When Mike Harris’s Conservative government implemented Ontario’s education funding formula in 1997 it was intended, by design, to squeeze funding for the system and to centralize control at the provincial level. It was based on the politics of division, pitting the educational needs of students and the need for infrastructure upgrades of schools against financial compensation of teachers and the power of local school boards.
While many of the benchmarks used to derive board-by-board funding allocations varied between arbitrary and totally inexplicable, two of the major benchmarks—teachers’ salaries and the allocation of $5.20 per square foot for building operations and maintenance—were well below most boards’ costs and imposed financial pressures on higher-spending boards. It also codified in funding restrictions the government’s lack of respect for locally elected school boards and its distrust in their decision-making. And while it emphasized equality in funding for all boards, it did so by squeezing funding for bigger and/or better-financed boards.
The political tone changed with the election of a Liberal government in 2003 and the promise from then Premier Dalton McGuinty to become the Education Premier. And it’s true there have been positive changes to the system. Class sizes are smaller, which is good for both educators and students. Funding for special student support services has increased. And Ontario was the first province in Canada to implement full-day kindergarten based on early learning principles for four- and five-year-olds, inspiring others to follow suit.
But in spite of these changes, the education funding formula has not been revisited. Indeed, its last review, by Mordechai Rozanski, was back in 2002. And as a result, 20 years after it was first implemented, many of its key functions which are at the heart of the core challenges to Ontario’s education system remain in place.
Case in point—school closures have been paused, but not ended, still looming large for many communities. Deferred maintenance continues to be a huge concern. Special needs funding is still inadequate to meet the full range of students’ needs or provide educators and education workers with the training and resources to do so. As Hugh Mackenzie points out, kids are entitled to support under the special education act—but not the funding that pays for that support.
The gaps manifest as safety concerns (not limited to special needs), unmonitored lunch breaks, parent volunteers for recess, fundraising campaigns that privilege some schools and communities over others, and longer than optimal bus rides. Some school boards play shell games as a workaround to an inadequate funding formula, much in the same way that school communities try to make do by volunteering and fundraising. But none of these are solutions.
Here are five of the worst aspects of the funding formula (many of which were confirmed by the findings of the 2017 Ontario Auditor General Report) that must be addressed:
A one-size-fits-all funding for school operations and maintenance:
Since day one of the education funding formula, there has been an inadequate recognition of the true operation and maintenance costs of schools because the whole premise was based on a political choice to cut public school spending in order to deliver an expensive tax cut agenda. That has led to a massive accumulated deferred maintenance backlog and a crisis in school conditions. We recommend targets and timelines to eliminate the maintenance backlog. We also recommend more adequate funding to address the shortfall in operation funding and to support community hub goals, such as after-hours in-school community programs.
Inadequate funding for students:
The political choice to squeeze education spending in order to fund tax cuts in the mid-1990s resulted in an education funding formula that, from the outset, deprived programs like special needs, physical education, music, art, drama, and library services of adequate funding. Built into the funding formula was a bias against special needs and against liberal arts education, and this has yet to be redressed. The one-size-fits-all approach to per-student funding isn’t working. Schools in well-off neighbourhoods have well-resourced parents that they can rely on to privately fundraise to fill some of the gaps, but this has fuelled inequities in the system. We recommend a more inclusive, needs-based approach to education funding in future.
Lack of attention to equity issues:
At a systems level and at an individual level, the funding formula reinforces and perpetuates the substantial disparities between large urban public school boards, inner city vs. suburban neighbourhoods, as well as rural and Northern boards. Chronic underfunding leads to competition for scarce resources and fails to address inequities based on income, gender, race, newcomer status, Indigenous status, and people with special needs. The original funding formula was purposely insensitive to the needs of diverse classrooms. The new funding formula should embrace inclusiveness as a priority.
Top down control:
In addition to assuming central control over the total funding available to every school board in the province, the Harris government imposed a series of restrictions on how that funding could be spent, reinforced lines of accountability between school boards’ directors of education and the provincial ministry, and required boards to submit an extremely detailed annual accounting of the sources and uses of their funding. A refusal to explicitly recognize the role of schools as community hubs and an inflexible, top-down approach to school use led to waves of school closures across the province and hampered planning for new development in areas undergoing demographic change. Inadequate base funding continues to contribute to school closure decisions.
Equal funding, instead of addressing inequities:
A focus on equality in funding rather than equity in funding was one of the hallmarks of the approach introduced by the Harris government in 1997. Equal funding appears to be fair—every student gets the same support, every school gets the same funding, driven by the numbers of students it serves. The problem with equal funding is that it implicitly assumes that underlying needs and costs are the same, when they are clearly not. Demands on Toronto inner city schools will be fundamentally different than demands on a rural school that is the community hub, and yet struggles to stay open. The Harris government’s insistence on equality as the basis for funding remains essentially unchanged. It’s time to address the inequities in the system.
There’s no question that we need a review of Ontario’s education funding formula to determine how it must be redesigned so that it adequately funds our schools. Furthermore, we need to commit to further reviews every five years to ensure the formula is working as it should. But before any of this can happen, we must identify the guiding questions and the relationship between visionary planning and adequate funding.
It’s time to articulate a new set of principles and guiding questions that lay out a unifying vision for elementary and secondary schools, and inform how we collectively view the success or failure of a school system in Ontario—one that starts by asking: what does a school need in order to fulfill its function?
- Inclusive schools mean inclusive funding: A school needs to ensure that all students, regardless of their background or parents’ income level, can get access to the best educational supports they need to succeed. The current approach to education funding amounts to one-size-fits-all, and that’s not working.
- Schools are community anchors, treat them that way: A school needs to play an anchor role in the community. Whether a school is situated in a series of neighbourhoods in large cities or in remote and Northern communities, provincial funding needs to reflect the central role that schools play in bringing people together, in promoting inclusivity, and in contributing to vibrant communities. Starving community anchors of adequate funding has resulted in schools in disrepair and unhealthy learning conditions.
- Valuing the educators and education workers in our schools: A school needs highly skilled teachers, early childhood educators, and educational support workers who are treated as the partners that they are in the success of Ontario’s education system. That means fostering a collaborative relationship with educators and education workers; one that recognizes their expertise and ensures they are recognized for and supported in the work they do. That includes a collaborative approach to system redesign and funding formula changes. Education workers are on the front lines of the classroom every single day. We count on them to deliver the best educational experience possible for students and they are our eyes and ears on the ground.
This is about fixing the underlying flawed principles of the formula so that kids’ needs are met, educators and education workers are recognized as professionals and supported in and out of the classroom, and schools are treated and funded as the community hubs they are, often providing a range of services that enhance and extend beyond the school day. It’s about ensuring that the public is provided with formal mechanisms to contribute to, engage with, and understand how policy is developed at the provincial level, and to ensure that kids are receiving the programming, care and resources that they are entitled to—because accountability is about much more than dollars or the false proxy of standardized tests.
But what does a rethink mean in real terms, and how does it address the largest flaws in the formula as identified previously in this article? In other words, what priorities need to underpin the development of a funding formula that works for kids, schools and communities today?
Principles to inform a new funding formula
- Rather than establishing abstract and arbitrary funding amounts from the top down based on head counts, why not start at the centre, at the school level, and build the system from there? In addition to providing a more holistic approach to funding that is more closely related to and driven by the resources students need, and the facilities and education workers needed to provide them, it would also provide a focal point for needs-responsive services like breakfast and lunch programs, after-school programming, and English as a Second Language programming. It would provide a basis for varying class sizes and the provision of classroom and school support workers based on the needs of the students in the school. And it opens up important broader questions such as the role of the school in the community, and the relationships linking school size, educational effectiveness, and student commute times.
- Rather than a headcount-based formula, the province should be providing funding support based on the actual needs of students, teachers, and educational support workers. This would ensure that programming for students with special needs, ESL and FSL students, and First Nations students would be linked directly to those needs.
- Set funded targets and minimum standards to maintain school buildings in good repair. Commercial property managers are able to define what they mean by various standards of maintenance and how much it costs to achieve those standards. If that can be done for an office building or a shopping mall, why can’t it be done for a school, particularly in the context of a nearly $16 billion deferred maintenance deficit?
- Set—and fund—minimum standards for commute times. If this existed, particularly in rural and Northern communities, managing commute times might figure into decisions ranging from support for student participation in extracurricular activities to school closures and facility sharing.
- Accountability measures must involve the provincial government, go beyond finances, and include public awareness, oversight and regular reviews. With limited exceptions where funding is earmarked for particular activities, school board accountability is strictly financial. There should be program accountability: ESL funding should actually be spent on ESL programming or support. There should be a requirement that school facilities or student transportation systems meet program standards. And there should be accountability on the part of the provincial government for the adequacy and allocation of the funding that it provides to support the education system in Ontario. The one public review in 2002 had recommended a review and comment period in advance of annual funding decisions and a full public review of the system on a five-year cycle.
A generation of students has gone through the system from beginning to end since the last review of its financing and effectiveness. And throughout their elementary and secondary school experience, the system has continued to be plagued by the intended and unintended consequences of 1997’s funding constraints.
Yes, this is about money. But it’s about more than money. And it’s also about a new starting point entirely—one that centres on kids, schools and communities rather than dollars. It’s about an honest examination of the schools we need and our kids deserve, and then determining how to get there, rather than starting with a finite number of dollars and determining which needs we can afford to meet, and which ones we leave to chance and individual privilege. And it’s a recognition that the expertise and experience of our educators and education workers must be valued in curriculum, policy, and system design.
A 10-point blueprint for a new funding formula:
- Set out and clearly define the goals of Ontario’s elementary and secondary education system to assess the adequacy of Ontario’s funding for education and to ensure school funding better reflects the needs of students and their community.
- Continue the process of reducing class sizes in both elementary and secondary schools on a system-wide basis.
- Re-establish the link between funding for special education and identified student support needs, including professional and paraprofessional supports, and fund the identified needs.
- Establish an objective for English as a Second Language fluency and provide funding sufficient to achieve that objective.
- Increase funding for students at risk based on demographic characteristics and make school boards accountable for their use of the funding. Immediately initiate a comprehensive review of what is required to facilitate student success, which has been recommended repeatedly since the introduction of the funding formula.
- Establish a goal of maintaining all Ontario’s schools in a clearly-defined standard of excellence, requiring:
a) An increase in operating funding for school operations and maintenance to ensure that school boards have the necessary resources, considering local factors such as labour costs, climate, the age of buildings, and the role of the school in the community;
b) An increase in regular funding for school renewal from 2% to 4% of replacement value that is widely recognized as necessary to maintain a state of good repair;
c) A 10-year investment in the elimination of the $15 billion (and growing) deferred maintenance backlog in the schools.
- Suspend financially-based school closures pending the replacement of the current suite of specialized grants for small schools with a comprehensive small schools policy that takes into account:
a) The role of schools in communities in rural and northern Ontario and the role of schools as community hubs for the delivery of services for families across the province;
b) The critical size and additional resources (including teachers and all educational support workers) required to meet education system objectives in small schools;
c) The relationship between school location and student transportation in light of commute time standards.
- Conduct and publish an annual audit of students’ ability to access specialized programming such as library services, music, art, and physical education, commuting times etc.
- Make publicly available all education funding and policy documents, including technical papers and memos for each school year, to ensure transparency and to inform future funding decisions and regulations. Any new provincial regulations should be available in draft form for public input through an annual legislative committee review.
- Introduce legislation requiring a comprehensive, evidence-based review of the funding and performance of Ontario’s elementary and secondary education system, every five years—beginning immediately.