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July 2, 2013

Toronto cuts programs for students living in poverty

Scott Stockdale

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Since 1998, the Ontario government has provided funding so school boards across Ontario can offer programs and support for students from low-income families - the Learning Opportunities Grant (LOG). But Boards of Education re-direct much of this funding to other underfunded priorities, according to Lesley Johnston, Policy and Research Analyst at Social Planning Toronto.

Ms. Johnston said the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) uses up to $85 million a year to pay for programs that don't directly benefit students in need.

“The Toronto District School Board receives $143 million per year for the Learning Opportunities Grant. Sixteen or 17 million of that must be spent on certain initiatives. The remaining $126 million of the LOG is enrolment based. Special education is sweatered  (spending must meet specific requirements)  but other initiatives such as ESL (English as a Second Language) are not sweatered.”

The LOG grant is an attempt to level the playing field by giving students who don't have the same opportunities as others a chance to succeed in school. This involves things such as after school tutoring and additional staff for some students who may require personal attention. This is part of the government's poverty reduction strategy. 

Ms. Johnston said half the TDSB students live in poverty, and this is according to the TDSB's own statistics.

“Half of students live in homes where total income is less than $50,000 per year. One quarter of these students live in homes where the income is less than $30,000 per year.”

Given the LOG and ESL/ELD funding, it would seem our most marginalized students are protected; however, Ms. Johnston said deep-rooted problems in the province’s funding formula leave the TDSB struggling to stretch the total ministry allocated funds to cover all of its costs.

Ms. Johnston said the TDSB has a huge underfunding problem and it is continuously struggling to fill the gap to cover the costs of things such as heating, special education and staffing.

“All these programs are being shortchanged. We really need to look at how funding is allocated. In 2010, the provincial government did a funding formula review. The program had been in place for 15 years and it did not meet the requirements in the classroom.”

She noted the reduced number of learning disabilities teachers as an example of a program being shortchanged.

“The TDSB had 92 learning disabilities teachers two years ago and now it has only 30.”

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is the largest school board in Canada and has a total operating budget of approximately $2.8 billion. The Ministry of Education provides funding based on student enrolment and the unique needs of each school board.

This year alone, tens of millions of dollars will be shifted from programs that specifically support students with extra needs into other areas.

In June, Toronto's School Trustees will be making final budget decisions. They are still facing a $27 million deficit overall. In the past they've balanced the budget on the backs of children who need our help the most and, without increased pressure to do otherwise, it is planning to do the same for the 2013-2014 school year.

Ms. Johnston said that although Social Planning Toronto appreciates the situation the TDSB is in, she feels that the provincial government should sweater all of its grant money to the programs it is meant for, so that every child has a reasonable opportunity to get a good education and be a contributing member of the workforce.

She added that the provincial government should provide adequate funding for education in the city of Toronto to reduce the pressure on Toronto’s School Boards to underfund support for ESL and educational programs for students living in poverty.

Moreover, she indicated that underfunding is not just a problem for the TDSB.

“We're getting information that the Ottawa school board is using a portion of the LOG grant for teachers' salaries and the Peel Board is doing the same.”

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