Education spending reform can help address Ontario’s fiscal problems

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, January 11, 2017

It’s widely known that Ontario faces severe fiscal challenges. With a debt burden exceeding $300 billion, the need for action to fix our finances should be clear.

But how can the provincial government clean up our fiscal mess? Simply put—by recognizing that spending discipline, not tax hikes, is needed.

Clearly, you can’t blame Ontario’s problems on a shortage of government revenues. Indeed, provincial revenues per person have increased approximately 55 per cent since 2003. That’s more than enough to keep pace with inflation. Instead, Ontario’s fiscal problems are the result of Queen’s Park’s inability to control spending at sustainable levels.

One recent analysis showed that if the government had increased spending more prudently since 2003 (at the rate necessary to keep pace with population growth and inflation), the province would enjoy a substantial surplus this year. Under this scenario, the recent explosion in provincial debt would not have occurred.

There’s no silver policy bullet that can solve our fiscal problems on its own. Instead, getting the province’s finances back on track will require spending discipline over time and a wide range of policy changes to make our government more cost-effective.

For example, Ontario could access substantial savings by adopting British Columbia’s model of education financing and delivery.

In B.C., public school boards provide standard K-12 education while independent schools provide religious, alternative pedagogy, and various specialty approaches to education. The government supports parents who send their children to qualifying independent schools by providing per-student grants, usually 35 or 50 per cent of the local public school district's per student grant amount.

This is very different from Ontario’s model, which fully funds English Catholic and French Catholic schools as part of the public school systems. Furthermore, Ontario—unlike B.C., all other western provinces, and Quebec—provides no financial support for independent schools, resulting in greater reliance on government-run schools. In fact, about 95 per cent of students in Ontario attend a fully-funded government-run school.

Partially because the B.C. model provides financial support to a broader range of parents who wish to educate their children outside the government-run school system, substantially more students attend independent schools in B.C. than in Ontario. This means access to more choices for many parents and, because these schools are only partially funded by government, savings for taxpayers. One recent study found that by adopting the B.C. model, Ontario could save up to $1.9 billion annually. That’s equal to approximately eight per cent of our education budget.

Would this type of reform jeopardize student performance? Evidence from B.C. suggests no. In fact, the latest PISA performance scores for B.C. are comfortably higher than Ontario’s.

Some may note that the Canadian Constitution, which entitles Ontario Catholic schools to funding by the public purse, represents an obstacle to reform. But a recent analysis by legal scholar Bruce Pardy of Queen’s University shows our provincial legislature has the ability to remove this requirement through simple legislation. In short, the Constitution presents no legal barrier to broad education reform, should the provincial government wish to pursue it.

Ontario’s fiscal situation necessitates reform that produces better results while spending less, which is why policymakers should seriously consider education reform based on the B.C. model.

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