Need Reform Not Just Cuts to Education Spending

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Appeared in the Waterloo Region Record

One of the big stories coming out of Queen’s Park on the government’s fall economic update was the possibility of reductions in education spending. Indeed, shortly after the update was made public, the NDP charged that the Liberals were planning some $500 million in spending reductions. Unfortunately, what was completely missed in the often times heated exchanges was the possibility of reducing government spending while improving education through reform.

Ontarians seem to be realizing that the status quo finances of the provincial government are not sustainable and are imperiling the province. The economic update released earlier this week confirmed a deficit of $12.5 billion, which the government hopes to reduce to $8.9 billion next year, $5.3 billion in 2016/17, and finally balance the budget in 2017-18. The update maintains the Liberal’s previous plan, which primarily relies on stronger economic growth and thus higher revenues in the future, essentially hoping for a brighter tomorrow through very little action today.

With economic growth remaining sluggish and revenues continuing to come in below budget, the Liberals are clearly concerned. Much, if not all of their credibility rests on being able to achieve their medium-term fiscal plan, which again, is largely based on hope rather than firm and decisive action.

The rumoured cuts to education are part of the dilemma facing the governing Liberals. But average Canadians understand that if you try to do what you did yesterday the same way tomorrow but with less money, it’s going to end badly.

The key, however, to reducing spending without adverse consequences is reform. That is, change the way you deliver, manage, and finance programs so that less money actually goes further.

Thankfully the politicians at Queen’s Park don’t have to create a new model for education to achieve savings while getting better results. Instead, Ontarians only need look west to British Columbia for a viable education model that both spends less and delivers better results.

Ontario’s approach to delivering and financing K-12 education is comparatively unique and, some would say, an artifact of another era. Ontario is one of only three provinces that provide fully-funded Roman Catholic schools, and one of only two that provides fully-funded French-Catholic schools. In addition, Ontario, unlike Quebec and all four western provinces, provides no support to parents who chose independent schools and thus only 1-in-20 students attend them.

British Columbia offers a model of education financing and delivery that could reduce government costs and improve results. Unlike Ontario, the B.C. government provides basic K-12 education with limited options, depending on location, for francophone education while all religious, alternative pedagogy and most specialized education is provided by independent schools. Eligible independent schools—that 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. Roughly one-in-eight students in B.C. attend an independent school.

This reduced reliance on government-provided schooling hasn’t adversely affected student performance.  In fact, 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, the Ontario government could save between $849 million and $1.9 billion annually—far more than the currently rumoured reduction of $500 million, which would help achieve their balanced budget goal. The savings depend on the degree to which students currently attending government-provided, fully-funded religious schools would chose to continue attending religious schools if they were independent.

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 lessons for reform in Ontario.

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