RENFREW, ONT. Finally, the fight over education has begun and the wounded are being taken off the battlefield.Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty has stumbled -- he can't remember how much the Ontario government is spending on its public school system. At the same time, school board chair Joseph Carnevale, a Liberal, has started a cat fight in the party by saying Mr. McGuinty's pledge to cap class sizes in the lower grades is impractical.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, are trying to score some mortal blows against their opponents. For years, they have been the targets of people who complain the public-education system is in turmoil and they are looking for redemption in the eyes of voters.
It takes a while to get anything going on education. Voters say that, like health care, it's a vital issue but the debate often gets lost in a fog of claims and counterclaims about standards and multibillion-dollar spending commitments.
But the Oct. 2 election campaign has offered up some clear -- and quite contrary -- ideas.
The governing Conservatives are suggesting that militant teacher unions are a major impediment to providing children with a good education. They are promising to make it illegal for teachers and other education workers to strike or to stage work-to-rule campaigns, and to forbid school boards from locking out their employees. The Liberals are getting traction from a pledge to limit to 20 the size of classes from junior kindergarten to Grade 3.
It's a battle for the hearts of parents and it's too early to predict which side will prevail.
Don't underestimate how popular the strike-ban promise will be for parents who have endured that special hell of having to make alternative arrangements whenever teachers or caretakers took their grievances to the next stage. And that's a fair number of people considering that in the eight years of Conservative rule some 24 million student days of instruction have been lost by labour disputes -- three times more than in the previous two governments combined.
But parents who have lived through the Tory reform efforts may also have doubts about whether this is a cure the school system can afford. They know Ontario schools are struggling to provide the resources their children need -- textbooks, librarians, special-education teachers -- and they wonder how conflict with teacher unions and the increased cost of arbitrated settlements will deal with this.
Predictably, both parties believe they have latched on to a winner.
Angela Kennedy, the Conservative candidate in Toronto's Beaches-East York (and a Roman Catholic school board trustee), says the strike-ban proposal is a hit on the doorstep with parents and rank-and-file teachers.
Donna Cansfield, the Liberal hopeful in Etobicoke Centre (and former chair of the Toronto public school board), agrees voters are attracted to the strike ban but change their minds when they consider the impact of continued animosity.
The Tories have used the criticism of the class-cap proposal by Mr. Carnevale, chair of the Toronto Catholic school board, to press their attack. They defend their policy of limiting class sizes in the lower grades to an average of 24.5 pupils.
They are saying that Mr. McGuinty is wrong when he says that holding each individual classroom -- not an average -- in the lower grades to 20 students can be done for $375-million. They charge that the cost of hiring new teachers and finding additional classrooms would cost at least $3-billion.
There are a couple of wild cards. It's possible that many non-parents or people whose children are no longer in the school system will conclude that any measure that beats up on teacher unions is just dandy.
But consider also that September is the month when class sizes are often at their largest as boards struggle to balance teaching staff against the enrolment. It's a time when it's not hard to find classrooms bursting at the seams.