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                  “Everybody Wants The School To Remain Open, 

                              But Nobody Wants To Pay For It” 

 

By Randall White

Last week one Queen’s Park watcher summarized recent Ontario political discourse as focussing mainly on hydro rates relieved by attention to possible school closures.

More specifically, the week before Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown called for a moratorium on school closures across the province and a review of relevant provincial guidelines. (The closures themselves are determined by local school boards.)

Shortly after, NDP leader Andrea Horwath launched an online petition, calling on the Wynne Liberals to “Immediately recognize that schools are important community hubs.”

Like so much else in Ontario politics in 2017, this is far from a new issue.  

As explained by Susan McWilliams at Queen’s University in a 2008 report, the bust of the post Second World War baby boom that began in the 1970s started the declining school enrolment issue in Ontario and other similar places. She noted that between 1972 and 1978 Ontario’s elementary school boards lost 145,168 students.

The background here is important. During the 1960s, faced by both the crest of the baby boomers and very robust economic growth, the old PC dynasty at Queen’s Park rebuilt and extended much of the public school system in the province. 

At the time this seemed a noble enterprise. But by the 1980s, two new realities had surfaced. 

First, the dramatic surge of students during the postwar baby boom generation was not a permanent feature of our society. (If anything, the opposite future of “an aging society” was on the horizon.)

Second, the dynamic postwar economic growth that peaked in the 1960s was not a permanent condition north of the Great Lakes either.

By some calculations, dynamic economic growth has also become something that must be nurtured by public policies quite different from those of the 1960s.  

According to a People for Education report, between 1999 and 2004 (guided by Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution) “school boards reacted to education funding cuts by closing over 250 schools across the province.”

By this point demography was still a driving force. And this included continuing low birthrates (only moderately relieved by immigration), and population movements prompted by real estate prices and various harsh transformations in some regional and local economies.

At the same time, a 2013 article in the Vancouver Sun urged the need for “an in-depth look into declining enrolment.” And it explained how “educational opportunities outside the public system” are also “becoming attractive to more and more families.”

For all these reasons declining enrolment and school closures in Ontario have continued.

In response to the latest agitation in the legislature, Education Minister Mitze Hunter has indicated that her ministry’s surveys of the province’s 72 school boards suggest “there are 43 reviews currently underway involving 300 schools and in the 2016-17 academic year, school boards have decided to close 19 schools.”

Is there anything else behind this latest wave of Ontario school closures — against which both opposition parties have recently launched fresh protests? 

This past December Louise Brown on the TV Ontario website offered one explanation: “the extra ‘top-up’ funding the Liberals have long granted school boards to soften the blow of declining enrolment is coming to an end, as the province works to wipe out its deficit by 2018.”

As just one case in point, it was recently reported that the Near North District School Board will lose some $1.7 million annually in top-up funding this fall. And it is contemplating merging six schools into two in North Bay.

School closures have taken place in all kinds of Ontario municipalities. But they probably have their worst impact in rural and small-town communities already losing population, where closing a local school can make difficult circumstances much worse. 

And here, some might say, is another Trump-Brexit-like issue in the Ontario air right now — and yet another problem for the Wynne Liberals, and another opportunity for both the opposition PCs and (Bernie-Sanders-like) NDP.  

On the other hand, one irony of Mr. Brown’s call for a moratorium is that his party’s trademark worries about balancing budgets are at least in part driving school closures in Ontario today (where parallel concerns have prompted Liberal cuts in top-up funding for school boards.)

And conservative rural and small town voters especially may finally appreciate all this best. 

In a province of almost 14 million people — the great majority of who are voting-age adults —  only 663 had, as of March 20, signed Ms. Horwath’s petition, calling on the Wynne Liberals to “Immediately recognize that schools are important community hubs.”

Or, as bemoaned by a former president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association back in 2015: “Everybody wants the school to remain open, but nobody wants to pay for it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : March 22, 2017

View all of Randall White's columns
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