TORONTO - Ontario's self-proclaimed "education premier" is defending his ban of junk food in schools and allowing schools to raise money — two issues that have come under fire along the campaign trail.
Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty said Monday he won't forbid fundraising if he's re-elected Oct. 6, but will keep the ban on junk food.
Some groups may be critical of fundraising because some schools end up with more money than others, but the practice has been going on for a long time, said McGuinty.
"Certainly when I was young, I recall coming home with a box of chocolate bars with my brothers and sisters and having a bit of a competition as to who could sell the most without eating the most," said the 56-year-old premier, who grew up in a family of 10 children.
His Liberal government has brought in new fundraising guidelines for schools this year — a first for Ontario — to ensure transparency about what's appropriate and inappropriate, he said.
"Those rules are new and I'm sure they're going to serve us all very well," McGuinty added.
Liberal officials later clarified that the government's fundraising rules are still in draft form. However, there are new guidelines introduced this fall that spell out when a school can ask students for extra cash for learning materials and activities.
Under the guidelines, schools cannot charge for textbooks, science lab materials, art supplies or musical instruments. Schools cannot apply a fee to anything that is mandatory, essential for classroom learning, or the completion of a course, including a student registration fee.
The new rules were sparked by parent advocacy group People for Education, which issued a report in March saying fees charged for courses, student activities and athletics were on the rise across the province.
The province's Education Act already prohibited fees for any curriculum requirements students need to graduate high school.
The problem stems from a flawed funding formula for schools that was put in place under the Mike Harris Conservatives, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. McGuinty promised repeatedly to fix the formula but never did.
"We have been talking for some time about the amount of fundraising in schools and, of course, the difference between those neighbourhoods and communities and families that have the resources to fundraise and those that don’t," she said in Toronto.
"We haven't released our education policy yet, it's coming very soon, but yes, we need to tackle absolutely the inequalities that schools now face in terms of fundraising."
Fundraising is a good way to get involved in your school, said Annie Kidder of People for Education. The problem is that there's an increased reliance on fundraising and a growing gap between schools on what they generate, which can have an impact on a child's education.
Some schools raise nothing, while others can collect $275,000 a year through fundraising activities, she said.
"I think that the guidelines in some ways are helpful," she said.
"I think in other ways, we have concerns about the guidelines because they seem to entrench fundraising. The assumption is that fundraising is a necessary part of how we fund our schools."
The draft guidelines also suggest that parents and communities should be able to fundraise for capital projects, she said.
"If I can fundraise for a new gym or a new auditorium for my school — even other kinds of facilities inside the school, a new computer lab for instance ... then I think the danger is that you kind of exacerbate the problem and that gap between the richer and the less-rich schools," Kidder said.
McGuinty's education policy has also come under fire from Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who called his ban on junk food in schools one of the premier's "bizarre obsessions."
"Dalton McGuinty has show a bizarre interest in the kind of food that we pack for our kids for school, when I think parents are worried about the quality of education they're receiving in the classroom," Hudak, whose nearly four-year-old daughter Miller just started school, said at an earlier event in Mississauga.
McGuinty dismissed his opponents remarks, saying what's really important is that class sizes are down and test scores and graduation rates are up.
"Is it important to us as parents that the kids eat in a healthy way? I think so too," he said. "But that certainly has not been the main focus of what we've done in our schools."
Earlier in the day, McGuinty kicked off Week 2 of his campaign by touting his economic plan to a business audience in Toronto — a key battleground in the upcoming Oct. 6 election.
He then toured the Electrovaya factory in Mississauga that makes electric car batteries before joining his former rival, ex-Conservative leader John Tory, on his Toronto radio show.
McGuinty was to finish his day with an evening speech in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, for a Chinese Moon Festival celebration.