers spend in the classroom, just 3.75 hours a day. He also wants to use people other than teachers to handle non-academic subjects, such as car repair.

The premier moved to win the support of parents by ordering local school boards to pay parents $40 a day to cover daycare costs while the teachers are out on strike.

The talks have been so acrimonious that earlier this month the premier fired the education minister and appointed a new one, David Johnson, a move that has done little to placate the teachers.

High school student Sarah Wright feels caught up in a political war.

"We've been listening to the teachers' side of the story for the past year," she says.

"Many students go along with the teachers because they don't know any better. I don't think they've really thought it through. If it goes on for a couple of months, I'll go to another province to finish high school. This is stupid."

Local school boards, who employ the teachers, say they may take legal action against the union leaders and maybe the teachers who do not show up for work today.

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