Education reform must be on the table in Ontario

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, July 8, 2018
Education reform must be on the table in Ontario

As the new provincial government in Queen’s Park begins to fully grasp the enormity of the task it faces to return the province to prosperity, education reform must be front and centre. The need to balance the budget while introducing tax relief to make the province more competitive and attractive to entrepreneurs, business owners and investors means the province must reform government spending.

There’s simply no way to avoid reforming education (and health care, for that matter) given how much the government spends in these areas. In 2018-19, Ontario will spend $29.1 billion on K-12 education, representing one-fifth of all program spending in the province.

Per student spending in public schools in Ontario in 2014-15, the latest year of available data was $13,276—up 23.4 per cent from a decade ago (after adjusting for the effects of inflation). That places Ontario third in per student spending among the provinces, behind only Alberta and Saskatchewan, and more than 20 per cent higher than neighbouring Quebec.

It’s one thing for Ontarians to spend more on education if that money produces better results. However, the data indicate Ontario is not outperforming other provinces, particularly British Columbia and Quebec, who spend the least per student in the country but are among the best performers in education.

For instance, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) regularly tests students across a range of subjects. The most recent results for Ontario are not encouraging. Ontario scores lower than both B.C. and Quebec in the main test areas of science, math and reading. And Ontario’s scores are declining from previous tests.

For example, based on average scores, PISA’s 2015 report ranked Ontario fourth among Canadian provinces behind Quebec, B.C. and Alberta on math. In addition, it showed that Ontario’s score dropped from 530 in math in 2003 to 514 in 2015, which is a statistically significant decline.

Which brings us back to the necessity for reform. Many Ontarians are likely unaware of how unique Ontario’s K-12 education system is compared to the other provinces. Ontario is one of only three provinces that deliver religious education—specifically, Roman Catholic—in the public school system (Alberta and Saskatchewan are the other two provinces). Ontario actually has four major competing public school systems: public English and French, and Catholic English and French.

Moreover, Ontario is also the only large province in Canada—along with the Atlantic provinces—that does not provide financial support to parents choosing independent schools. Quebec and all four western provinces provide independent schools with grants ranging from 35 to 70 per cent of the per student operating grants provided to public schools in the same district.

This disparity in independent school funding is one of the key reasons why B.C. (12.9 per cent) and Quebec (12.3 per cent) have significantly higher rates of independent school enrolment than Ontario (6.1 per cent). It’s worth noting, however, that Ontario’s relatively high independent school enrolment (again, 6.1 per cent) exists despite the lack of financial support, which places independent schooling out of reach for many lower- and middle-income families in the province.

In B.C. and Quebec, the K-12 education systems are quite similar as they rely on independent schools to deliver the bulk of educational choice including religious, pedagogical and course-focused (e.g. STEM) alternatives to the public system. The results for both provinces are quite encouraging—they spend less per-student than the other provinces but produce among the best educational results across a wide range of measures. A 2014 analysis applied B.C.’s model of K-12 education delivery to Ontario and concluded that the province could save up to $1.9 billion annually.

With a new government at Queen’s Park, there’s a real opportunity for Ontario to reform the delivery and financing of K-12 education that would produce better results for students and their families while also saving taxpayer money.

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