Ford fact or fiction? A closer look at pandemic spending in education

What does it mean when Premier Ford and Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, announce an investment in schools to ensure students are safe and supported? It could mean a lot of things, but at the very least, it means you need to ask two immediate questions.

First, is this a real announcement? Has the government invested new money? Or, as is often the case, are they re-bundling money they’ve already announced, repackaging it to get a good-news media bump?

Second, is this new money actually sufficient? Will the funds do what the government says it will do, or are the Premier and the Minister hoping that all the big numbers will distract people from what is actually needed to keep students, education workers and teachers safe?

On September 12, the Premier tweeted an infographic trumpeting the province’s back-to-school plan and spending. The skepticism that is warranted for funding announcements is equally warranted for government communications efforts based on those announcements. So the questions become: does the infographic accurately portray governments spending and is that spending enough to ensure a safe return to school? The answer is on both counts is no. The infographic misleadingly repackages funding to give a bigger-than-actual figure and it presents these numbers as though they were actually what we need to ensure students are safe.

First things first. To follow the funding announcements, you need to go to the official, technical sources and not just the government news releases or, worse, government MPPs’ Twitter feeds. Education funding details can be found here. For funding information about the 2020/2021 school year and COVID-19, click on 2020 under the ‘B’ memos. For our purposes, you want to look specifically at the following five memos: B08 and B11 through B14. Additionally, look at the Memo to Chairs of District School Boards on August 14th. It does not have a memo number, but relevant information.

Now let’s look at the top two boxes in the government’s infographic. In the top-left, we see $100 million for more teachers. We’ll discuss whether that’s enough below, but for now, just note that $100 million is made up of $70 million in federal dollars and $30 million in provincial dollars. In the box to the right, we see $200 million in support for school board priorities. This number is a bit of a mystery. The infographic doesn’t provide any links or directions for where we can look at the numbers—it just asserts it. It’s clearly an aggregate since none of the funding announcements include a $200 million figure for “school board priorities.”

The closest figure appears in an August 26 news release describing how the additional money from the federal government will be spent. The news release includes a category called “Re-opening Plan Implementation,” which totals $200 million, but it includes $70 million in federal dollars for hiring teachers. If that’s the support for school boards the government means, then they are including the same $70 million twice in the same infographic. In fact, if that’s the right $200 million, then they are also double-counting funding for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) insofar as they reference the amount sent to boards for PPE in the second box on the left, AND includes $30 million for PPE in the “Re-opening Plan Implementation” section.

There is also room for skepticism about the $69 million claimed for remote learning. It appears this total includes $36 million in federal dollars and $15 million allocated through the provincial government’s annual Grants for Student Needs. To get to $69 million, you also need to include $18 million that the Ministry promised in the July 30 memo to Chairs of District School Boards. However, that money was not provided for in either the Grants for Student Needs or the Priorities and Partnerships Fund. In short, we’ll believe it when it’s officially allocated.

Ultimately, though, the numbers in the infographic are unclear. For transparency, the infographic should include a link to a single document that shows how they arrived at these numbers.

This brings us to the bigger question. Even if we take the numbers at face value, are they enough? That is, has the government truly created and funded a plan that would ensure students are safe and supported. Again, the answer is no.

In terms of hiring new teachers, $100 million sounds like a lot, but in practice it works out to less than one new teacher per school. Parents, teachers and education workers alike have all been raising alarms about large class sizes and the challenges they present for physical distancing. It is hard to imagine that many schools would be able to resolve these problems with the addition of a single teacher.

Similarly, 37 million pieces of PPE shipped to school board sounds like a big number, but in fact it works out to fewer than 15 PPE items per employee and student for the school year. This number may go up after the province receives the second half of federal funds, but this is a far cry from what is actually needed.

The allocation of $43 million for special education and mental health only works out to $9,000 per school. Is this really enough at a time where students are experiencing heightened anxiety, isolation from their peers, and an entirely new set of rules around personal space and interaction? Many students will also be internalizing stresses felt by their parents related to lost income and employment, separation from elderly loved ones, and loss of access to formal and informal community supports. The connection between COVID-19 and mental health is particularly urgent because the health and financial vulnerabilities created by COVID-19 are disproportionately experienced by Black and other racialized groups, people living on low incomes, women and other equity-seeking groups.

Let’s end with the $200 million that is available to support school board priorities. This works out to approximately $40,000 per school. For most schools, this simply won’t be enough. School boards are scrambling to improve ventilation, reduce class sizes, ensure proper screening and testing, and support students’ mental health. Ricardo Tranjan at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has done a good job showing how scarce the provincial resources actually are.

The government’s latest infographic—like much of their communications—is a case study in why we should approach official figures with skepticism and be ready to dive in for a deeper analysis.

1 Comment on Ford fact or fiction? A closer look at pandemic spending in education

  1. Good investigative legwork. This is information everyone should have.

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