According to a recent analysis by the Fraser Institute, Ontario's finances are in a much worse state than California's. Even though California's economy is almost three times bigger than Ontario's, the province's total debt is almost two-thirds larger.
For the sake of future generations, we need to take immediate and forceful action to deal with Ontario's massive deficit. And of course, to cut the deficit we will need to cut government waste, and that includes cutting the wasteful practices so prevalent in our education system. The Drummond Report, for instance, recommended cancelling all-day kindergarten and removing caps on class sizes.
These are good ideas, but there are other areas where we can cut costs and at the same time improve student learning. For instance, there is a whole alphabet soup of agencies and offices that we would be better off without. Here are a few examples.
Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat (LNS)
This secretariat is supposed to help schools teach students better, but the secretariat's activities are ideologically biased towards inferior methods and thus they actually depress student achievement.
Ontario College of Teachers (OCT)
This organization is supposed to protect the public from bad teachers, but it has been captured by the teachers' unions and thus serves to protect bad teachers from the public.
Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO)
This is the province's testing agency, but its tests are prohibitively expensive and provide meagre information of questionable validity. Existing standardized tests yield far more comprehensive and valid information in a timely fashion at a fraction of the cost.
Ontario Curriculum Centre (OCC)
This centre controls which textbooks can be used in Ontario classrooms. Its ideological bias means that the most effective textbooks, for example phonetic readers and sequential mathematics texts, are banned.
The government might also consider abolishing Ontario's 72 school boards. With a total administrative cost in the neighbourhood of $650 million annually, they accomplish almost nothing. School boards are an expensive anachronism dating from before the information age. Most of the limited functions that school boards are still carrying out (successive governments have gradually stripped them of their duties) can readily be shifted to individual schools, leaving the province with the responsibility of funding, goal setting, regulation, and evaluation. Such a transfer of responsibility for hiring and remunerating staff, by the way, would remove the need for province-wide bargaining with the teachers' unions.
Another option is to reduce the expense of Ontario's 13 faculties of education. When the Ontario College of Teachers surveyed its members about the most important sources of their teaching skills, courses at their faculty of education ranked dead last, after such things as common sense and what they learned from their parents and family (Table 4.1). If the government were to authorize alternative teacher training, including private institutions, it would not only save money but also open up the possibility that better teacher training would become available to prospective teachers.
There's one more significant measure that would at the same time save money, increase parental satisfaction, and improve student achievement. This measure is tuition tax credits or school vouchers for private schools.
At present, the Ontario government spends more than $12,000 per student on primary and elementary education. If the government were to offer a tuition tax credit/school voucher of $6,000 to private school students, every time a student transferred out of the public school system to a private school -- the government would save $6,000. Of course, the government would lose money on the approximately 125,000 students who are already attending a private school, but the break-even point would be reached when a total of 250,000 students enrolled in private schools -- something that would probably happen by the second year of the program at the latest -- and after that the tuition tax credits/school vouchers would save money, lots of money. For example, if 300,000 Ontario students enrolled in private schools, the government would save $450,000,000 every year.
And, in a win-win scenario, the students who had transferred to private schools would be generally better off. As well, the threat of an exodus of students from publicly-funded schools would galvanize those schools into improving their service. It's high time the public school monopoly was exposed to the healthy effects of competition.
Ontario is going to have to take drastic action lest it go the way of Greece. The Mike Harris financial retrenching is going to seem like a light summer breeze in comparison to the winter gale that is coming our way.
The challenge is to implement cuts that will harm services the least. Fortunately, the education portfolio offers several ways to effect huge savings -- while at the same time improving student achievement.