Where’s the money for schools?

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Tue Feb 23 2010.  Bruce Davis,  Chair of the Toronto District School Board

Since deciding to kick-start the economy last year with its Economic Action Plan, the federal government has committed $9 billion in funding to more than 6,700 provincial, territorial and municipal infrastructure projects.

Here in Ontario, the province is matching federal stimulus dollars. For Toronto, that means funding for many worthy projects: Toronto Police Division 14 will get a new lock-up ($17.1 million). The Horse Palace at Exhibition Place will get a new roof ($1.4 million). And the Royal Ontario Museum will get three new galleries ($5.25 million).

Toronto’s public schools will get nothing because school boards do not meet federal eligibility criteria. It’s unbelievable.

One of the many buckets of money the feds are pouring into the stimulus plan is the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP). It’s a bucket Toronto’s post-secondary institutions are eagerly dipping into, to the tune of $175 million, and the province is matching that amount, better than dollar for dollar, with an additional $250 million. That’s $425 million in funding for colleges and universities just in Toronto.

Among the beneficiaries are the 768 students and 29 faculty members at Ryerson University who will soon enjoy the $32.9 million renovation of their Image Arts & New Media Teaching and Research Building.

As fervent supporters of education, we agree wholeheartedly with Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities John Milloy that investing in knowledge infrastructure will “provide more opportunities for our students to develop the skills they need to for the jobs of the future.”

But wait a minute. Turns out that the Knowledge Infrastructure Program is for post-secondary institutions only. The 240,000 students of the Toronto District School Board are going to have to wait until graduation to experience any benefit, because their decades-old schools will not see one penny of the KIP funding. As with other federal stimulus programs, public schools need not apply.

That just makes no sense at all. Today’s TDSB pupils are tomorrow’s post-secondary students. The advanced learning that will keep Canada ahead of the technology curve doesn’t start at age 19. Building that strong, 21st century knowledge base begins much earlier, in the classrooms and science labs and libraries of our public schools.

In fact, when it comes to math and science, Ontario’s high-school students rank among the very best in the world. (Only Finland and Singapore earn higher scores in math and science, according to the OECD.) In the Toronto District School Board, students are achieving those results while learning in classrooms and science labs that are often decades out of date. To upgrade them to today’s standards would take some $80 million.

The costs of basic infrastructure maintenance in Toronto’s public schools – replacing drafty windows, leaky roofs and antiquated boilers – are even greater. In 2009, the backlog of renewal projects in TDSB schools amounted to $2.8 billion. And that doesn’t take into account upgrades to meet 21st-century learning needs, or even the retrofits to bring 100-year-old buildings into compliance with today’s building codes.

The elementary and secondary students of Toronto are double losers. Not only are they excluded from KIP funding but from the provincial money that it unlocks. To add insult to injury, when the government eventually turns its attention to the deficit and calls on Canadians to pay the piper, public schools will once more be asked to tighten a belt that’s run out of holes.

The province’s $32 billion ReNew Ontario fund, launched in 2005, did receive $5 billion in federal funding, but that program has expired and Ontario school boards are already being told that the provincial government’s Good Places to Learn capital program will not be renewed.

When he announced the Knowledge Infrastructure Program last May, the federal minister of state (science and technology) promised “to strengthen Canada’s position as a world leader in science and technology to the benefit of all Canadians.” But the kind of knowledge it will take to secure that position in the global economy doesn’t start in college or university. It begins in the elementary classroom. It is consolidated in the libraries and labs of secondary schools.

Public schools are the only foundation on which a true knowledge infrastructure can be built. U.S. President Barack Obama understood this when he said: “To help our children compete in a 21st-century economy, we need to send them to 21st-century schools.” So he made sure that modernizing and upgrading school buildings was a key priority of his economic stimulus plan: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 invested $115 billion (U.S.) in education.

Maybe it’s time to send Canada’s leaders back to school. There’s a lesson here they need to learn.

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