Opinion

Doug Ford's government is a government of grifters: Robyn Urback

The education minister tried to pass off regular student funding dollars as an autism-specific boost.

The education minister tried to pass off regular student funding dollars as an autism-specific boost

With this Ontario government, you should always check your change.  (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Doug Ford's government is a government of grifters. 

It claims to be a truck-stop government: "For The People," and other nonsense. That's while holding $1,600-per-plate fundraisers — known as "cash-for-access" fundraisers back when the Liberals were doing it — after gutting the law that the previous administration put in place to stop wealthy stakeholders from purchasing access to provincial lawmakers. (After the Liberals had their fill, it should be noted.)

The Ford government lured supporters with frivolous promises of cheap beer, though its buck-a-beer program barely lasted a few months. And it pegged itself a careful steward of taxpayer dollars, while wasting resources on a vanity "news" channel, an unnecessary audit duplicating the work of the auditor general, and on a show trial of Liberal MPPs, for whom Ontario voters had already delivered a verdict through last June's election.

It's the political equivalent of a carnival-hand cajoling you to a ring toss, though none of the rings actually fit over the pegs and someone will steal your wallet out of your pocket on your last throw.

Of all of this government's swindles, however — and I should point out, the above is a non-exhaustive list — it offered perhaps the grimiest of grifts earlier this week.

'Additional funding'

Standing before reporters Monday, Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced what she referred to as "additional funding for our school boards" to accommodate students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There were some small nuggets: the expansion of after-school development programs, additional resources for teacher training, and so forth.

But leading them all was the "announcement" that boards will be eligible for an average of $12,300 for every new student with autism enrolled in school.

"This funding will allow school boards to make sure there are proper supports available during the transition from therapy to school," she said.

Sounds great, doesn't it? And coincidentally timed, too: A few days after parents rallied outside of Queen's Park to protest the government's changes on the autism file. Also right as teachers began expressing concern that cutbacks to therapy would mean students would be sent school unprepared, leaving teachers to somehow make up the gap.

So there was Thompson, standing by the carnival lights, announcing $12,300 per student to help ease the transition.

But here's the thing: This was not new money.

The $12,300 figure was projected back in August as the average per-pupil funding available for the 2018-2019 school year. This is up only slightly from the previous year, when the per-pupil figure was $12,100. But the increase had already happened — Thompson's "announcement" was an announcement of the status quo. The same funds.

And here's the other thing: This funding is not specific to students with autism. It is not even specific to students with special needs. The province offers school boards in Ontario $12,300 for any student newly enrolled in school.

That figure has nothing to do with autism services.

There are other grants under the umbrella of Special Purpose Grants that are intended for accommodating and supporting students with special needs. But Thomson only cited the $12,300 figure — the one that applies to every pupil.

The overall special education budget, meanwhile, remains around $3 billion.

Thompson's announcement was really a reiteration of existing funds that apply to all students — presented as a significant funding boost for children with ASD. A shiny trinket to mislead and distract angry parents.

Granted, if you read the fine print, you will notice one small change: School boards can apply for that $12,300 in the last few months of the school year if students with ASD enrol after April 1. Previously, boards would have had to wait until the next designated headcount date, which is Oct. 31.

That's it. That's the $12,300 announcement. A procedural change, sold as additional funds for students with autism. The government coupled it with a few small, but legitimate, resource boosts, and hoped no one noticed.

That was Monday.

Having sold casual onlookers on "additional" autism funding, the Ford grift packed up and moved along, repackaging a previously announced federal infrastructure program as a $30-billion initiative launched by Ontario. It then placated parents with a ban on cellphones in classrooms, which sounded like action — until you realized that the government left enforcement to schools, rendering it another impotent policy and spectacular distraction.

And there you have a small sample of the Ford government greasiness, reminding you that with this administration, you always check your change.


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About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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