The education discussion paper the Ontario PCs released Thursday will be an interesting test of whether people in Ontario are serious about eliminating the province’s massive deficit. The deficit is either $14 billion or $12 billion, depending on how provincial treasurer Dwight Duncan is guesstimating in a given week, but let’s just say that it’s not going to disappear without actually reducing government’s spending by billions of dollars.
That’s a job that can and must be done, but it will mean making some tough decisions. As Duncan himself said this week, the Liberals have only taken the “low-hanging fruit,” in their own attempt at balancing the books. He also added that an increase in interest rates is a “ticking time bomb” that will cost taxpayers $500 million for every percentage point of increase. The PCs have been making the same point. Nice to see Duncan catch up. Too bad he didn’t do anything about it.
Ontario needs to act immediately to get government spending under control. We are racking up debt at the rate of at least $1 billion a month, and total debt has nearly doubled under Premier Dalton McGuinty. We now owe $18,000 for every man, woman and child in Ontario.
The education spending reductions the PCs suggested this week are the same ones identified by economist Don Drummond’s exhaustive review of provincial spending, released a year ago. Drummond is not ideological, just pragmatic. He looked at the Liberals’ slightly smaller class sizes, at the explosion in the number of non-teaching staff and at the $1.5 billion full-day kindergarten program, and said he couldn’t find compelling evidence that the benefits justified the cost.
Drummond proposed slightly larger classes, fewer non-teachers and cancellation of full-day kindergarten to save about $2.5 billion. PCs will accept his first two ideas, making classes two or three students larger and reducing 10,000 jobs held by those who are not classroom teachers. That’s a reduction in that group of about 11.8 per cent. We propose to stop the expansion of full-day kindergarten, to do a thorough study of its benefits. It is interesting to see those who claim the program is based on scientific evidence oppose what would be the broadest real-life test of what it accomplishes.
Politicians traditionally fear reducing any government program, because they know some people won’t like it. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be done. Any party that is being honest with you will tell you that Ontario’s budget can’t be balanced without reducing spending, and spending can’t be cut enough to balance the budget without some reduction in education, the second largest expense government has.
One of the most compelling pieces of context is that education spending over the last decade has gone up $8.5 billion while the number of students has actually gone done by 250,000. Despite the drop in enrolment, there are 24,000 more people working in the schools. Nearly 14,000 of those are not classroom teachers.
It’s difficult to see the results all this extra spending has produced. Progress on standardized tests of reading, writing and arithmetic has plateaued, and the latest international testing in science shows that our students are falling behind.
For me, one of the most compelling points in the PC education paper is the plan to raise expectations for our kids and our schools. Ontario has a standard of 75 per cent of students reaching a competency level on standardized tests. The standard has mostly not been met, but the shocking thing is that it leaves 25 per cent of kids behind. The current government will be satisfied if one-quarter of our children can’t master math, reading and writing. What chance will they have at success in life?
The PCs want to raise the standard of expectation to 90 per cent, a number long suggested by the Education Quality and Accountability Office, which runs the testing.
Just raising standards won’t produce a result, of course, but a high target demands action. That means making far higher achievement on reading, writing and math the top goal for our schools. That has implications for teaching methods and how classroom time is spent.
For too long in Ontario, we have equated success with dollars spent. That doesn’t work, and we can’t afford to keep doing it. Ontario needs a sustainable budget and a sustainable education system. When the Liberals say they can only protect smaller classes and full-day kindergarten by freezing teachers’ pay, that’s an admission that what we have today is unaffordable.
The PCs will balance the books by making a series of realistic decisions about what spending offers real value. There is really no other choice.
I encourage you to read the education discussion paper and make up your own mind. It’s available at www.ontariopc.com/paths.