Education

Funding feuds

Teachers and boards assail Ontario's plan

ROBERT SHEPPARD April 6 1998
Education

Funding feuds

Teachers and boards assail Ontario's plan

ROBERT SHEPPARD April 6 1998

Funding feuds

Education

Teachers and boards assail Ontario's plan

ROBERT SHEPPARD

History crept quietly into Ontario’s classrooms last week. Amid the finger-pointing, name-calling and threats of school closures, it was not always easy to note its presence. Still, for the first time since Confederation, Catholic schoolchildren in Ontario—roughly a third of the province’s nearly two million school-goers—are now on an equal financial footing with their counterparts in the public system. No more cramped classrooms, scrounging for books or holding fund-raisers just to get paper for art class and the photocopier. Well, not so much of that, anyway. The lot of the Roman Catholic school boards in Ontario, along with most of the small, rural, cash-strapped public boards, should improve modestly under the provincial government’s new funding formula—at the expense of the big, multicultural, multi-purpose boards, inToronto, Ottawa and Mississauga in particular. In a province with a history of religious school wars—including many court battles to broaden or narrow the base of religious schooling—last week’s announcement was a momentous change.

But change will not come easily in the most expensive school system in the country, where teachers and parents are still smarting from a bitter two-week teachers’ strike in the fall over the government’s last attempt at education reform. Already, two of the province’s largest teachers’ unions have pledged a $ 1-million political fund to boot out Premier Mike Harris’s Conservatives, and the depth of mistrust among the government, the teachers and the largest school boards in the province is palpable.

The parties cannot even agree on the financial impact of the newly announced changes. The leaders of the largest school boards say the government has grossly underestimated their real operating costs while calculating the new formula. But they all understand one thing: the Tories are trying to centralize control of education in Ontario as never before with specifically targeted grants that leave boards with little room for individualism.

Unveiling his program in a high-school library in Pickering, on Toronto’s eastern border, Education Minister David Johnson faced shouts of “Liar, liar” from bused-in public school teachers. Standing modestly at the rear of the room, Msgr. Dennis Murphy, director of Catholic education for the trustees’ association, permitted himself an indulgent smile. “It is a historic day,” he said, “in the sense that what is promised here is equity, something that Catholic boards have been struggling for years and years to achieve.” But even he had reservations: “I want to see the final numbers first.”

Indeed, the fine print. Johnson says he wants to maintain total school funding in Ontario at $14.4 billion over each of the next three years while shifting $583 million of that from administrative and custodial budgets into the classroom. That means direct classroom spending should rise in all of the province’s 72 school boards, the minister said. And establishing legislated board-wide maximums on class size—25 in elementary schools, 22 in high schools—will re-

quire the hiring of an additional 3,000 teachers over the next thre years. But the new funding formula severely limits the ability < school boards to shift revenue among programs as they see fit. P Carola Lane, the director of education for the hard-hit Ottaw; Carleton District School Board, puts it: “This is the classroom £ they [government bureaucrats] define it.”

Even the definition of “classroom spending” is in the eye of the b< holder. A case in point: school nutrition programs for less well-o kids. The province is now taking on that responsibility in full an doubling its commitment from $90 million to $180 million next yea But Toronto alone spent $150 million on nutritional breakfasts las year, Toronto District School Board chairwoman Gail Nyber points out. How will $180 million cover the entire province? “Somi thing’s got to give,” she says

At first blush, what’s got to give is janitorial service (the province funding level is far below current costs for many urban boards), bu ing costs and a number of superintendents as administrative budgel take the biggest hit. A new arrangement for capital funding will als mean that school boards such as Toronto’s that are sitting on littli used properties will have to sell those off before they can be consii ered for any new capital funding, Johnson said. Also lost in the fum ing shuffle is money for early non-immersion French courses in th years up to Grade 3. But support for early French immersion n mains in place, and the Harris government, which previously dowi played the value of early childhood education, is changing cours somewhat. The new program promises school boards money eithe for junior kindergarten or for an early childhood enhancement pr< gram of their choosing—although not enough for both.

The redistribution will be felt most by the big boards in Toronto, Ottawa and other major cities, which until Jan. 1 had their own tax base to draw from. Aside from finding new ways to cut administrative costs, they face the prospect of cutting popular programs because of what they say is the inflexibility of the classroom spending allotments. A case in point is Ryerson Community Public School in downtown Toronto, where three-quarters of the 665 students do not have English as a first language. One special program there has allowed stu-

dents to stay a half-hour longer each day to study one of seven heritage languages offered by outside instructors. As well, students in the early grades spend a quiet hour each day just reading books in English, with teacher supervision that goes beyond normal classroom duties. “How do we pay for that?” wonders principal Christopher Bolton. “I don’t see it included in the new funding envelopes.” But if the new school financing mechanisms are flummoxing

administrators, they may also fail to satisfy many Harris supporters who wanted the system shaken to its roots. “If the province is still spending $14.4 billion on education three years from now and when the Harris government came in [in 1995] spending was $14 billion or so, just what has it accomplished?” asks the University of Toronto’s Stephen Lawton, a specialist in school financing. By holding overall spending to its current levels for three years, the government seems to be backing down on its earlier, leaked, plan to cut a further $600-million from the education budget.

Critics of Ontario’s historically high spending on schooling note that it has been no guarantee of academic success. Recent international tests of 9and 15-year-olds have shown Ontario students lagging well below the national average in science and math. Spending in the province ranges widely from a low of about $4,700 per student in some boards—still higher than the per-student average in Saskatoon—to a high of $9,300, according to the most recent figures.

In consolidating its school boards to 72 from 129 last year and targeting its funding towards specific objectives, Ontario is following the lead of the other big “have” provinces, Alberta and British Columbia, in two important respects, Lawton says. First, it has taken over all funding of the elementary and secondary school system directly, leaving only Saskatchewan, Manitoba and, to a lesser degree, Quebec, among provinces allowing school boards to raise taxes locally. As well, it has directed its grants in a way that permits school boards to exercise only a limited amount of trade-offs within the budgetary pie. Money for special-needs students, for example, must be spent on those students or it reverts to the province.

In recent months, however, British Columbia, Alberta and I Saskatchewan have announced increases in school spending d and, in Alberta’s case, a slight loosening of the rules for mov| ing grants from one purpose to another. In Ontario, freezing I overall spending—with inflation and with enrolment expected £ to increase 1.4 per cent next year—should sustain the trend of I the past five years of spending about $100 a year less per stu1 dent, Lawton says.

Everywhere Johnson goes these days teachers and their supporters jeer and hound him mercilessly—in a possible foretaste of the next election campaign. In the carpeted library and computer resource centre at Pickering’s Pine Ridge Secondary School, where he made the initial announcement students cringed in embarrassment at the unionists’ noisy protests. “It was pretty intimidating,” said Nikki Lewis, 17, who nonetheless had sympathy for the teachers. “You could see the tears in their eyes and how horrible they are feeling, worrying

about their jobs and about us.” But the system now is not working well, noted Niki Ramdeen, 18, president of the Pine Ridge student council. She takes her chemistry courses in one of the 19 portable classrooms outside the school’s main entrance, and has to book time and wait to use the labs inside the building. At the back of the room, while reporters dashed about recording the grievances of students, union leaders and school board officials, a bemused Msgr. Murphy shook his head, above the fray for once, no axe to grind. A new era has begun. □