The Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act, which the government of Ontario recently tabled, is the clearest display to date of the Ford government's ideological agenda against public education. The writing was on the wall from the start.
In 2019, the government announced a plan to eliminate 10,054 teaching positions by 2023-24 through increased class sizes and mandatory online learning. Teachers and parents fought back and mitigated the damage. Yet during the ongoing pandemic, the government has demonstrated a clear disinclination to make schools more resilient.
Most of the COVID funding for education came from Ottawa or school boards’ own reserves. The government began sending money directly to parents instead of into classrooms. It also expanded the scope of online education, justifying cuts to brick-and-mortar schools. Last year, when funding became available for tutoring, it had to be partially spent on third-party providers.
Nowhere is this government’s reluctance to invest in schools clearer than in Grant for Students Needs (GSN) funding—the allocations that go directly to school boards.
Taking inflation into account, school boards will receive, on average, $1,200 less per student in the 2023-24 school year than what they received in 2018-19. The chart below shows that funding dropped in the first year of the Ford government, then increased between 2019-20 and 2020-21 due to one-time pandemic funding. But now that money is almost gone, and funding is dropping steeply.
Let’s look at what this means at the board level. The Toronto District School Board (TDBS), for example, received $12,390 per student for the 2018-19 school year. Between March 2018 and March 2023, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased by 16.9 per cent— meanwhile, the board’s per-student allocation went up by less than half of that, 7.9 per cent. The upshot: the board will receive $1,110 less per student in 2023-24, in inflation-adjusted terms, compared to what it counted on in 2018-19. For a large board like the TDSB, this funding cut adds up to nearly $260 million a year in real dollars.
It may be even worse than it looks.
In the past couple of years, a line called “Unallocated Amounts” appeared in the GSN for the first time, with amounts between $30 and $40 million. In this year’s document, that line was replaced with “Planning Provision,” which has $317 million sitting inside it. (Ten times as much!). A footnote explains that the money is “for possible in-year funding changes,” and more unallocated funding has been included within the totals of specific grants. The amount is similar to the cost of direct payments to parents ($365 million), and it could be that the difference has been included in the special education envelope since children with special needs have access to an additional amount of support.
Stashing cash away and using it to pay for populist measures—like cash transfers and tax cuts—has become a common practice of this government, which the CCPA has been monitoring closely.
The TDSB has $53 million in its planning provisions line. If that money is not intended for schools, the board will find itself more than $300 million behind where it was in the 2018-2019 school year, in inflation-adjusted dollars. That will be felt in classrooms across the city.
The ideological agenda against public education is in high gear—with funding cuts coupled with structural governance changes. But as we learned last November when education workers defeated Bill 28—workers, parents, and students together can stand up to any bully at the playground.