The Ontario governments funding formula for elementary and secondary schools has meant deep cuts to public education. Now, the second half of a one-two punch is being delivered through a new tax credit for private school tuition that subsidizes private education at the expense of public schools.
Education funding cuts and large-scale restructuring have created a crisis in the province. On a per-pupil basis and adjusted for inflation, Ontarios education funding for 2001-2002 was $2.3 billion lower than in 1995-1996, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Cash-strapped boards are closing schools. Health and safety violations in schools are skyrocketing. Curriculum reform has overwhelmed students and teachers, both because it was hastily implemented and because schools couldnt always afford the textbooks needed to teach the new curriculum.
Large urban boards like the Toronto District School Board have been hit hardest by the funding formula. The board has cut $268 million from its budget since 1998, and needs to slash another $150 million over the next two years in order to comply with a provincial balanced budget law that further ties their hands.
The government claims education funding is focusing on the classroom and the formula reinforces this by handing funds to boards in separate envelopes for teachers salaries, special education, transportation, cleaning and maintenance. The formula dictates that the classroom envelope is protected: funds in that envelope can only be spent in this area.
The cleaning and maintenance envelope is not protected, so boards desperate for cash can transfer funds from the cleaning budget into the classroom envelope. This one-way traffic from the cleaning/maintenance envelope has lead to support staff layoffs across the province including some 500 lost custodial jobs in the Toronto District School Board alone and has increased pressures to contract out cleaning and maintenance.
But former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty drove by far the biggest nail in the coffin of public education. In the spring of 2001 the government introduced a tax credit that subsidizes private schools by reimbursing parents a significant portion of tuition fees. The government estimates the tax credit will cost $300 million a year when fully implemented in 2006, but the opposition calculates it will cost twice that.
With funding for public schools now based on per-pupil amounts, every child who leaves the public system for a private school will cost his or her former board between $7,000 and $8,000 in provincial funding, so the province actually saves money for each child who leaves the system. What makes this bad public policy even worse is that private schools are not subject to the same requirements as public schools teachers arent even required to have teaching certificates.
In a disturbing sign of things to come, the Toronto District School Board has sold a school to a private operator, the Beth Jacob Elementary School. The funding formula forces boards to get rid of surplus schools and properties before qualifying for funding to build new schools. The sale shows the link between underfunding of public schools and government support of private schools.