Authors: Janine Schaub and Tom Adams
March 8, 2012
The purpose of this essay is to stimulate discussion about the future of public education in Ontario. Ontario’s education system is a fine one. Ontario consistently achieves above the national average in all categories of student achievement on the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program results. However, new financial pressures on Ontario’s public finances demand action from all public servants, educators included. Chapter 6 of the report of the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services, chaired by Don Drummond, is diet-oriented food for thought. Some elements of the report make particularly difficult chewing. Hopefully, this post will stimulate a good discussion.
Context, Mandate, Scope
In addressing the primary and secondary education analysis and recommendations of the commission report, it is useful to consider the context, mandate and scope of the report. The membership of the commission is also significant.
Drummond and his three fellow commissioners were asked to examine the full breadth of public service spending and propose a plan to eliminate Ontario’s deficit by 2017/18. The commission’s terms of reference excluded consideration of increased taxes — an exclusion that properly leaves the question of taxation to our legislature.
Drummond’s commission anticipates that the deficit will rise to $30 billion per year by 2017/18 if the Ontario government stays on its current spending trajectory. Some in the educational community, like Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario president Sam Hammond, have called for tax increases to allow the education system to increase spending in the style to which it has grown accustomed. This approach to financial problem solving was not available to Drummond’s commission. If this approach was followed for solving the entire deficit problem but applied to taxes across the board, all provincial taxes would have to increase by over 20% in the next couple of years. Pursuing this approach might make life much tougher for the 8.1% of Ontario’s workers now unemployed. (Ontario’s unemployment rate now exceeds the national average.)
As the report emphasizes, 8.9% of our present Ontario taxes pay for the interest on the provincial government’s debt. On our current trajectory, by 2017/18 that figure will rise to 11.5% assuming a continuation of low interest rates. The deficit is already inflating taxes and sapping citizens of government services. Should interest rates rise, the funds available for future government services will be severely impacted. Our children and our grandchildren deserve better prospects than paying for our financial carelessness.
Drummond’s commission states the obvious in noting that sustainable government services require that governments operate within budgetary balance.
Because education spending is a one of the largest areas of program spending of the Ontario government (19.3%), it received a sizable portion of the commission’s attention.
An essential aspect of the Drummond commission’s work was to consider the overall role that changes to spending in education should play in the big picture of getting the whole budget in balance by 2017/18. Part of that analysis included looking at the average annual growth rate in spending in recent years for different aspects of the provincial government’s spending. That analysis identified that education spending has been one of the slower growing areas of government spending. Unfortunately, educational spending has been going up at a compound annual rate of 4.6% over the last nine years despite falling student numbers.
Over the period 2003 through 2007, the economy was growing at a 4.1%. Education spending outstripped this rate, although not by much. Since then, the growth rate has averaged 0.9%, making the education burden on taxpayers much more onerous over time.
Although Drummond’s commission doesn’t note it, the growth rate in spending per student measured in inflation-adjusted dollars has risen a staggering 32%.
This massive decline in cost efficiency has been offset by some improvement in the quality of educational services provided but the gains are not as impressive as they first appear.
Scores on the province-wide standardized tests administered through the Educational Quality Accountability Office (EQAO) have improved since 2003 but the quality of the testing has also made significant strides over this time period. More recent EQAO results are more reliable.
EQAO reports its results since 2006/7 in a handy summary. While literacy skills for junior grades and math skills for Grade 9 have improved, math performance for junior grades has not improved. In addition, students who do not meet the provincial standard early in their schooling remain very likely to continue not meeting the standard in later grades. According to EQAO, “Of the students who had not met the provincial standard in Grade 3 and also had not in Grade 6, 51% did not meet it in Grade 9 in the academic mathematics course and 71% did not in the applied mathematics course.”
The high school graduation rate has improved, but the scholastic capacity of the graduates may not have made such great strides. For example, the Grade 10 EQAO literacy test that students must pass to graduate sets a substantially lower bar for achievement than the Grade 6 version of the test. Some of the grade six questions would present a significant challenge to an average grade 10 student.
Considering the trend of sharply increasing inflation-adjusted cost achieving only modest improvements in results, the public would be justified in concluding that the overall educational system should improve its value for money. In light of the weak condition of the provincial economy and the high unemployment rate, some reconsideration of previous spending trends is in order.
The commission had the benefit of one member who is deeply knowledgeable about the details of educational administration. Dominic Giroux was Assistant Deputy Minister with the Ontario Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, after having served as CFO of two French-language school boards in southern and eastern Ontario. In a parallel essay addressing the Drummond commission’s remarks about electricity issues (forthcoming), we note that the commission did not have the benefit of direct authorship by a person with comparable expertise in energy.
The Bottom Line for Educational Spending
The Drummond commission’s big picture view is that education spending needs to be reduced to an annual rate of increase of 1%. Following the commission’s recommendations, the actual growth rate in spending for existing primary and secondary programs will have to be zero or negative for three main reasons. Firstly, Drummond’s commission argued quite cogently for expanded Provincial support for Aboriginal education which is now performing very poorly under Federal oversight. Secondly, the commission also assumed that existing costs, such as utility costs, will remain static into the future. This seems unlikely. For example, electricity costs are officially expected to rise at an annual compound rate of about 7.9% for the next several years. And thirdly, Drummond’s 1% figure does not reflect the rate of inflation over the period which is expected to be about 2% per year. The commission does note that declining enrolment should help reduce cost pressures until 2013-14, however thereafter enrolment is expected to increase at a modest rate.
The Drummond commission’s proposals should be welcomed by some, such as those concerned with aboriginal achievement, but will be unpopular with some elements of the educational establishment and even some teachers.
Over 76% of education spending goes toward salaries and benefits. Here are some of the commission’s observations on the compensation package paid to teachers:
- The average teacher works for 26 years and is expected to draw a pension for 30 years.
- Over the last 9 years, paid preparation time has increased by 58% to 240 minutes per week. Drummond’s commission doesn’t note it, but teachers are now one hour away from what is effectively a 4-day workweek.
- About half of all teachers are at the top level of their salary grid (nearly $95,000 per year), up by about one-third from nine years ago.
- Teachers’ pensions are indexed to inflation and funding is split with the Provincial government.
- Many teachers are entitled to lump sum retirement gratuities. Often the amount paid is about half a year’s pay. The commission describes these retirement gratuities as “difficult to justify from the perspective of their value to taxpayers, particularly in light of the stable pension plan for teachers that the government already co-sponsors.”
- Teachers and their families enjoy generous drug coverage, vision and dental care benefits.
- There is a large oversupply of young graduates seeking employment as teachers, suggesting that the compensation rates are more than adequate to attract new staff.
The compensation package for teachers needs to be understood in the context of extremely strong employment tenure rights, even for under-performing teachers. Drummond commission doesn’t address it but there is a substantial body of research showing that high performance teachers make a significant difference in student achievement as compared to low performance teachers. For example, please refer to the 2011 Harvard study, “The long-term impacts of teachers: teacher value-added and student outcomes in adulthood,” by Chetty, Friedman and Rockoff. The study looked at 2.5 million students for 20 years. The researchers concluded that students that received help from teachers in raising their scores on standardized tests were not only more academically successful, but also had lower teen pregnancy rates, higher college enrollment and larger adult earnings.
Education professionals in the Ontario system are public servants and need to earn public confidence over the long term. Education is one of the most profound gifts we give to future generations. Educators should care that we leave future generations unburdened with our debts. An educator who doesn’t care about the provincial deficit needs to look at the big picture of being responsible to students.
The Drummond commission’s observations make clear that the current challenges in public finances demand a sharp departure from previous cost trends. To preserve, and hopefully enhance, student achievement, the entire educational system needs to become far more efficient, including purchasing labour services at lower cost.
The Organization of Drummond’s Ideas
The Drummond Commission’s report is far more than a list of recommendations which the government may or may not act upon. The commission organized its comments to provide readers with a summary of each spending issue. Parts of the report are factual, and often bleak, statements about the history of the province’s decent into a severe structural public accounts deficit. Over and over, the commission invites readers contribute their own ideas on how we might rectify the problems.
What It Might Look Like to Do More With Less
Drummond’s commission has a number of suggestions on how to go about doing more with less. Rather than repeating the commission’s list, here are some suggestions that teachers, schools and educational institutions might try to constructively respond to this great challenge:
- Teachers’ unions and school boards will have to work from a budget-balancing premise. Wages and benefits, which cause about three quarters of all education costs, will have to be contained until economic and public financial circumstances improve.
- Principals, perhaps with assistance from their boards, will have to develop multi-year plans to effectively operate their schools with a lot less cash for matters outside of labour costs.
- Fast, effective decisions should be taken to close and dispose of underused facilities. Delaying disposal of underused facilities will reduce the funds available to manage costs at needed facilities.
- As a tool to rationalize underused facilities, middle school grades might be moved into high schools or into primary/junior schools.
- User fees for transportation may mean that there will be fewer trips, the implication being that schools will have to organize more local and in-school experiences for students.
- Principals may be required to function as curriculum leads in their schools. (Drummond recommends a 70% reduction in board consultants, learning coaches, and other non-teaching staff.)
- Professional development may be reduced and remaining professional development may be reorganized to use up less travel time. Schools should explore lower cost options for professional development including professional learning communities and distance education using tools like webcasts or video conference calls.
- For a limited period of time but soon, the number of teachers should drop at a rate exceeding the rate of decline of enrolment.
- Over-reliance on attrition to cut teaching numbers and failure to take advantage of the current abundant supply of young teachers would create a distorted age distribution in the teaching ranks which would not benefit the educational environment over the long term.
- The size and number of university programs graduating students with teaching qualifications are excessive, a too-frequent experience over the last 25 years.
- Larger class sizes and fewer educational assistants will mean that teachers will have to generate alternative ways of supporting one another, especially with respect to students who have special needs.
- A 25% reduction in textbook, learning materials, classroom supplies and computers will mean that students will have to augment classroom supplies with their own resources. Technology options should be reviewed to lower the overall cost of computer access in schools. (example: explore the $35 “Rasberry Pi” computer for some classes)
- A range of pension issues should be considered on a forward going basis, including the number of years teachers must work to qualify for pensions and the extent of government funding of pensions.
- Retirement gratuities should be reconsidered on a forward-going basis although fairness should be considered with respect to existing rights.
- Secondary and elementary teaching unions may have to agree to accept less preparation time unless a stronger link to student achievement can be demonstrated.
- There may be restrictions on current drug, vision and dental benefits.
- Teachers may want to consider what the profession might look like if teachers receive, “incentives tied to performance, outcomes and productivity.” (Page 11) For example, if Ontario swept top place in all categories of the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, should all teachers be rewarded with a modest cash bonus?
- Special education teachers should use planning and assessment practices that more successfully demonstrate student achievement outcomes. Drummond’s commission noted that there has been a 55% increase in special educcation spending since 2002 although serving a smaller number of students. The commission also comments on unclear achievement outcomes. See pages 9/10.
- Institutions granting additional qualifications that allow teachers to progress in their employment grids should be independent of unions and school boards. More rigorous course work might be required with a greater emphasis on evidence linking course-work to improved student outcomes.
Conclusion and Invitation
The wider educational community can only ask for public confidence if educators focus on student achievement while responding constructively to the exigencies of public finances. Educators cannot ignore the economic concerns that press upon so many more of our fellow Ontarians than only five years ago. Careless slogans like “Stop School Closures”, “No Concessions”, and the recent union-funded election ad campaign called “Vote Against Kids” detract from the profession’s public standing. Irrespective of their starting point, everyone should agree that the Drummond commission’s work contains some obviously solid and sensible advice, like the urgent need to improve aboriginal student achievement. Difficult choices are immediately before us.
Please contribute your own comments, criticisms and ideas.