Education Action: Toronto

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Ontario at the Bottom of the Pack in Education Spending

by Dudley Paul

Someone needs to watch the watchers according to Hugh Mackenzie in his recently released report from Centre for Policy Alternatives No Time for Complacency Education Funding Reality Check The Provincial Government has been so busy pointing the finger at schools, boards and educators as it demands accountability for just about everything, it has missed a key factor – provincial funding runs the system. The province just isn’t providing adequate funding and needs supervision – a new job perhaps for the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO).

Ontario ranks 54th out of 64 jurisdictions providing elementary and secondary education across North America and a terrible 9th out of 13 in Canada. Mackenzie likens the current Ontario funding formula to a 1997 model car (the year incidentally, the funding formula was introduced by the Mike Harris Tories).

This car has been added onto, duct-taped with a few new body panels- but it’s still a 1997 model and definitely shows its age. Actually, it was a lemon from the start.

Mackenzie says that the current funding formula does not provide for basics of running a school system – payment of teachers and administrators as well operations of school facilities themselves. It doesn’t provide for special needs of students for English as a Second Language support and Special Education. The formula also misses out on providing for local priorities. Quite apart from what might be said about seeing schools as the “hubs” for their communities, boards still do not receive funding for adult education and public access to school is still limited.

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A remarkable $538 million – 3% of all school boards’ operating costs- is raised in local schools to fill gaps in funding – an average of $117 500 per school across the province.Of course this figure depends on each school’s ability to generate funds.

The Provincial Government claims that per student inflation adjusted spending pushes total funding $900 million over the 1997 mark, but Mackenzie points out that $1.8 billion of that has been earmarked for class size reductions, elementary teacher preparation time increases as well as support teachers in secondary schools. Adjust for these extra pockets of funding and you are left with a $900 million funding shortfall.

By 2001- 02 total funding of education after adjustment for inflation, had declined by over $1.9 billiion exceeding the Harris Tories expectation of a $750 million drop. As the Eves government and later the McGuinty Liberals implemented some of the funding recommendations of the 2002 Rozanski Task Force, the funding gap had narrowed to $1.1 billion by 2004-05, By that time though, any improvements that might have occurred in the funding formula ran afoul of the Liberals’ commitments to increase teacher preparation time, hire “student success” teachers and reduce primary class sizes.

Add all of these new costs up and the Provincial Government is spending about $400 adjusted for inflation more per student than it did in 1997. This amounts to $9 800 per student in 2009 -10. The problem is that none of this helps boards in their attempts to grapple with huge backlogs in maintenance, repair and refurbishment, deal with declining enrolment and tend to local needs. In fact, Toronto and Toronto Catholic boards have had $572 million withdrawn from funding, while boards in the immediate vicinity of the city have lost $435 million.

So, in light of this, how can Education Minister Kathleen Wynne say in the legislature that the government has put $5 billion into education since it came to office? McKenzie says it is true that “If you count up every incremental cent that the government has spent since taking office- including capital and additional funding to keep up with increased costs- as well as funding for new provincial requirements, you probably get $5 billion.”

The difference is in what school boards can actually get their hands on to run their schools and maintain good programs. He offers the analogy of family down on its luck trying to make ends meet by letting things go. The house gets run down; the family skips meals, shops at Good Will for clothes and has cut out non-essentials like vacations and a car. A rich uncle comes along and says: ”I’ll give you money, but you can only spend it on buying and running a car.”

A little more on the topic of run down houses: As parents, school staff – or anyone with a sense of smell- knows, the state of school buildings over the past 12 years has gone from reasonable to execrable. The Harris government’s funding formula provided $5.22 per square foot for maintenance. It came to this figure by a mind-numbing alchemy that deserves to be recalled here. The 122 school boards of the time were rank ordered based on square foot operating cost regardless of size, location or any other distinguishing characteristics. Then ranks 61 and 62 were averaged and there you have it – one formula for all boards. That ranks 61 and 62 happened to operate below the average expenditure of boards didn’t change anything.

None of it made any sense. Only square feet actually used for the purpose of education were funded. Hallways, specialized or larger classrooms apparently did not need to be maintained and so were not fully funded, since students and staff could levitate over them. Boards like TDSB actually sold off valuable administrative buildings. Northern boards received the same funding as southern boards despite their higher heating costs. There was no accounting for local labour costs or increased expenses of older buildings. Such were the Harris “efficiencies” in spending.

When matters finally became bad enough, the McGuinty government created a special fund for school renewal, but it didn’t come up with a new formula. This has been a hallmark of the government’s funding style: fund special projects and keep a firm grip on the purse strings. As this school renewal program ends, there is still the looming problem that there is no reasonable and accountable way to fund maintenance and refurbishing of Ontario schools.

Calling for an independent body to monitor public education, McKenzie argues that it’s time for the harsh lens of accountability to be turned back on the Provincial Government. This institution has been thorough, to say the least, at holding boards accountable, for example, in the way they used funding to reduce class sizes and on ESL programs recently. The dreaded EQAO assessments hold boards accountable for their successor- lack of it – in bringing students to certain arbitrary standards regardless of their applicability or adherence to common sense. Bill 177 places new restrictions and obligations on school boards, allowing the Provincial Government to add new accountability clauses whenever it sees fit.

Flip this over and you get a government that must be accountable for the way it spends money on schools, the programs they offer and the communities to which they are hubs. Mackenzie argues that while the government has made it clear it wants to improve Ontario students’ academic attainment, it has no more idea of how to do that than it did back in 1997. Yet it needs to understand what it costs to provide and sustain good programs that provide opportunity for all students to succeed, in well-maintained buildings and grounds within their communities.

Time for a new car.


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