Queen's Park Highlights - February 26, 2016

Date posted: Monday, February 29, 2016 9:14 am

The dominant event at Queen’s Park this week was the introduction of the 2016 Ontario budget. Lorne Coe, the newly-elected PC MPP for Whitby-Oshawa took his seat in the Legislature for the first time on February 22. Mr. Coe won his seat in the recent by-election necessitated by the retirement of former MPP and PC leadership contenderChristine Elliott

1. Ontario 2016 Budget continues Austerity Focus for K-12 Education 

On February 25, Minister of Finance Charles Sousa presented the 2016 Ontario Budget. 

Program spending
The Budget reports that overall program spending in the public sector is projected to grow at an average annual rate of 1.9 per cent between 2014–15 and 2018–19, essentially equivalent to inflation. The projected cost-of-living increase is projected to be 1.8 per cent in 2016 and 2.0 per cent in 2017. 

Education sector expenditure
Total education sector expense is projected to grow on average by 1.2 per cent per year between 2014–15 and 2018–19. Education sector expenditure includes the government’s allocations to child care. The Budget indicates that declining enrolment is partially responsible for the less-than-inflation-rate increase. 

New education spending includes $2 million to assist school boards welcome and settle refugees; $5 million annually for three years to respond to the education recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and ensuring school boards have “equitable and affordable access to high-speed broadband services,” especially in northern and remote communities. Details for the funding to support the expanded Internet access are not provided.

Education expenditure savings – 2016
The budget reports that education sector expenditures for this year are projected to be $430 million lower than forecast, “due in part to slightly lower-than-projected enrolment and as a result of a higher share of funding being spent on capital projects that are amortized. Higher-than-anticipated revenues from Education Development Charges further reduced Provincial funding requirements.”

This figure is significantly higher than the $248 million in lower-than-projected education expenditures reported in the 2015 Budget. 

2. NDP MPPs critique Education Funding Shortfalls 

On February 22, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath claimed the government cut $250 million from education last year. She asked why the government was making the cuts.Education Minister Liz Sandals denied the accusation: “We are not cutting education. The grants for student needs were $22.5 billion a couple of years ago. They are still $22.5 billion.” 

The $250 million identified by the NDP refers to the 2015 provincial budget that reported $248 less in education expenditures than projected. (See previous item in this report.) The 2015 budget attributed the difference to “lower-than-expected school board expense and savings in ministry administration.” According to the budget, the school board expense savings were “mainly due to lower-than-projected student enrolment and lower-than-expected spending on school operating costs.” 

NDP Education Critic Lisa Gretzky followed up with a question about education capital funding. She stated that:

“Over the past five years alone, this government has underfunded school repairs by $5.8 billion. Add that to the previous repair backlog and we now have a shortfall of $15 billion—that’s billions…”

Referring to a news conference held earlier that day by the grassroots organization Fix Our Schools, which included the participation of ETFO President Sam Hammond and the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, Ms. Gretzky asked:

“Will this government repair our schools and finally provide a safe and equal opportunity education for all Ontario students?”

Education Sandals reiterated the government’s position that it has increased capital spending for schools. She reported that the Liberal government [since taking office in 2003] had spent $13.9 billion to build 775 new schools and funded 720 renovations and major additions. The government has committed to allocating $11 billion over a ten-year period. Despite the commitment, schools across the province are being forced to live with a backlog of renovations and repairs that, in some cases, pose serious health and safety concerns. 

3. NDP MPP raises Concerns about Schools Inability to accommodate Students with Special Needs 

On February 23, NDP MPP Monique Taylor stated that students with special needs are “being kicked out Ontario’s publicly funded schools indefinitely – some for months, some for closer to a year.” She also pointed to 16,000 children with autism on a waiting list for services. She asked the Minister of Education to admit “her funding cuts are leaving behind our absolutely most vulnerable kids behind.” 

Education Minister Liz Sandals stated the government was “very concerned about the needs of our special education children.” She indicated that sometimes school principals have the authority to exclude students from school for safety reasons, and that sometimes this authority “is inappropriately used with special needs students.” She also stated:

“I want to make it clear that, in fact, under Ontario legislation all children with special needs are entitled to an education. With exclusion, as I wanted to say, we actually changed the law so that if a parent is concerned, they have a right of appeal of that exclusion. That never existed in Ontario law before. The parent does have a right of appeal on an exclusion. 

“On the matter of funding, students with special education needs are receiving approximately $2.72 billion this school year. That is an increase—not a cut—of $225.7 million, or 9% since 2012-13, and a 68% increase, $1.1 billion, since 2002.”

 

4. Government announces Strategy to end Violence against Indigenous Women 

On February 23, the government announced Walking Together: Ontario's Long-Term Strategy to End Violence against Indigenous Women. The strategy will be supported by $100 million over three years. It is part of the government’s action plan to address sexual violence and harassment against women announced in March 2015. 

5. Premier issues Apology to Ontario Francophones 

On February 22, Premier Kathleen Wynne apologized on behalf of the government for the 1912 regulation that outlawed French from being a language of instruction or communication in public schools for students beyond Grade 2. Under the regulation, only one hour of French was allowed a day. The regulation was not enforced from 1927 onward, but remained formally in effect until 1944. In 1984, when PC leader Bill Davis was premier, Ontario officially recognized the right of francophones to receive French-language elementary and secondary education. 

Premier Wynne acknowledged the fear on the part of the francophone community of the time being afraid their children were losing their language. She referred to the refusal of some teachers who continued teaching in French despite the threat of losing their licence. She acknowledged the determination and political activism of the francophone community to fight the law. 

For more information, check the website of the Ontario Legislature.

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