One lunchroom supervisor monitoring 100 children. Students who need an educational assistant to learn, but don’t get one. Schools without teachers for music, drama and the arts.
These are some of the daily challenges facing children at school and getting parents fired up. Harder to grasp is the complex formula that determines how much money is spent on the many aspects of education in Ontario.
But the public needs to pay attention to that complicated funding formula because it’s “at the heart of” serious inequities and shortfalls in the province’s schools, argues a new report.
And that “flawed” and “one-size-fits-all” tool must be overhauled and replaced with a new plan based on student need, rather than a system that divvies up a pre-set and inadequate pool of money, says the paper released Monday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
“Until we fix the way Ontario funds public education, chronic problems such as aging schools, portables, and avoidable school closures will keep rearing their ugly head,” says Erika Shaker, director of education and outreach for the think-tank.
Economist and report author Hugh Mackenzie says parents and students experience the impact of a broken funding model every day. He cites deteriorating buildings, overcrowded classrooms, children forced to travel for hours on school buses, and shortages of essentials like teacher librarians and breakfast programs.
His report notes the 20-year-old funding formula, introduced by cost-cutting former premier Mike Harris, centralized control of education decisions and dollars with the government and created a situation where school boards and educators wrestle over a fixed pot of insufficient funds.
Instead, he proposes a blueprint to turn that approach upside down, beginning with a new set of principles and objectives, and followed by funding based on students’ needs.
A key piece is a recommendation to link special education dollars directly to each student diagnosed or identified as needing supports through an assessment. This would replace the current “rationing of arbitrarily-limited resources,” says the report.
In the current cash-strapped system, many children are “entitled” to support under the special education act, “but they are not entitled to the financial resources required to deliver that support,” Mackenzie told the Star in an email.
Other recommendations include:
- Targeting students most at risk based on demographics with more resources for special ed, second-language funding and other learning;
- Ensuring teachers and education workers on the frontlines are involved in revamping the system and how it’s funded;
- An investment to eliminate the $16-billion repair backlog in Ontario schools for problems like aging roofs, windows and furnaces.
The Liberals have come under fire for failing to fix the funding formula despite pouring billions of dollars into the school system over the last 15 years. The province currently spends about $24 billion a year on education, or $12,100 per pupil, fifth among provinces in per-student spending. Last year, with most school boards investing more in special education than the province allocates, the government announced an extra $219 million for teachers and education workers.
Similar calls to overhaul the funding formula — which hasn’t been updated in 15 years — have come from groups like the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the grassroots group Fix Our Schools and People for Education, a research and advocacy organization.
But it’s a topic that doesn’t necessarily grab busy parents or other voters because of the daunting effort required to make sense of its labyrinthine parts.
Tangible concerns like the alarming lack of supervision and chaos during many school lunch hours reported in the Star last week spark uproar but don’t always get to the heart of the problem.
However, advocates stress those conditions are a barometer of something bigger — the chronic underfunding plaguing the school system for years.
“The provincial government has made the funding formula extremely complicated,” says Mackenzie. But that complexity “masks a lack of focus and direction” that is important to address, he adds.
Issues like ensuring kids are fed, exercised, socializing and safe at lunchtime resonate with parents because they know school is about much more than academics, adds Erika Shaker.
“These are things that parents can picture, these are things that parents remember from when they were in school and these are things they want for their kids too.”