Queen’s Park is expected to wield an axe on education spending. Here’s the size of Ontario’s Catholic school system today: 29 English Catholic boards: 1,135 elementary schools; 219 secondary schools; 23,000 elementary teachers; 13,000 secondary teachers; 9,000 occasional teachers; 558,000 students. Eight French Catholic boards: More than 60,000 students, 280 schools, including 63 secondary schools. Register file photo

Bracing for impact: A four-per-cent cut would trim $1 billion from Ontario's education budget

By 
  • February 18, 2019

As Ontario budget consultations wrapped up Feb. 8, Liz Stuart questioned how much of a conversation really took place.

Like many, the president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) has kept abreast of the consultations with the unsettling feeling that most of the big decisions have already been made. And all indicators point to the education sector being in line for a great shock when the Progressive Conservative government begins making cuts. 

“The government’s been very clear that its plan is to cut four per cent from public spending and that would be a billion dollars out of the education sector,” said Stuart. “We’re all very aware of that. The impact that would have on the system would obviously be tremendous.”

The government launched budget consultations in early December, saying it “wants to hear from the people of Ontario about how they can cut red tape, improve government programs and services, and save taxpayers’ money” before releasing the budget in the spring. 

For Stuart and others in the education sector, the writing was on the wall just before Christmas when the government cut EPO grants (Education Programs — Other) that provide funds for special education. It was just a “small taste” — $25 million — of what is expected from a government that campaigned on getting the province’s financial house in order leading up to last June’s provincial election and was rewarded with a majority government.

Education is one of the big ticket items in the province’s budget, alongside health care, and those two have been getting the most attention as Premier Doug Ford vows to deal with a near $15-billion deficit left by the outgoing Liberals, and an overall debt of about $347 billion. The $1 billion Stuart alludes to is expected to be trimmed from an estimated $29 billion Ministry of Education budget. 

“Nobody’s aware at this point of what the true impact could be and I think we’re starting to get a bit of a taste,” said Stuart.

The Conservatives have already said they won’t guarantee the future of full-day kindergarten beyond next year and been vague on what could replace it. 

Ontario teachers have also expressed worries about changes in class size which could see the number of students in classrooms rise. 

And the government has already put the brakes on a $100-million school repair fund associated with the now-cancelled cap-and-trade program the Liberals had signed on to.

OECTA sees these cuts as short-sighted and said they will have the greatest effect on the most vulnerable in Ontario’s schools.

“We’re already dealing with situations where there isn’t sufficient funding to ensure adequate programming for our most vulnerable students,” said Stuart. “If we remove still more funding from the system, even more students are going to be impacted.”

Ontario’s Catholic school trustees are not sure which direction funding changes are headed but are resigned to the fact they will be losing four cents of every funding dollar. But they hope to work with the province to ensure their voice will be heard, said Bev Eckensweiler, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association.

“If efficiencies are necessary we would like to be part of that,” said Eckensweiler, who is also chair of the Bruce-Grey Catholic board.

The aim is to get sustainable funding for all programs, said Eckensweiler, in particular adequate funding for costs they have little control over, like transportation and special education.

Undoubtedly, jobs are at stake as well. When the EPO cuts were announced, the Toronto Catholic District School Board immediately cut 95 part-time positions for student tutors and youth working in after-hour programs. But Stuart said “this isn’t a union thing.” It’s about everybody in the system who will be impacted.

“What people don’t always appreciate is how tightly the system is already funded,” she said. “It’s a service industry. We don’t make money (off of education). What we are about is making sure that students have good, solid educational bases as they move forward.”

Like OECTA, the trustees biggest concern is “to continue to maintain a good quality education for our students,” said Eckensweiler. 

She said history is on the side of Catholic trustees who in the not-too-distant past oversaw a system that was not funded on an equal footing with public boards. They “were able to think outside the box and make it happen,” she said.

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Merging the two public school systems in Ontario would save the government $2B - that is the easiest and most efficient way to save over 4%. The remaining savings can be put back into education to ensure kindergarten does not disappear.

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