Clearing the Air on our education policy

Let’s begin with something we see far too little of in Ontario: accountability.  There has been some confusion about Green Party’s plan to consolidate our public school systems, and that is entirely my fault.  I lead the Green Party of Ontario’s research on this front, but it is not my only gig.  The early election call prevented me from publishing my findings in full, so the only information on our website is an outdated reference to the Urban Neighborhoods paper. 
To clear the air, I’m presenting my findings in brief.
 
My numbers are drawn entirely from the publicly available financial reports from the ministry of education and our 72 school boards.  Figures for annual savings are based on the 2012-13 school year. My analysis starts from three premises: 
 
1) Ontario’s resources are vast, but not infinite.  The party that can help Ontario the most is the party that can use those resources most efficiently.  Cutting in the name of cutting and spending in the name of the status quo are both foolish.  Cut resources from one place because you can get more use from them in another place.
 
2) We want our education system to educate our children.  Things like community solidarity and jobs are both important, but we can do more on those fronts if we target them directly, rather than throwing money at education and blindly hoping for knock-on benefits.
 
3) In order for children to learn, they need to be able to get to school, and when they get there, they need to find teachers and learning materials. So my savings projections leave our budget for teachers, transportation, textbooks and technology completely untouched.  
 
The Savings:
Our proposed savings come in three bundles, arranged from ‘entirely painless’ to ‘is a major change, but the payoff is worth it.’  And with all due respect to Ms. Kidder (the education expert quoted by the Star), there are actually millions on the table in all three. 
 
The No-Brainer: $86 million
If you want a reason to vote against every single incumbent MPP, this is it.  The ministry of education sends out yearly funding packages to every school board and a portion of that is earmarked to pay for the administrative costs of the school board itself.  Last year, school boards overspent that allowance by $86 million.  That is $86 million that was supposed to reach schools, but instead stuck to the bureaucrats in the middle.  We can get that back for our schools, and all we need is one MPP who is willing to do his or her job and examine public spending carefully.  Since none of the other parties have even mentioned this, that MPP will probably have to be Green.
 
Not a Single Nickel from a Single School: $220 million
Here is where we surprise you: consolidating the school boards does not have to mean the end of Catholic education.  Ontario has too many school boards, full stop.  Each household is covered by at least two, and many of them are very small (nearly ¼ serve fewer than 5000 students).  Reducing that number by half, so that each household was only served by one—even if we leave everything else completely untouched—could save us $220 million.  $44 million of that would come from eliminating redundant senior bureaucrats: going from 72 school board directors (and other senior managers) to 36.  A further $177 million would come from economies of scale.  Large school boards spend around 2% of their total budget on the activities of the board itself.  Smaller boards spend a larger proportion of their funding here, up to a high of 12%.  If we can bring all of our costs closer to the lower number we can reduce our spending on this from $628 million to $451 million, without touching the funding that actually reaches schools at all.  To put that in perspective, it would be enough to pay for one more personal support worker for students with special needs at every single school in the province.  It moves money from something students never see to someone they see every day.
 
We Need to Talk: $1.1 billion
The other two sources of savings listed here do not touch anything your kids will ever see.  This one does, but it still does not cut a single nickel from our budget for teachers, transportation or learning materials—the items that most directly impact education.  In more than half of our school boards, fully 1 in 5 seats is unoccupied.  For 31 of our 72 boards, that’s is 1 in 4; for 19, it’s 1 in 3; and for 5, it is 1 in 2.  That empty space is not helping anyone learn, it is costing us money, and it isn’t going anywhere on its own.  Enrolment in our public schools has declined steadily over the past decade from nearly 2 million in 2002 to 1.85 million this year, which leaves us with around 400,000 empty places for students, or about 900 schools’ worth of unused space.  By consolidating our school boards, we make it so that each board oversees roughly twice as many schools in the same geographic region.  That will make it much easier to operate fewer schools at closer to full capacity without significantly increasing the time our kids spend on buses.   The vast majority of the savings that we can realize here would come from reducing the amount we spend on principals and school offices ($1.5 billion) and on school operations/maintenance ($3 billion).  None of it comes from the amount we spend on core instruction. 
 
If we want our province to prosper, we need to have an adult discussion.  Good policy is made in the open and in the interest of our province, not in the name of stale ideology or political expediency.  Ontario needs at least one voice that will say: “Here are the things we can do.  Here is what they will cost.  Which gives better value?”  Closing schools is not painless, but with that money we could hire 20,000 support workers or educational assistants for our schools (about 5 more per school).  Or, if we are worried about the impact on communities, we could hire 10,000 personal support workers, and build 100 $5 million community centres … every year.  Or we could buy every student a laptop for the start of every school year.  I don’t think any of those represent the best possible use of the money. That’s a decision that everyone in the province should have a voice in.  There are hundreds of ways that we can use this money to do more for our kids, help our communities, and create more jobs than we do by keeping the lights on in empty classrooms.  Isn’t it worth discussing?