Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Apromise to expand public funding for education to include religious schools has figured prominently in the Ontario election campaign. John Tory's announcement Monday, that should his Progressive Conservatives win the Oct. 10 election, the debate will be settled in the legislature with a free vote, may reduce the issue's heat.
Yet the funding proposal remains contentious and poorly understood. Concern arose over whether it would drain substantial resources from the public and Catholic system without benefiting the rest of society. What kind of facts could be useful to voters and legislators in understanding the issues?
First, enrolment in public and Catholic schools is declining. From 2003-2004 through to next year, the total number of students in both systems will drop by about 46,000, or 2%. Over the same period, and including current plans for 2008, provincial grants for student needs will have risen by $3-billion, almost a 20% increase.
With about five million households in the province, and an annual increase since 2003-2004 in education spending of roughly $600 per household, Ontario's per student funding will exceed that of every other province except Manitoba.
Does spending more money per student increase student learning? A vast research literature asks if smaller elementary classes, or more teachers per student, actually improve elementary assessment results. There is little evidence they do.
The best way to assess student learning in Ontario is to compare results with Canadian provinces where students at the same age write the same test. In the 1999 School Achievement Indicators Program (SAIP) science assessment, students in Alberta performed significantly better than students in Ontario. In the 2004 SAIP science assessment, Alberta's students again performed significantly better than Ontario's. Alberta's students outperformed
Ontario's in SAIP assessments of mathematics and of reading in 2000 and 2003.
Ontario spent more money per student than Alberta, had smaller classes than Alberta and obtained poorer results. This and many other similar examples show there is no obvious relationship between the amount of money put into the public education sector and the outcomes.
How does this discussion relate to John Tory's apparently moribund proposal to publicly fund religious schools that adhere to the Ontario curriculum? The estimates of the money needed to fully fund these schools range between $400-and $500-million dollars annually. That is far less than the currently planned increases in educational spending at Catholic and public schools between the single years 2006/2007 and 2007/2008.
If the funding proposal were to be phased in between 2006/2007 and 2008/2009, the increased costs could be covered entirely by currently planned funding increases. Thus, new spending on faith-based schools could be easily accommodated without reducing spending on public education.
If the discussion about public funding of religious schools is not about reducing the level of funds spent on public and Catholic schools, what are the issues?
The main issue is whether it is a good thing or not to give parents more choice in education. In Alberta, where students perform better than in the rest of Canada, the province fully funds alternative schools and has gone further than any other Canadian province in allowing charter schools and other forms of school choice.
Public funding allows those choices, and all schools are part of Alberta's assessment system. The success of schools in Alberta -- where independent and religious schools receive public funds -- is something more Ontarians should know about when they contemplate their own future school funding options.
-David R. Johnson is a professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University and fellow-in-residence at the C.D. Howe Institute.