It’s Time to Connect K-12 Education with Provincial Budget Revenue
The Ontario provincial government has a budgetary predicament.
On March 20, 2023 the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the final part of its Sixth Assessment Report, confirming that urgent action is required now, by governments and organizations at every level, to change the trajectory we are on to exceed the threshold of a 1.5 increase in global temperature. The key theme from this final report until 2030 is that we need to act now, or it will be too late.
Ontario has a backlog of about $16B in school facility upgrade needs. This loose estimate needs to be updated to account for climate change adaptation and mitigation of school facilities. The Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA) is advocating for an end to a provincial moratorium on school closures that has been in place since 2017.
Additionally, some school districts are struggling to balance their budgets due to additional staffing and related costs incurred during the pandemic to address gaps in student support with academics, mental health, and social and conflict management skills. The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has indicated a $70.1M gap in post-pandemic costs. Under the mantra Shortchanging Education Hurts Ontario, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) is also advocating for provincial increases in education spending.
The 2023 Ontario Budget
On Friday, March 24, the Ontario government presented its 2023 budget. As demonstrated below, expenditures for the Education Sector are projected at $34.7B, an increase of $2.3B over 2022-23 interim financial assessments.
Ontario 2023 Budget p. 6
More information about how the 2023 increase of $2.3B for K-12 education will be allocated is provided four times in the budget report.
1. Under the heading Ontario’s Capital Plan:
“Investing $22 billion, including about $15 billion in capital grants over the next 10 years, to build more schools and child care spaces, including a new English public elementary school in North Bay, a new addition to the École élémentaire et secondaire publique Ronald‐Marion in Pickering, a new addition to the École secondaire catholique Sainte‐Trinité in Oakville, and a new English Catholic secondary school in Windsor.” (p. 16)
2. Under the heading Building More Schools of the Building Ontario section of the report:
“[T]he government is investing about $15 billion in capital grants over 10 years to support student achievement by expanding and renewing schools and child care spaces.” (p. 63)
3. Under the heading Preparing Students for the Jobs of the Future of the Working for You section: “The government is providing an additional $3.3 million over the next three years, beginning in 2023–24, to expand access to dual credit opportunities in health care‐related courses for an additional 1,400 secondary students. This will help ensure hospitals, long‐term care homes, and home care have the workers they need.” (p.73)
4. Under the heading Supporting Students and Families of the Working for You section of the report:
$25 million over two years for Early Reading Enhancements to provide support for students in senior kindergarten to Grade 2
$12.6 million over two years for Targeted Math Supports to double the provincial number of math coaches
$6.2 million for Preparing More Students for the Jobs of the Future for students with disabilities “to pursue cooperative education opportunities”, and
an unspecified amount for Continued Curriculum Updates with a focus on life and job skills. (p.97)
The Limitation of Traditional Provincial Budgets
As a mechanism for effective action in response to post-pandemic student needs and the climate emergency, the budgetary approach used by the Ontario government is problematic on several fronts.
Firstly, it continues to separate education from children, community and social services at a time when we need to be developing community schools with a view to infrastructural upgrades and staffing that promotes a more seamless integration with social services. (Expenditures for Children, Community and Social Services are projected separately at $19.4B, an increase of $1.0B over 2022-23 interim financial assessments.)
Secondly, it presents revenues against expenditures as a foundation for unlimited linear economic growth. The fiscal and societal benefits of education as a means to provincial and community sustainability are not quantified. Education, children, community and social services are presented only as expenditures.
The Opportunity of Budgetary Revenue from Education
As a part of its campaign, the OSSTF has referenced a 2019 research report from the Conference Board of Canada, entitled The Economic Case for Investing in Education, indicating that investing in public education generates $1.30 in economic activity for every $1.00 spent.
The following table demonstrates how an application of this 1.30 factor could impact the way education funding is interpreted, presented, communicated and implemented through the provincial budget.
The 1.30 factor applied above relates to “direct, indirect and induced impacts” associated with the value-added influence of these additional wages in the economy for products and services. It can be seen that the increase of $2.3B in budgetary allocations for education produces a positive revenue generating impact of $2.6B that is not accounted for in the provincial budget.
The TDSB request for $70.1M to address its pandemic operational gap represents 0.02% of its 2022-23 total budget of $3.4B. Applying this 0.02 factor to the entire provincial budget suggests that the post pandemic financial gap of all school districts across Ontario could be alleviated with a financial commitment from the government of $648M. Under this method of budgetary accountability, doing so would leave $1.95B available for other budgetary expenditures, including facility upgrades and a stronger integration with Children, Community and Social Services.
It could be suggested that a similar level of direct, indirect and induced impacts could result from increased expenditure in sectors other than education. However, as demonstrated graphically below, there are private, social and fiscal benefits unique to education that, if calculated, could also be accounted for as revenue in provincial budgetary processes.
Students that graduate with a secondary school diploma have an overall better quality of life, requiring fewer social supports which produces cost savings in health care, social assistance and crime. Added to this is the opportunity education offers to assist the innovation and business development agenda of the province overall.
The 2023 budget report offers a vision for the province that covers a wide range of topics including, but not limited to, expanding support for young entrepreneurs, supporting racialized and Indigenous communities and businesses, promoting regional innovation centre hubs, driving business and job growth by investing in critical technologies, connecting people to mental health services, and improving outcomes for youth leaving the child welfare system. To what extent could these budget items be enhanced from a different interpretation and presentation of the interconnection and value of K-12 education? Aligning the revenue capacity of K-12 education with innovation and business is not being applied to its full capacity.
Budgets and Measurement
Provincial budgets are key measurement tools that drive social policy. What we measure is of critical importance to engage a deeper recognition of education in relation to community development and the provincial economy at large. We are familiar with qualitative statements about the value of education. What is quantified, however, as a means to develop and measure effective budgetary allocations, requires a new type of accountability.
In the current environment of the Ontario budget, a win-win solution is readily available by virtue of updating the manner in which K-12 educational allocations are interpreted and presented in relation to provincial goals. Doing so would provide the provincial government the means to assist school districts in a comprehensive way while maintaining fiscal accountability.
A budgetary response to the increasingly urgent need for school facility upgrades needs clarity. Despite the overall expenditure increase of $2.3B for 2023, school districts continue to emphasize that they are required to do more with less due to post pandemic operational gaps and the continually increasing social needs of families. All of this is unfortunate because, interpreted and presented differently, the budget could be helping the provincial government to present a stronger commitment to education.
In seeking to increase their allocations, school districts and federations must continue to advocate for improvements in the way that the costs and value of education are measured. With help, provincial budgets can advance from the linear, simple and institutionally distorted to the non-linear and multifaceted tools that students and communities deserve.
Phil Dawes, March 2023