With inflation on the rise, the June 2 Ontario election is shaping up to be about affordability and measures that put money back into people’s pocket. This misguided focus overlooks public institutions that not only make life affordable but function as the pillars of a fairer society. Neglecting institutions such as schools, where children spend most of their time, comes at a huge cost, which no government cheque can ever replace.

Public schools provide a stimulating and supportive environment for child development; they teach students the skills needed to participate in social, political and economic life; and they help to mitigate historical and systemic socioeconomic inequality.

In a recent report, researchers at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened already unequal access to education opportunities. Unless governments act to reverse this trend, knowledge gaps between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds are likely to increase.

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Higher-income families invest large amounts in educational resources such as books, private tutors, technological supplements, extracurricular activities and enriching experiences such as travelling and visiting museums. These resources are positively correlated with higher parent expectations, higher student motivation and aspiration, and ultimately higher achievement.

Lower-income households may offer some, but not all, of these resources. For instance, parents in low-income households may have a high degree of involvement in their children’s learning, but they may also have limited availability due to irregular working hours and longer commutes. Electronic devices may have to be shared among siblings. Extra-curricular activities may be limited to those available through local governments.

At home, students access whatever their parents can afford, whereas at school, all children access similar opportunities to develop and learn. This why public education has been dubbed the “great equalizer.”

Schools must remain a government priority to perform this important role, but education experts have been warning for years that this is increasingly not the case. Discussing the U.S. context, one author called it the “decline of the great equalizer.” A 2019 comparison of 30 international large-scale studies from 1964 to 2015, including 100 countries and 5.8 million students, found that socioeconomic status-related achievement gaps had significantly increased over that time.

Then, COVID-19 happened, and the problem got worse.

Public health measures required children to stay at home for prolonged periods, especially in Ontario, where schools were closed longer than in any other Canadian jurisdiction and most European countries.

It is too early to fully understand the impact of these school closures, but what we do know is bad.

In a 2021 article on COVID-19 school closures and educational achievement gaps in Canada, researchers extrapolated the findings from a study that looked at the growth of learning gaps during the summer months, then extrapolated them to the first year of the pandemic. The authors predicted “learning losses of 3.5 and 6.5 months among typically performing and lower-performing students respectively, and achievement gaps that grow up to 1.5 years among same grade peers.”

Another study estimated that the socioeconomic status-related skills gap of 15-year-olds in Canada could increase by more than 30 per cent as a result of the pandemic. Students from low socioeconomic homes may have fallen an additional half-year of schooling behind their peers during the pandemic.

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These findings are disconcerting, if not surprising. The question is, where do we go from here? There are two basic alternatives – one good, one bad.

In the years ahead, the province can use its education system to support all children in overcoming the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting students back on a healthy path to growth, development, and learning. Or, it can sit on the sidelines and watch as schools struggle to provide the programs that all children need while parents with resources abandon the public system to find costly alternatives in the private market and widen the existing gaps.

In the first scenario, Ontario’s public education infrastructure would serve its historical role of mitigating socioeconomic inequality by providing children with similar opportunities to access the learning, programs and activities they need and want. It has never been a perfect system –  numerous barriers have made access more difficult for some population groups – but overall, public education has helped to narrow the opportunity gap.

The second scenario makes children and parents compete for limited resources. Worried that their kids are being denied the opportunities enjoyed by other children, parents will look for alternatives. Those with financial resources will pay for private sector options, doing what they judge best for their kids but inadvertently undermining the public system.

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Over almost a century, Ontarians built one of the best education systems in the world. It was a gradual, contested and incomplete process, but by 2010 Ontarian children had access to free, universal, full-day education, from kindergarten to grade 12, including transportation, in English or French.

The long-held vision was that each generation would leave a better education system for the next. That’s how it has worked thus far. Will this generation be the one that drops the ball?

Let’s hope not.

In our recent report Catching Up Together: A Plan for Ontario Schools, our team at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives put forward 13 recommendations for strengthening public schools. These would address the pressures brought on by COVID-19 and tackle long-standing problems such as lead water pipes, understaffing, underpaid early education childhood specialists, and inadequate support for children with social and mental health needs. The report puts a price tag on this ambitious but necessary plan: $4.3 billion a year for the next 10 years, then significantly less after that, once the repair backlog shrinks.

But the Ontario government seems to have a different approach. Since 2018, it has approved $5 billion in annual tax cuts and credits. Recently, it cancelled licence plate renewal fees at the cost of $1.1 billion a year. Its temporary cut to gas taxes will cost another $500 million. As the provincial election approaches, we may see other cash transfers that purportedly help Ontarians to weather affordability challenges.

Targeted cash transfers to low-income families at times of high inflation are justifiable, but tax cuts and payouts are not. These measures weaken the province’s finances and its ability to invest in public institutions that make life truly more affordable and society fairer, such as schools.

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