21st century requires 21st century education

By MPP Toby Barrett

As a former teacher and the son and grandson of teachers, I’m convinced of the opportunities created for citizens through education.

Regardless of background, every student needs access to skills and knowledge for a fair start in life; to do their best, and to be better prepared for the work world of the 21st century.

After health care, elementary and secondary school education is the largest provincial government expenditure – projected to come in at $23.2 billion in fiscal year 2011-2012.

While the education budget increased 35 per cent over the past eight years, salaries and benefits for Ministry of Education bureaucrats went up 62 per cent. The number of education administrators who earn more than $100,000 a year increased by 181 per cent over the same period. This is unacceptable and robs resources from the classroom.

Another concern is every year parents are paying over half a billion dollars for essential learning tools, such as textbooks and science equipment. This means parents with two children in school are paying an additional $570 annually.

Apart from yearly funding increases, there are other measures required to make our public education system better than it is now. Education is not a one-size-fits-all system. Schools in different parts of Ontario have different and unique needs.

Despite a school enrolment drop of over four per cent across Ontario since 2003, the number of school facilities has increased. But a 2008 report by People for Education indicates more than 75 Ontario schools are slated to close as boards deal with “declining enrolment and an outdated funding system.” The report said the province should speed up its review of the funding formula — which was at the time expected in 2010 — and provide interim funding until then. The government still has not conducted a complete review of the formula.

Families in our communities rely on our local schools – they are the heart of the community. The loss of a local school hurts our ability to attract business, and worsens the quality of life for parents and children. Students, parents and community needs come first. We must ensure the funding formula meets the needs of single school communities.

Teachers must be free to teach. Teachers need the support and discretion to do what they know is right in their own classroom. They should be able to ban cell phones in their classroom, teach phonics, give out marks free from pressure to inflate grades, and write meaningful report cards. It’s never too early to start measuring student progress, and as Opposition, we advocate reinstating the fall report card for elementary students that was eliminated last year.

On another note, all Ontario children should have access to all-day kindergarten regardless of where they live. Ontario families who were depending on all-day kindergarten deserve to know their government will live up to its commitment.

Our kids will compete in the 21st century so they should learn in 21st century classrooms. While recognizing the importance of the basics, many parents see the potential of learning opportunities available through new technologies, like online learn-to-read applications or e-texts. New learning technologies can be introduced within existing education budgets by spending more on student learning and less on ineffective systems and administration.

Our children deserve to get the best possible start in life.