Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Dispelling the “Education Premier” Myth

The Save Local Schools group is organizing a rally in Confederation Park beside PCVS this coming Saturday afternoon, May 12.

It will be an opportunity to get together in a public space, enjoy the spring blossoms, share food, music and ideas, and celebrate the community connections that are built around our schools. The event will be in tandem with gatherings held by other communities around the province who have found themselves under assault by the very public institutions that are supposed to serve them – fully sanctioned by the Liberal government at Queen’s Park.

Dalton McGuinty brought his Liberal party to power in 2003 with promises of no tax hikes. He tirelessly promoted himself as the “Education Premier,” taking advantage of the terrible education record of the previous PC government to distinguish himself as such.

It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Nobody could be worse than Harris when it came to managing Ontario schools – and because Harris was responsible for centralizing educational authority at Queen’s Park, no other Premier prior to Harris ever had so much power to push his educational agenda.

The Ontario government has three main responsibilities: Education, Health, and Energy.

On the Energy front, the Liberals’ record isn’t bad. True, it is full of questionable backroom deals, such as the untendered multi-billion dollar agreement with Samsung, ongoing bad investments in the nuclear industry, and the manipulation of energy projects to suit political purposes (as seen in the cancelling of a gas-fired energy plant in a politically sensitive Mississauga riding). But no one can deny that the air in southern Ontario is cleaner than it was in 2003, now that coal-fired generation has been minimized. Renewable energy projects have gotten off the ground like never before. Time-of-use metering and more realistic electricity pricing have been phased in painlessly.

The Liberal record on Health care management is worse. On the plus side, doctor shortages have eased and emergency wait room times have shortened. However, we’ve also seen controversial public-private partnerships for building hospitals where transparency and accountability go out the window. This same pattern is evident on larger scales, such as the absurd “e-health” fiasco, where a bureaucracy run amok spent massive amounts of tax dollars building its own hard-wired system rather than use the existing Internet – a scheme which failed miserably. That mess happened under the dubious watch of “Furious George” Smitherman, who quit the Liberal cabinet before it could come to light, leaving his Ministerial successors holding the bag. Thank the lord Smitherman didn’t get elected Mayor of Toronto. At least Rob Ford makes his messes right out in the open.

The latest scandal is the ORNGE air ambulances – another initiative put into place under Smitherman’s watch. It’s a sad story that centers on Dr. Chris Mazza, an ambitious man who apparently lost his bearings entirely after suffering a family tragedy, but was nevertheless handed the keys to treasury. Nobody thought to ask for them back until the Toronto Star began investigating the multi-million dollar web of corruption in December. Hearings at Queen’s Park on the farce continue weekly. Read today’s news here.

Now new Health Minister Deb Matthews is trying to cut doctors’ fees. As columnist Thomas Walkom observes in today’s Star, most recent fee hikes were the result of the government’s own initiatives. Matthews – like Education Minister Laurel Broten vis à vis the province’s teachers – is blatantly posturing rather than negotiating, hoping to score her own political points with the general public by taking a hard line against supposedly overpaid doctors. Note that the average doctor earns considerably less than high-level bureaucrats at Queen’s Park – and unlike them has to pay her or his own office expenses out of that salary, while working many more stressful hours.

And the Education file? McGuinty’s managed to elude any real criticism of the mishandling of education that has become the norm at Queen’s Park, while getting plenty of mileage out of caps on elementary class sizes. 

It’s time to dispel the “Education Premier” myth.

As observed in a previous post, the peculiar economic reality of education is that the fewer school-age Ontarians there are, the more tax-paying adults there are, proportionally, to pay for schools. Moreover, a solid one-third of the education budget comes out of property taxes, and real estate in Ontario has been steadily climbing in value as population increases while we attempt to put the brakes on urban sprawl. The combined result is that, on average, educational spending per student has nearly doubled since McGuinty became Premier.

Nearly doubled! you exclaim in disbelief. So why does KPR cry poor on every annual budget summary? Why are school boards across the province in a rush to shut down schools? Why has the Education Minister been trying to circumvent the legislated collective bargaining process to force teachers to accept a pay freeze dictated by Queen’s Park? Why is there a chronic shortage of textbooks, and French Immersion resources? Why do teachers have to buy supplies out of their own pockets?

Add to these questions the ones recently posed by People For Education, who recently determined that the government has been fudging the numbers on Special Needs students to make it seem as though more and more of them are getting help, when in fact less and less are, as reported in this Star article.  Funding increases, yet teacher-student ratios get worse.

Want more examples of bad investments of public dollars? Imagine how much money is spent on standardized EQAO testing of dubious authority and usefulness every year. The $33 million annual budget for the EQAO office doesn’t even begin to take into account the value of the huge amounts of teacher time and energy diverted from their regular contractual duties. Or imagine how much money is spent on special needs technologies that no one knows how to use, or are inappropriate and barely employed.
Or how much is spent on unnecessary WiFi systems and laptops that aren’t maintained and become obsolete within a few years.

Imagine how much money is spent on central administration of school boards. KPR spends a solid $10 million on administration annually. And imagine how much money is wasted on not just duplication but quadruplication of local services, where four different school boards (English Public, French Public, English Catholic, French Catholic) exist in every municipality in Ontario, each forced to serve huge geographical areas because no Ontario premier has had the fortitude to tackle this bizarre scenario left over from the nineteenth-century when schools were run by churches and the province was anything but a multicultural society.

Meanwhile, the massive amalgamated school boards using democratically-neglected trustees as human shields, as established by Harris, remain in place. The Ministry of Education is more obsessed than ever by EQAO statistics, at the expense of the real personal growth of its students. The Ministry continues to push mega-schools, despite the fact that almost everyone prefers smaller schools and the evidence supports their superior effectiveness.

It appears that the Education bureaucracy has forgotten entirely that the constituency they actually serve is familiesnot individual “learning machines” (a.k.a. “students”). The corporate-style management mindset that dominates the Ministry guarantees that students will not be regarded as members of families, or families as members of communities, in any decision-making process.

Like most political myths, McGuinty’s “Education Premier” image is made of nothing but smoke and mirrors. It’s high time he’s given a new moniker. 

The “Smoke-and-Mirrors Premier” might not be a bad start.


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