Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tell us about the funding formula

People for Education sent this out in its Jan. 12 newsletter, but it was the first mention of the subject I'd seen in quite some time. The parliamentary assistant to the minister of education, Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi, is leading what PFE describes as a 2011-12 review of the funding formula.
Those with institutional memory will remember the education funding formula was created by the Harris government in the mid-1990s and implemented when the district school boards as they exist today were created in 1997-98. It was a dramatic shift in how we funded our elementary and secondary schools as taxation powers were taken away from local school boards, with the property tax amounts shuffled off to the province. The province then started providing all school funding based on a per-pupil calculation.
As PFE points out (which, really, is very old news since Rozasnki pointed it out in 2002-03), some of the benchmarks set in 1997 have not been updated. The Liberal government promised wide-scale reform of the funding formula, but over the years have instead opted to tweak various elements of it.
Many things were moved to school-based formulas in the Liberals' first years in office under Gerard Kennedy and Sandra Pupatello. Funding for principals, for full-time school office staff members changed from being based on student population to being allocated per school-- at least for elementary schools. Boards also received varying amounts for remote schools, though these came with no legislated requirement to spend those amounts in those specific facilities.
Special-education grants have been constantly tinkered with and continue to be a point of frustration for many board budgets.
To claim that many of the benchmarks haven't been updated mischaracterizes the situation slightly. The big-dollar ones certainly have as school boards have seen funding increases to accommodate the increases in wages and benefits given to their employees. In many boards this is the lion's share of board expenses. Benchmarks for utilities, capital construction, maintenance and transportation have also been increased on a yearly basis for the last several years, though some of those areas might remain underfunded compared to true costs.
Despite all this text on the deficiencies that forms the bulk of the PFE newsletter item, don't lose the two most important points.
Two of the key questions will be:
▪ In light of the Province’s fiscal challenges, what measures could be taken to reduce spending and/or make the system more efficient and effective?
▪ What areas of the funding formula that support student achievement should we focus on for further reforms?
The skeptics might say this is a harbinger of things to come given that throughout the Liberal mandates the dollar amount invested in education continues to grow while student populations have consistently declined. Every successive year of increases would bring commentary from inside and outside the system asking when the tap was going to be turned off. I would say the government is looking for some opinion on how/where/when it might start trimming the education budget, or launching a massive pre-election test balloon so that it can use any outrage over possible cuts as ammo in the pending campaign.
The other thing I can pull out of those key questions is that any suggestion, if it's to be taken with any seriousness, must be relatable to improving student achievement. So don't just tell us we shouldn't spend less but tell us how, in hopefully measurable terms, that cut might lead to dumber students (for lack of a more refined vernacular).
I did question timing, since this review, if it should extend into 2012, hasn't really begun in any serious way yet and the election is less than 10 months from today.


Anonymous said...

I have to shake my head and wonder whether this pre-election ploy to re-kindle the funding formula debate isn't once again People for Education reading off of the script of ETFO. Make no mistake though ER this is all about ramping up an election issue and not too much else.

My initial reaction to your post was that the People for Education group must have lost touch with reality or have missed the international economic meltdown we're just now slowly recovering from because going after more funding from a gov't that has openly admitted that they simply don't have it is very disconnected.

Paying more money to educate fewer students in an economic downturn is a non-starter.

Sandy said...

I worked for a Harris era MPP as you probably know. There is more to this story/issue than meets the eye and it involves a huge elephant in the room. That elephant is the Catholic education system.

What really happened to change the funding formula was equalization between the two public systems. Prior to the change in Bill 160, the Catholic system got approx 60 cents to every dollar the regular public system got.

So, yes, there was a 20% cut to the regular system and a 20% increase to the Catholic.

Thus, the reason the McGuinty gov't won't or can't change back because it simply is not possible.

Strange though, as a non-Catholic, I have never understood how that system could manage their money so well that they had 40 cents on the dollar less and even now, have been able to use their equitable funding for capital projects, etc.

So, if anyone wants to get rid of the forumla -- not going to happen. So much for liberals wanting equity.

I had to sit through endless TV interviews with my boss so remember the issue very well. In fact, I still have notes for speeches I wrote for him and a newspaper column on the formula.

Doretta Wilson said...

A better suggestion would be to do what Edmonton did. 90% of funding goes directly to EACH school. Principals are responsible for the academics and large schools have an adminstrator, trained in business and mangagement, responsible for ther rest.

The UK is modelling this concept:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps on your planet that would work Doretta Wilson but seriously, in Ontario a change like that would mean we'd need a government in place leading the way to a similar model, we have neither a gov't or opposition in place in Ontario willing to move in that direction. How about something more practical instead of another pie-in-the-sky idea from the reform club?

Education Reporter said...

Anon 20 Jan. 8:32
I don't think it's as simple as paying more for fewer students. There's a strongly implied message in that second point that it's not just cutting costs. It's showing how those reductions would positively impact student performance. Or at least keep them from negatively impacting student performance.

Thanks for bringing those points up. I know, as a Catholic school grad, that those boards were particularly frugal-- usually because they had very stingy ratepayers and they didn't receive any of the education property taxes paid by the commercial/industrial sector. Didn't notice it as much in Ottawa, but now, working in southwestern Ontario, it's shocking to see what the disparities were between the public and Catholic systems. With a pupil-based funding mechanism the proportion paid by each sector was more equitably shared amongst the boards. The Catholic building boom? So much of it was just catching up to what many public boards had been accustomed to building for decades.

Doretta / Anon 12 Jan. 16:18:
Interesting model. I have to agree with the subsequent comment though, because I don't see anyone in Ontario politics willing to carry that off. Further, I don't see the swarm of parents calling for it either.


Doretta said...

Parents in Edmonton didn't call for what they do either, it came from (wait for it) a very savvy and entreprenurial minded director of education. The Edmonton model is well-known and copied by many.

I agree no politician will do a thing. They are all wimps when it comes to what will be needed to get us out of the huge fincancial hole they have dug.

Anon--other suggestions? How about some from you.

Anonymous said...

No suggestions from me Doretta Wilson I like the current funding model where the money is supposed to follow the student.

How about we find out once and for all how school boards are really spending that cash and open all books up to forensic audits before one more dime goes into the public system?

Groups like People for Education and the Quality Education Society need to offer relevant and attainable solutions on issues that we actually have means to change.

That the Kidder group is ramping up the funding formula issue again is a sign about where the ETFO are going in advance of the provincial election in Ontario.

Wilson's group offers that we should be more like Edmonton but admits we haven't the leadership to get us there.

Result is that nothing changes...again.

Anonymous said...

I agree with bits of what everyone is suggesting, however if I were People for Education I'd be very careful with asking for a review at this time because it's likely to backfire.

If folks here have noticed people are getting tired of the education issues and continual drone of the same sides of arguments. Witness the dramatic decline in participation on education blogs as an example, but also the issues that do make headlines are the same ones making headlines 10 years ago. So what's changed really?

Doretta said...

I never said we should be more like Edmonton. That is one option only (and in Edmonton the funding does follow the child as well). The best solution is one that offers the most options and the greatest incentive for ALL schools to improve.

Anon of 8:26 is right, there is no wiggle room for governments right now when there is no money.

There's also not much interest in education mainly because (a.) most boomers' kids are almost finished school therefore (b.) there are dropping enrolments everwhere, (c.) older boomers are more concerned about the economy, jobs, and retirement and (d.) their own aging parents and their health care.

Multiply all that with the belief that everything in education has been "solved" = lack of interest.

Either that or we are all too busy shovelling snow!

Anonymous said...

People are just turning off education and news about education in any way shape or form. For the reasons Doretta sites but also because there is no sympathy for the continual drone of the usual suspects year after year after year.

The truth is that we are paying more to educate fewer students. It's not sustainable - not now. Not when private sector employees have lived through wage cuts/freezes, benefit cuts, loss of jobs etc.

How has the education sector begun to pull its economic weight? What has it given up to help?

Doretta said...

Right you are Anon and you can see it all play out on www.sunshineonschools.ca

Pick a graph for just about any school board and watch the inverse relationship between enrolment and spending.

Anonymous said...

Part of the reason separate boards appear so frugal is the contributions (financial and in kind) of local dioceses.
The reason why PFE is bringing up the funding formula now, is that Liberals have avoided addressing it for 8 years and pre-election time is the only time it will get any significant media attention, and then very little at that.
What no one ever mentions is that the Conservatives not only produced a ridiculous square foot funding formula for schools, it also created a 3rd and 4th class of school systems in Ontario: French Public and French Catholic. Four schools systems in one province when other provinces have moved to single systems?

Anonymous said...

PFE is also supportive on one school system and nixing the Catholic system too no? How about PFE be honest about its push for once?

Something that PFE fails to tell parents is that there were many things that were found to be favourable about the funding formula, including that it follows the student.

PFE is also off the mark when it comes to small/rural schools. No way do small schools need a principal, secretary and librarian.
That's just a waste of money and effort.

PFE's messages too often equal that of the teacher unions and not always that of the parents they claim to represent and/or advocate for.

Doretta said...

One school system? Uh, take a closer look at what the other provinces do:


Anonymous said...

Hi Hugo,

Congratulations for being the only education blog that's tackling issues that will shape the next Ontario election.

I have to say for me personally the lack of anything coming close to those issues that the public at large can relate to that are being ramped up in local papers where education is concerned is missing from discussion all of the more popular discussion forums.

People for Education - great at flirting around the edges but never gets down to reality where new ideas are concerned. Reading their discussion forum one can see that parents there aren't happy. If you love public education this is the vehicle for you

SQE - not touching on issues the grass roots can use or relate to.
Yes, the system's not working and we can snag any number of studies and anticdotes to back that up but what about what's important in this election. Where's the choice lobby and which party is listening to this? Take on some controversial issues that aren't focused on Toronto as the centre of Ontario's universe. Opportunity for choice in small/rural communities is huge now - where's SQE's tip sheets to communities on how to organize to get that choice? If you're looking for what's wrong with the public system and/or you kid needs something else then SQE's for you.

Educhatter - same participants as SQE with the addition of Doug Little who provides union foil for the education reformers there. Still nothing turning people on to making the changes necessary to start turning the public system to actually improve things.

Retired Educator - an ok vehicle when it's up and running but find Dr. Crux all over the map where consistency is concerned.

Your spot Ed.Reporter at least is picking up on what's important outside the centre of the universe and likely to most grass root education enthusiasts.

All the others are missing the mark.

Thank goodness for small town education media who still find time to write about what's important and relevant.


Anonymous said...

p.s. I can tell you that I haven't had any interest from the reading public on education locally ER. The last column I did was on the rapid success of the Virtual School in my region.

What does this mean in terms of what's going on in public education? Is Doretta correct in suggesting that by all accounts this government has done a good job or have they just done a good job at papering over the real issues?

Education Reporter said...

Wow. Lots of good fodder in these comments.

I think Doretta's analysis on the declining interest in education has a lot of merit. To her list, I would also add the political reality of education, particularly in Ontario. Compared to south of the border, where education is very, very much still of local concern, the move of more and more to Bay Street (and I'm not making a value judgment at this moment on that) means there's less to hold onto. As a sunny side of the world person, I also would like to think that we're not obsessed with K-12 education because most people are content with the system(s) as they exist.

I would also just clarify that in an earlier comment I wrote about Catholic boards' frugality. They were quite frugal pre-1998 and the current funding formula. With per-pupil operational and especially capital funding, they've been able to catch up in the last 13 years. In the last three to four years, I would say some of that capital equity has shifted to the French-language boards as in some communities they evolve from being classrooms in English schools to remnant schools built by English boards to being separate facilities.


Doretta said...

"SQE- not touching on issues the grass roots can use or relate to"

Where are the grassroots? Who are the grassroots? Have the issues changed? What are they?
See my analysis above. The former grassroots are retirees now.

The one constant for SQE is simply to ensure that kids learn fundamentals in the best way so that they be successful later on in school and in life, and if not, then parents should have a way to choose the schools that will work to do this. Period.

People think that when testing results come out (EQAO, PISA, etc.) that because Canada appears near the top, things are hunky dory. What governments don't talk about are the large portion of students are still not achieving, that post-secondary students are not prepared, and that the costs of all the system are quickly becoming unsustainable. It's a lot of smoke and mirrors in some ways.

It's very easy to critize, but I still don't hear any different solutions other than the ones SQE have been proposing: choice, incentive, and accountability.

Anonymous said...

A clue as to what the grassroots are into comes through loud and clear via the media links Hugo has posted.

SQE says what many should hear but it's not getting to the people who matter and who could be a part of a ground swell of change in Ontario.

That SQE is trying to raise interest in what the truth actually is is commendable but it needs to break the barrier of the echo-chamber of speaking to the converted.

SQE is doing amazing work but the message isn't strong enough to rise above the din of the usual suspects. If SQE can't move the solutions itself after however many years how is the public supposed to move mountains and the blog of excuses that fill the rank and file of too many schools?

Anonymous said...