Aspects of a pilot project announced by the Ministry of Education today for students with autism are raising alarm bells about the future of fully accessible, public education in the province, say CUPE Ontario education workers.

“We represent 13,000 Educational Assistants who work hard, with other Board employees and parents, to develop and deliver individualized educational programs to assist students with multiple challenges, including those with autism,” said Terri Preston, Chair of the CUPE Ontario School Board Coordinating Committee. “They are deeply concerned by any initiative that opens the door to the privatization of those critical services in our schools.”

The government’s announcement details a pilot project that will experiment with allowing private operators, providing Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) “therapy”, into eleven of Ontario’s school boards to work directly with students with autism during the school day.

“Parents of children with special needs, including children with autism, have every right to expect they can walk into their local school and receive the services their children need, fully funded and publicly provided,” said Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario. “They shouldn’t have to worry about securing outside funding, finding a private provider or paying out of their own pockets, to ensure their children succeed at school. That is the responsibility of the government and instead of just abdicating their role to private operators, they should be properly funding and providing all the necessary services students with special needs require.”

Funding for educational services for students with special needs in Ontario has long been criticized for not directly addressing the complex, individual needs of students. School boards across Ontario regularly report spending more on services for students with special needs than they are funded for by the provincial government.

“As education workers, we know students with special needs need more front-line staff support,” said Preston. “It’s why, in contract extension talks with the government, we negotiated $52 million over two years to increase front-line staff working with students with special needs. Even with those hard-won investments, more support is needed for students with a variety of complex needs and that’s why the government needs to finally conduct a long-overdue funding formula review.”

Since the cuts to Ontario’s education funding by the Conservative government of Mike Harris more than 20 years ago, experts have been calling for a comprehensive education funding formula review. Prior to being first elected in 2003, the Ontario Liberals committed to a review but no comprehensive examination of the funding formula, including the funding needed to support students with special needs, has taken place.

The Ministry of Education’s announced pilot does also include increased access to ABA training for Educational Assistants working in 18 Ontario school boards.

“Many of us already have ABA training or incorporate ABA principles into our work with students,” said Laura Walton, an Educational Assistant who is also Vice-Chair of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Coordinating Committee. “Educational Assistants are constantly upgrading their skills and knowledge, often at their own expense, so any funded training opportunities are always welcome. We have been asking the government to ensure Educational Assistants, and all board employees who work to address the complex needs of our students, have access to an array of professional development opportunities, including ABA training.”

CUPE Ontario represents 260,000 workers across the province, including more than 60,000 education workers working in all four board systems.