Platform Primer: Education
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Platform Primer: Education

It's one of the two most significant areas of provincial jurisdiction. We look at who is promising what.

In the run-up to the provincial election on October 6, we’ll be comparing the major parties’ platforms on issues that matter to urban voters.

Education: it gives kids somewhere to go during the day, post-adolescents a place to learn about Jagermeister and fornication, and prevents us from becoming a province of shirtless unemployables locking ourselves in abandoned refrigerators. This key file is owned by the provincial government, which is why all the election contenders have a lot to say about it.

The Liberals have eight years in government, which gives them a track record to be praised or vilified, depending on your bias and the way you present the data  (“Children who had never been to school in 2004 now have seven years of education!”). Actually, the stats detailed in the Grit platform are impressive: student test scores up 15 per cent since 2003 [PDF]; 400 schools built; and 81 per cent of high school students graduating, up from 68 per cent in 2003 (the last with the caveat that the number measures a cohort of students over five years in a four year school system).

They’re also proud of all-day kindergarten, the taxpayer-funded babysitting service still being rolled out across Ontario. It’s a popular program; so popular that some school boards are looking at breaking open their piggy banks to pay for extra classes that are supposed to be covered by the province.

In the future, the Grits promise to “foster skills like collaboration, team building, creativity, and problem solving,” a feel-good statement that could stand some elucidation (although they do budget it at $10 million a year, implying that they have something specific in mind). They also propose to send “struggling” kids to “summer learning camps,” a term probably meant to sound fun, but a little too close to “re-education camps” for our liking.

The Libs acknowledge that an undergraduate degree is now table stakes for many jobs, and want to put more people through college and university. They’re vulnerable here; Ontario spends on average $10,222 per post-secondary student, lower than any other province and about $5,600 less than the national average. And although McGuinty froze tuition for two years after coming to office, fees have since risen considerably and are now the highest in Canada.

To keep the kids in books and iPhones, the Grits are promising an across-the-board $1,600 grant, what they say is roughly 30 per cent of average Ontario university tuition, for the middle class, which they estimate to be five out of six students. The grant is the biggest single chunk of new education spending, costed at $423 million next year and rising thereafter.

The Liberals also say they’ll build three new undergraduate campuses, although when, where, and for how much isn’t clear.

Progressive Conservatives
There’s been a cloud of suspicion around the Tory approach to education ever since they went to war with the teachers unions back in the Mike Harris days. To be fair, most of their much-denounced reforms haven’t been reversed in eight years of Liberal rule, but they still face an uphill battle convincing elements of the public that they won’t be slashing education funding and otherwise vindicating the home-schooling crowd.

To that end, the Conservatives have seen which way the wind is blowing on all-day kindergarten, which they originally opposed, and will continue to implement the program.

The Tory language around education harkens back to a sterner time, giving “teachers the support and discretion to do what they know is right for their own classroom. They will be able to ban cell phones in their classroom, teach phonics, give out marks free from pressure to inflate grades…” (the Toronto District School Board lifted its ban on cellphones just this year, and the educational outcome remains to be seen).

While they don’t want the kids using the Facebook on the public dime, the Tories do say they’ll introduce new technologies like online reading tools and e-textbooks into the classroom. They also want to make standardized test scores available online, meaning the days of liquid-papering your marks before bringing them home could be numbered.

Tim Hudak echoes Grit promises to support higher education, saying he’d add another 60,000 college and university spaces for knowledge-hungry adolescents and retired folks with time on their hands. They would also lower the family economic threshold at which students could receive government financial support, making it easier for the working middle class to get their kids out of the house and into the dorm.

The PCs would end the Grit scholarship program for foreign students and divert the $30 million back to home-grown talent, a populist move that may score points in the xenophobe community.

No detailed costing document could be found on the platform, so the exact price of the Tory promises isn’t clear. However, Conservative education critic Elizabeth Witmer has said they would match the Liberal commitment to increase education spending by $2 billion.

The NDP bided their time and didn’t release an education platform until September 15, when Andrea Horwath and team turned up at Ryerson University to lambaste the Liberals for high tuition fees and suggest that only New Democrats can be trusted to make schooling affordable.

Proposals include freezing tuition fees at current levels for four years, eliminating interest payments on the provincial portion of student loans, and implementing a plan to help students find work after graduation.

The Liberals have fired back, noting that the NDP said on a questionnaire distributed by the Canadian Federation of Students that they would raise per-student funding to the national average. The Grits say this would cost about $1 billion a year, while the NDP costing document shows only $405 million in new education spending.

The approach to sub-higher education also speaks to the bleachers, promising to ban course fees in high schools, and to give schools more money so they don’t have to nickel and dime parents for fees or panhandle them for donations.

Green Party
Lacking the policy-crafting resources of the Big Three parties, some Green platform planks [PDF] are a little skinny. In the case of education, that means they devote the first of four bullet points to a motherhood statement committing to “updating and strengthening our education system.”

More tangibly, they join the NDP in advocating a tuition freeze, although for a more small-c conservative two years, after which it would be indexed to inflation for another two years.

The Greens understand that one of the critical goals of education is to provide the newly educated with skills for which they can get paid, and so would spend $100 million on training and certification in areas close to the Green heart such as green buildings, renewable energy, and sustainable transportation. They’d also allocate another $100 million to apprenticeship, co-operative and mentorship programs [PDF].

The Upshot
An interesting thing about this election is the striking absence of a topic that was all over the place in the 2007 vote: public funding of “faith-based” schools. Ever since the issue killed John Tory’s political career, it’s been the leprous hot potato of Ontario politics, touched only by the mad and the unelectable. Recent controversies over Catholic schools’ banning of gay-straight alliances has led to some activists calling for an end to funding Catholic boards, but the issue hasn’t gained wider traction (yet).

Going by the numbers, the Liberals have a pretty decent track record on education, especially at the grade- and high-school level. A case can be made—and has been, by Horwath and Hudak—that post-secondary students have been overcharged and under-funded for the last few years. However, if election promises can be trusted, there should be some tuition relief in sight under a reinstated McGuinty, and even some brand new campuses (how long does it take to build one of those things, anyway?)

The Tories are saying the right things, but union memories are long and a Hudak government would have to do some wooing to win back the trust of teachers. Plans to use technology in the classroom, add new university spaces, and cheapen the college experience are positive, but it would be useful to see some costing.

The NDP are sticking close to the “helping the working family” brand that’s so popular these days, committing to lower tuition fees for college and university students and fewer school fees for parents. They may have to explain their apparently unbudgeted promise to spend a billion dollars on funding higher education.

The Greens will join the rush to make university less expensive, and also promise to boost practical training, especially in sustainable industries and technologies.

CLARIFICATION: September 28, 2011, 4:15 PM This post originally said that the Grits are promising “an across-the-board 30 per cent tuition grant for the middle class,” when in fact the grant is for $1,600, which they say is 30 per cent of the average cost of Ontario university tuition.