POLITICS
03/14/2019 11:13 EDT | Updated 03/14/2019 11:14 EDT

Ontario PC Autism Plan Makes Funding Crisis Worse: School Board Official

School boards already overspend their special education budgets, and now costs are expected to go up.

Chris Young/CANADIAN PRESS
Ontario's Education Minister Lisa Thompson attends question period at the Ontario legislature in Toronto on Aug. 2, 2018.

TORONTO — Ontario's school boards will need a lot more money than what's being offered by the provincial government if students with autism are going to reach their potential, an official said Wednesday.

"I can guarantee you, there will be a need," for more funding, Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, told HuffPost Canada.

On Monday, Minister of Education Lisa Thompson announced support for school boards to help with the influx of students with autism caused by changes to autism therapy funding.

The Progressive Conservatives are reforming the Ontario Autism Program to get thousands of children off a waiting list for treatment. But their new policy means significant funding cuts for families who currently get tens of thousands of dollars a year for therapy.

This will overwhelm schools, advocates with the Ontario Autism Coalition have said, as students in full-time therapy go to school for the first time ever, and others who in part-time therapy start attending full days.

It's not a lot ... But it's more than we had on Monday morning before the announcement was made.Cathy Abraham

Thompson said Monday that her government will give school boards $12,300 for every student with autism who enrols in April and will also spend $1 million for teachers to get a certification in working with students who have Autism Spectrum Disorder.

"It's not a lot. It's not, perhaps, as much as we would like," Abraham said. "But it's more than we had on Monday morning before the announcement was made."

School boards get $12,300 a year for every student enrolled, Abraham said. Boards take a head count every March and October and the government adjusts their funding accordingly.

"So what this funding did was basically extend the count day for us. When those new students enter our schools in April, we're going to get the full-year funding, which is also a bit different, because normally you would only get a portion of it," she explained.

But that announcement won't change the fact that teachers aren't behaviour therapists, Abraham said. Nor will it address the chronic underfunding of special education in Ontario.

"While teachers and support staff and administrators and everybody will do the very, very best they can ... it is no replacement for intensive one-to-one behavioural therapy," she said. "We know that."

Special education budgets won't go up

Thompson also said Monday that the government would give school boards $3 billion for special education, as usual.

"Well that's what we get now," Abraham said. "Three billion dollars doesn't cover it."

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She said school boards regularly overspend their special education budgets and have to take money out of other areas to make up for it. The Halton District School Board spends $20 million more on special education than it gets from the government.

"We will continue to advocate for more money for our special education students," Abraham said.

The Ministry of Education will provide "a range of new and ongoing" supports for the 2019/20 school year, a spokeswoman told HuffPost in an email. Heather Irwin did not provide specifics on those new supports, but said school boards should be hiring staff with expertise in autism to prepare for the new students.

An Opposition MPP slammed the PC announcement Monday as deceiving.

"The Ford government is using smoke and mirrors to deceive the public about its autism plan, instead of the assurance of real funding," Green party leader Mike Schreiner said in a statement.

"The government needs to scrap their indefensible autism plan, listen to parents and come back with an evidence-based plan that puts the needs of children first."

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