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Ontario Votes 2003

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Election Day: Oct. 2, 2003   

Battlefield Classroom
by Paddy Moore

"Creating a useful crisis" was how then-education minister John Snobelen described the Tory plan to cut education spending when Mike Harris took office in 1995.

   John Snobelen
John Snobelen after announcing major changes to the provincial education system on Jan. 13, 1997.
Snobelen is long gone from the Tory cabinet, banished to the backbenches and not seeking re-election, but the government he served was far more successful at the task than he likely ever imagined.

As a result, how we define and pay for public education is one of the hottest topics in the campaign of 2003.

AUDIO: CBC reporter Karla Hilton talks with Ottawa Morning's Lucy VanOldebarneveld about where education fits within each party's platform. (Sept. 3, runs 6:33)

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The Tory offensive against the status quo began in earnest in 1998, when the Harris Conservatives introduced a fundamental change to the way Ontario's schools were funded. The province stripped local boards of the power to levy taxes to fund their schools, creating a centralized system of education grants.

Video from Canada Now

The educational policies of the three main parties are examined by Beatrice Politi (Sept. 5, runs 2:53)
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The funding formula was intended to equalize education funding across the province. In theory, boards in less affluent parts of the province would receive roughly the same number of dollars per student as those located in places where the tax base was much larger. (The system also made allowances for different aspects of education, such as special-education needs, second-language training, and student space.)

EDUCATION EQUALITY TASK FORCE: Ontario's funding formula

But right from the get-go, school boards struggled to deal with the new funding allocations. By 2002, teachers' unions and opposition parties contended that the new regime had reduced the annual per-student funding by $1,250. Schools lost librarians and had to share principals. Teachers were dipping into their own pockets to finance class projects. Waiting lists grew for special education assessment.

AUDIO: Here and Now's Avril Benoit discusses education issues with three Toronto-area candidates who have strong backgrounds in the issue (Sept. 18):

PART ONE: (runs 7:24)
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PART TWO: (runs 6:03)
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As well, the new system pitted people in the suburbs against urbanites. The provincial rules dictated that boards had to operate at 100-per-cent capacity before receiving money to build new schools. The suburbanites lobbied for the closure of downtown schools to get their children out of portable classrooms. The urbanites fought tooth and nail to ensure neighbourhood schools remained open.

To make matters worse, Ontario had passed a law forcing school boards to adopt balanced budgets. The province repeatedly told boards to close schools in order to save money and balance the books. But many balked, saying the closures wouldn't nearly make up for the budgetary shortfalls they faced under what they called a flawed system.

In an attempt to force the issue, Windsor's board passed a deficit budget in 2000. It eventually got an additional $20 million from the province. In 2001, Ottawa's public board toyed with a deficit budget, but instead wiped out its reserve funds to balance the books.

AUDIO: The education portion of a debate on issues in the '905' Belt held by CBC Radio.
(Sept. 15, runs 15:45)

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(While this fight was underway, the Conservatives raised more hackles by creating a tax credit for parents with children at private school. The credit allows parents of children in private school to claim tuition fees on their tax returns. It's being phased in and started with the 2002 tax year. Both the Liberals and NDP are promising to scrap the tax credit, saying they'll save up to $500 million a year by doing so. Eves wants to speed up the tax credit's implementation, allowing parents with children in private school to save up to the full $3,500 a year in taxes sooner.)

The Tories' tough approach to education funding softened considerably when Ernie Eves succeeded Mike Harris as premier in 2001. Indeed, by the throne speech of May 2002, the Tories appeared to have turned a corner.

"Ontarians have said they do not want classrooms and hospitals to be battlegrounds,'' Lt.-Gov. James Bartleman told the Ontario Legislature. "Your government has heard that message."

Under Eves, the government injected "interim" money into the system and commissioned a respected educator, University of Guelph president Mordechai Rozanski, to complete an early review of the funding formula.

But the bridge money wasn't enough and, later that spring, urban boards revolted. Ottawa, Toronto and Hamilton all broke the law by passing deficit budgets. They maintained it was impossible to meet the requirements of the Education Act with the funding doled out by the province. After years of cutting budgets, the boards refused to close any more schools or to make deeper cuts in classroom spending. John Snobelen's crisis had arrived.

To deal with the rogue boards, Education Minister Elizabeth Witmer appointed auditor Al Rosen to go over their books. The financial investigator blamed the big-city boards with fiscal mismanagement, setting the stage for the province to take full control over them. (The Tories are now proposing a permanent financial investigator, called the Ontario education quality auditor.)

In August 2002, the province appointed supervisors to run the boards for Ontario's largest public school systems. The supervisors were charged with devising plans to balance the boards' books. (Those supervisors are still in place; the one with the largest task, Toronto's Paul Christie, cut $90 million in board spending in 2002/03.)

In December 2002, the now-sidelined school board trustees said they were vindicated by Rozanski's report on the funding formula. Rozanski called for more than $1.8 billion to be injected into the school system, supporting the trustees' arguments they had been dealt an impossible hand.

Immediately following the report, the Eves government announced additional funding for special education ($250 million) and teacher raises ($340 million); with their March budget, the Tories claimed to have fully implemented Rozanski's recommendations, albeit over three years. The Liberals and NDP contend the Conservatives haven't taken inflation into account—something Rozanski called for—and are taking too long to increase the funding.

The NDP would give the money immediately, instead of over three years, and would account for inflation. The Liberals say they fully support Rozanski's recommendations and would cancel the Conservatives' $2.2-billion corporate tax break to restore education funding.

According to Rozanski, with corrections to the funding formula, boards will now have more flexibility to address local needs. That money was previously being used to cover shortfalls in core funding.

But even by embracing the Rozanski report, Eves was not able to extinguish the fire that Snobelen lit in 1995.

In the largest boards, the supervisors are still in place and are endeavouring to close schools. Criticisms abound over the province's standardized testing. Student teachers are rankled by the provincial exam they need to pass in order to teach.

And in May, Toronto's Catholic school board locked out its teachers, prompting Eves to abandon his conciliatory approach and introduce a new law banning strikes, lockouts and work-to-rule campaigns in the province's schools.

It's all combined to make education policy a key plank in each of the parties' platforms. Back in 1995, the Mike Harris Tories were determined to teach a lesson to Ontario's educators. Eight years later, many parents and educators are equally determined to make Ernie Eves go sit in the corner.



Education Highlights

PC Education Platform          more
Implement Rozanski's spending recommendations over three years
Ban teacher strikes, lockouts or work-to-rule campaigns
Speed up implementation of private school tax credit
Require literacy as a condition of graduation from high school
Allow non-teachers to run extracurricular activities

NDP Education Platform       more
Implement Rozanski's recommendations immediately
Scrap private school tax credit
Introduce full-day junior and senior kindergarten
Put a principal, librarian and physical education teacher in every school
Improve special education and ESL programs

Liberal Education Platform   more
Implement Rozanski spending recommendations
Scrap private school tax credit
Cap class sizes at 20 students for junior kindergarten to Grade 3
Create an independent organization to set curriculum
Mandatory daily teaching of writing, reading and math

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