Education was in focus in the first week of Ontario’s election campaign, as opposition parties tried to set themselves apart from the Progressive Conservatives, promising smaller classes and more years of school.

The provincial Liberals added to a regular drumbeat of school-related releases at the end of the first week of election campaigning on Friday, offering to bring back an optional Grade 13 phased out 20 years ago to help high school seniors recover from two years of disrupted learning.

The party and the NDP are both courting the votes of teachers and parents frustrated by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, which before COVID-19 had been locked in a labour dispute with education workers and later sowed chaos during the pandemic with last-minute decisions about schools.

“It's just been really hard, I know, to love teaching the same way under Doug Ford because he doesn't respect teachers and he doesn't respect publicly funded education,” said Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca.

Ford's government released a budget just before dissolving parliament that projected to spend $500 million less on schools this year. And most its education funding increase over the next four years comes from an injection of federal funds for affordable child care.

The Liberals' election promise, estimated to cost a little under $300 million over four years, would help “those kids who need the time and who need the extra instruction and the extra attention before they go off to college or university or take up a trade or their future career,” he said.

Young people have been hard hit by the pandemic, with students forced to learn remotely for much of the past two years and young workers far more likely to have lost their jobs.

Del Duca said the extra year would be structured, with enhanced mental health support and a focus on personal finances, civic engagement and other tools to set them up for success.

But while almost all the students standing behind Del Duca during his announcement could be seen raising their hands to affirm interest in extending high school to Grade 13, when asked in a straw poll done by this reporter on a social media thread, high school seniors showed acute disinterest.

The first week of the Ontario election campaign included a focus on education, with the Liberals announcing several policy plans including an optional Grade 13 year as they and the NDP vie for the votes of teachers and parents. #OnElxn

The Liberals have also said they would cap elementary and high school class sizes at 20, supported by the hiring of 10,000 teachers and 5,000 special education professionals.

The NDP had previously said it would hire 20,000 educators in an education platform that would cap grades 4 through 8 at 24 children if elected to government in the June 2 vote.

The party has leaned more heavily into health care and housing this week, offering dental care and 1.5 million new homes in 10 years.

The leader of the Green Party of Ontario, Mike Schreiner, meanwhile, turned his attention to post-secondary policy, saying his party (which is hoping to add to Schreiner’s lonely presence at Queen’s Park) would pay for a year of college tuition and a year of guaranteed work for young people in 60,000 climate-friendly jobs.

“Climate and the economy go hand in hand,” Schreiner said. “By directly supporting students facing rising costs of living and providing career paths to good, clean jobs, we can help the economy and address the climate emergency at the same time.”

Ford has largely focused on highways and transit on the campaign trail so far.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer