The importance of a strong and effective public education system that is responsive to the needs of our students cannot be overemphasized. All students, no matter where they come from or what their needs, are entitled to the best education in core curriculum subjects, as well as in the arts, music and physical education.
A high quality public education system educates the ‘whole child.’ It aims to foster excellence and achievement and to ensure that all children have the best opportunity to develop their intellectual, social and physical capacities to their full potential. Public education is essential to ensuring that the Toronto region has a well-educated labour force equipped to meet the demands of today’s – and tomorrow’s – knowledge-based economy. We need excellent public education if we are to attract and retain talented people, businesses and institutions.
Our local public schools have traditionally played a central role in the life of our neighbourhoods, offering their communities essential activities to support early learning and parenting and an array of extracurricular activities – both educational and recreational – as well as essential outreach and support for children and families in trouble. Since 2000, increased municipal and school board fees have been undermining community access to a wide range of programs in public facilities. A recent joint study by the City of Toronto and the United Way of Greater Toronto found that once schools started having to charge user fees for use of school space in 2000, community use of schools dropped by 43 per cent. Beginning July 1st, 2004, thanks to a Community Use of Space partnership between the Toronto District School Board and the United Way of Greater Toronto, five schools in challenged neighbourhoods throughout the city will be offering space to community groups to deliver programs and activities at no cost. Local committees will be put in place to determine how the schools will be used and how community groups can access them.
A tremendous amount of research has been conducted in recent years that strongly supports the need for additional investment in public education. In particular, the Report of the Education Equality Task Force (2002) by Dr. Mordechai Rozanski provides the blueprint for educational revitalization. It recommended more adequate, flexible and predictable funding to allow school boards to plan ahead to meet local needs and priorities.
Funding poses a particular challenge for the Toronto region. The government of Ontario made major changes to the education funding model in 1998 – changes that negatively affected the public education system in the Toronto region. Rozanski reported that the cost benchmarks in that funding formula have not been updated since 1998, leaving a $1.08 billion annual shortfall – a large proportion of which would have gone to the Toronto region. This has resulted in an overall decrease in per-pupil funding, less money to serve Toronto region children with special needs, such as recent immigrants, and loss of community use of schools, which cannot afford to stay open without charging for facilities or staff.
We need to restore investment in education based on the principles of improving education quality, ensuring equity and access, promoting cost-effectiveness and affordability, and improving accountability to the public.
The Toronto City Summit Alliance urges the Ontario government to make public education a priority. We strongly endorse the recommendations outlined in the Rozanski report and call on the government to accelerate its implementation to address funding deficiencies in our schools. In its 2004 budget the government of Ontario made a substantial new investment in public education of $2.6 B in additional dollars over the next four years, while not meeting the spending recommendations laid out by Rozanski.
A number of recommendations from the Report are particularly relevant to student achievement in the Toronto region: those that address the overall shortfall in funding as well as the recommendations that specifically address the higher concentration of special needs in the Toronto region related to language skills development for immigrant parents and their children, parenting and early learning programs for children and families at risk, restoring community access to school space in neighbourhoods where schools have traditionally been the community and recreational centers, repairing and maintaining older schools and fostering intergovernmental coordination.