TORONTO - Ontario's education system could once more be plagued by bitter labour disputes and sweeping budget cuts if the Progressive Conservatives are elected this fall, Premier Dalton McGuinty warned Wednesday.
The province's self-proclaimed "education premier" said a Tory victory in the Oct. 6 election could mean a return to the widespread cost-cutting that pitted teachers against the previous Conservative government under former Premier Mike Harris.
The Tories "are expressing many of the same attitudes they held the last time they were in government," McGuinty told the union representing the province's elementary schools.
"Let's face it, their heart's not in public education. Mine is," he said during a speech at the group's annual meeting.
Both the Liberals and the New Democrats pledged to make education a top priority as they tried to woo Canada's largest teachers' union ahead of the election.
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario represents some 76,000 elementary school teachers and support staff.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath vowed to examine how funds are divided between the province's public schools, saying the current formula — introduced by the Harris government and later tweaked by the Liberals — fails to account for each school board's unique needs.
"The funding formula does not address the difference in special needs demand in various boards," or the specific challenges faced by rural communities, she said.
She also told the union her party would curb rampant school fees and fundraising that threaten to create a two-tier education system.
Neither party has released its education platform.
Still, McGuinty's warning seemed to resonate with the teachers, many of whom remain wary of the Tories nearly a decade after Harris left office.
"We look at past behaviour to predict what's going to happen in the future," union president Sam Hammond told reporters.
He said Tory Leader Tim Hudak wasn't invited to speak before what would likely be a hostile audience to avoid "an uncomfortable situation."
Elizabeth Witmer, the Conservative education critic, said it was unfortunate Hudak didn't get the chance to "set the record straight."
Conservative spokesman Alan Sakach noted that the Tories are the only party to have released a platform for this fall's election.
"We will increase spending on K to Grade 12 education by $2 billion," Sakach said in an email.
The party has promised to support teachers and give them more discretion to do what they feel is right for their classroom while taking steps to prohibit bullies from disrupting classes.
And Witmer brushed off any comparisons to the Harris regime saying as the son of two teachers, Hudak "certainly understands the importance of education."
Harris held back-to-back majorities between 1995 and 2002.
Ontario's deficit-fighting Tories cut $400 million from the budgets of the province's secondary and elementary schools in 1996 and years of strife between Harris and teachers followed.
Students in Ontario were kept out of their classrooms on several occasions during a turbulent period in education during Harris's time as premier.