Maddie Di MuccioCanada’s education system has faced a year of upheaval. As we compete in an increasing competitive global market, parents and employers rightfully demand that public education dollars are put to good use.

So as a new year approaches, we should look back on some of the biggest stories in public education
in 2016 and consider their implications. Here are five of the most significant:

Ontario gave $80.5 million to teachers’ unions

In May, Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk revealed that the Ontario government had given $80.5 million to four teachers’ unions since 2000 for professional development. And $22 million of it was given without controls or accountability.

The only other province that has ever offered financial support to a teachers’ union is British Columbia, although that was just $200,000, which pales in comparison to Ontario’s largesse.

Thanks to media and public pressure, the Ontario government recently adopted campaign financing reforms that ban political donations from labour unions and limit the amount of money third-party advertisers can spend during an election campaign. That’s particularly noteworthy given that teachers’ unions have poured millions of dollars into Liberal campaign funds over the last three elections.

Hopefully, the cozy relations between politicians and teachers’ unions are drawing to an end.

Nova Scotia locks out students

In early December, Nova Scotian Education Minister Karen Casey cited concerns about student safety as the result of teachers’ work-to-rule job action and closed schools.

Work-to-rule action by teachers is common in public education labour disputes. The difference in Nova Scotia is that the provincial government decided such activity places children at risk. Ultimately, the province decide the students were safe and reopened schools.

It remains to be seen if more provinces follow Nova Scotia’s lead to discourage unions from using work-to-rule tactics. If so, teachers’ unions, faced with public concern for student safety, will lose a significant bargaining chip in future negotiations.

Supreme Court of Canada sides with B.C. teachers over class size

In 2002, the British Columbia government passed legislation eliminating the right of teachers’ unions to negotiate for class sizes. In November, after more than a decade of court battles and appeals, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the legislation was unconstitutional.

The ruling will have an immediate and significant impact on the province. The B.C. Teachers Federation estimates it will cost the public $300 million to restore class sizes to 2002 levels, with much of that money spent on new teachers.

A decade of declining math scores

In April, the C.D. Howe Institute released a report that said Canadian children’s mathematics skills had declined between 2003 and 2012 in all but two provinces. This decline coincides with a trend to eliminate traditional methods of adding, subtracting, multiplication and division, and a move toward problems solving through “discovery math” or “inquiry-based math.”

Rather than reconsidering the proven method of teaching long division, using columns to add and subtract, and asking students to memorize multiplication tables, provinces stubbornly doubled down on discovery math curriculum. Ontario, for example, recently announced $60 million in new spending for specialist teachers to teach the new curriculum.

Parents across the country are paying for after-school tutoring to give their children necessary math skills. So it’s only a matter of time before discovery math becomes a ballot box issue.

Post-secondary tuition relief in Ontario

In a welcome move, the Ontario government announced in February that it will provide low-income families with significant tuition relief for post-secondary education. The combination of grants and loans makes post-secondary learning much more affordable.

As we transition toward a knowledge-based economy, greater access to post-secondary education can only be positive. A better educated workforce should will make Canada more attractive to foreign investment and encourage greater innovation and technological advancements.

Providing relief to those in greatest financial need is also a significant improvement over the federal government’s registered education savings plan (RESP), which mostly benefits students from wealthier families.

As we say goodbye to a tumultuous year in education, we need to remember that misspent education dollars hurt our future, our economy and, most importantly, our children.

Let’s hope 2017 brings more accountability and effort.

Maddie Di Muccio is a former town councillor in Newmarket, Ont., and former columnist with the Toronto Sun.

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