Cuts called either ‘very reasonable’ or ‘foolish, step backwards’
By Richard Leitner, News Staff
Opponents beg to differ, but Tory leader Tim Hudak’s election campaign pledge to slash education spending is being hailed as a reasonable dose of “tough medicine” by his party’s candidate in Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale.
Donna Skelly said she is proud of the education platform, contained in a Million Jobs Plan that also promises to eliminate 100,000 public service jobs, lower corporate taxes by 30 per cent and cut or freeze programs that help seniors and the poor.
Drawn in part from the Drummond Report commissioned by the governing Liberals to provide advice on how to rein in the province’s $12.5-billion deficit, the plan would chop education spending by $4.5 billion over the next four years.
It includes increasing class sizes, eliminating early childhood educators for kindergarten, cancelling negotiated wage increases and scrapping a 30 per cent, family-income-based tuition grant for post-secondary students.
But the plan vows to “raise the bar” on education in other ways, like introducing a financial literacy curriculum, making Grade 8 science part of province-wide standardized testing and improving math scores by getting back to basics.
It drew the immediate wrath of student leaders and teacher unions, who say it will cut about 10,000 teachers on top of the 9,700 educational assistants and other non-teacher positions acknowledged by the Tories.
But Skelly said Ontario is spending $8.5 billion more on education than it did 10 years ago with worse results in math despite teaching 250,000 fewer students.
She said the plan will cut wasteful spending while “addressing real needs for kids,” especially in math, and is needed because the province has a $300-billion debt and is “going broke.”
“I would love to be a Liberal candidate or NDP candidate and offer rainbows and unicorns to everybody in Ontario and everybody in my riding, but it’s not sustainable,” Skelly said.
“I keep saying to the teachers, etcetera, ‘Your pay cheques are going to bounce,’” she said. “We have to make changes and I think they’re very reasonable.”
But Ted McMeekin, her Liberal opponent and incumbent MPP, said Ontario’s education system is among the best in the world and the Tories’ “foolish” plan will cause labour chaos while hurting students and the province’s economic competitiveness.
He said it would undo the Liberals’ focus on junior and all-day kindergarten, which he called a “best-start approach” that helps children who would otherwise already be behind by Grade 1 and in many cases never catch up.
“The evidence is unmistakably positive; kids do better in school. When they do better in school early in school they do better in school later in school,” McMeekin said.
“We need to continue to invest in education to make sure that we can compete and we have the most highly trained, highly skilled workforce on the planet.”
NDP candidate Alex Johnstone called the Tory plan “a step backwards” and said cutting kindergarten supports will kill early-learning strategies that have closed gaps between genders and children from different socio-economic backgrounds.
“I can’t call that rainbows and unicorns,” the public school trustee said. “I don’t think that kindergarten students deserve a dose of tough medicine, because that’s who it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt our students.”
While the NDP has yet to unveil a full education platform, leader Andrea Horwath has promised $60 million in annual funding to keep aging schools open or convert them to community uses.
Johnstone said her party's platform will also include a review of the school-closure process and the provincial funding formula to make it less enrolment-based and better allow schools to become “community hubs.”
She said it will also address perennial underfunding for special-needs students that has forced Hamilton’s public board to cover a $2-million shortfall each year and left 35,000 students across the province on waiting lists for educational assistants.
The Green Party’s leader Mike Schreiner is promising to merge public and Catholic boards, a move he says will cut $1.5 billion per year and shows courage other parties lack.
It nominated Raymond Dartsch in ADFW on the weekend.
“When people like Tim Hudak start talking about gutting our school system, I hear a big elephant stomping around the room,” Schreiner said in a statement released last week.
“We’re paying $1,000 per empty seat in schools across the province. Some of those schools aren’t even half full. Some of them are half-empty separate schools across the street from half-empty public schools.”