Education reform could help address Ontario's financial woes

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The Waterloo Record

Ontario’s financial status quo is not sustainable. That’s the conclusion of numerous independent analyses, the former provincial treasurer, and the province’s own commission on reform of public sector services. Yet despite these warnings, the province has allowed an unsustainable set of fiscal policies to persist while missing opportunities for reform.

One place to start is K-12 education, which holds the promise of less spending and at least equal results based on British Columbia’s approach to K-12 education.

Understanding Ontario’s financial woes is critical to understanding the need for real change. The province has been in deficit since 2008-09, accumulating more than $61 billion in debt. In 2013-14, the deficit was $11.3 billion. The province’s debt now stands at almost $270 billion; it was just $130 billion at the start of the 2000s.

It’s hard to envision any serious reform initiative that excludes JK-12 education, which represents almost one-fifth of Ontario’s budget. Public education spending in Ontario increased from $15.2 billion to more than $24.5 billion between 2001-02 to 2010-11 (the most recent years of comprehensive, comparable data).

This marked increase occurred at a time when the number of students in publicly-funded schools decreased by more than 110,000 students. In other words, while public school enrolment declined by more than five per cent, government education spending increased by more than 60 per cent.

Perhaps even more startling is the fact that education outcomes have not improved.  Indeed, by a key performance measure, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) collected by the OECD, outcomes for Ontario students are declining in math.

The uniqueness of Ontario’s approach to delivering and financing JK-12 education creates an opportunity for reform. Many Ontarians are unaware that Ontario is one of only three provinces that provide fully-funded Roman Catholic education, and one of only two that provides fully-funded French-Catholic education. In addition, Ontario, unlike Quebec and all the western provinces, provides no support to parents who chose independent schools, which results in greater reliance on government-provided schools.

The need for spending restraint, combined with the uniqueness of Ontario’s education system, (and some worrying student performance signs) means genuine, broad reform of JK-12 education may be possible.

British Columbia offers a model of education financing and delivery that could reduce costs and improve results. In contrast to Ontario, the B.C. government directly provides basic K-12 education with limited options for francophone education (depends on location). All religious, alternative pedagogy, and most specialized education is provided by independent schools. One-in-eight students in B.C. attend independent schools. Eligible independent schools—they follow the provincial curriculum and hire accredited teachers—can receive government grants between 35 and 50 per cent of those provided to nearby government schools.

Furthermore, the latest PISA performance scores from 2012 for B.C. are comfortably higher than Ontario in all subject areas tested (math, reading, and science).

According to estimates in a recent study, by adopting the B.C. model, Ontario could save between $849 million and $1.9 billion annually. The savings range depends on the degree to which students currently attending government-provided (i.e. fully-funded) religious schools chose to continue attending religious schools when they are independent and thus responsible for a portion of the costs.

These savings are not inconsequential and would amount to between 7.5 per cent and 16.6 per cent of Ontario’s 2013/14 deficit, and up to 7.9 per cent of the education budget for that year.

There is no doubt that the status quo cannot continue. The key to successfully slaying the financial problems facing Ontarians is to couple spending reductions with reform. In other words, get better results while spending less.

B.C.’s K-12 education model offers some good lessons for reform in Ontario.

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