The 2021-22 Ontario budget, delivered Wednesday, has a massive chapter on health-care funding. That isn’t surprising, given that we’re in the middle of a pandemic.
What is surprising is that there is no chapter on the second-largest spending item in the province: education. In fact, the word “education” doesn’t appear at all in the budget’s lengthy and detailed table of contents.
To get a sense of what this year’s budget means for Ontario’s schools as they continue to deal with the pandemic, TVO.org spoke with Annie Kidder, co-founder and executive director of the advocacy group People for Education.
TVO.org: The government is increasing the overall education budget from $30.6 billion last year to $31.6 billion this coming year. Is that enough?
Annie Kidder: Well, given that it will basically cover inflation, no, it’s not enough. But I think it’s not as simple as “is it enough or not enough?” I think the thing that was really surprising was the lack of acknowledgement of all of the challenges in education over the course of the last year.
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TVO.org: The budget does include $59.3 million in COVID-19-related funding for the education system.
Kidder: Just over $50 million is a huge decline from what the province put in last year. And I think what’s worrying about that is that it doesn’t acknowledge the ongoing issues of COVID. The impact of COVID is not going to disappear come the fall.
TVO.org: I imagine the government would argue that the pandemic is presumably winding down, given that vaccinations are underway. The toughest days for students and teachers are behind them, so less COVID-19 funding is needed. What’s wrong with that reasoning?
Kidder: Academic researchers, people working in boards, and organizations like CAMH, CHEO, and SickKids are all raising very large concerns about children’s mental health and about the ongoing needs there because of the pandemic. Others are raising equally large concerns about the impact on learning that the disruption has had this year — and that impact will also be ongoing, particularly for students who are already facing challenges or struggling in school. So to think that the pandemic is winding down is incredibly short-sighted from an educational perspective. It’s understandable that we have to focus on health and the economy. But we also have to focus on the future.
Opposition MPPs share their reactions to the Ontario budget on “The Agenda With Steve Paikin.”TVO.org: The government is also committing $14 billion in capital grants to build more schools and upgrade existing facilities. That would seem like a big chunk of change. What do you think of that?
Kidder: Yes, it’s a big chunk of change. For decades, Ontario, like many other provinces, has been so behind in terms of infrastructure spending. But it is over 10 years, and it’s not addressing the biggest issue that’s right in front of our faces, which is the effect of the pandemic.
TVO.org: One of the budget measures that got the most attention is more cheques to parents to help with education-related expenses during the pandemic. You’ve said that the money would be better spent going directly into the school system. Why?
Kidder: Because individual cheques don’t have nearly the impact that putting all that money together can have. It is much more efficient and effective to take that $1.8 billion, which is what the minister said it was going to add up to, and spend it in the education system. That would mean that it would be possible for school boards to have the resources, the staff, the infrastructure that would be needed in order to deal with the ongoing impact of the pandemic.
TVO.org: Those are all my questions. Do you have anything to add?
Kidder: Usually, the budget and details on education funding come on the same day. We do not have any details yet. And, definitely, this year, the devil will be in the details. I would expect that there’s going to be some ongoing advocacy for boards about how they’re going to be able to plan for the fall and for all the challenges that they know that they’re going to have. So I’m not sure when the funding details for school boards are coming. But that’s going to be telling.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.