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Tim Hudak's education plan threatens Ontario's economic future

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Pascal, Charles
Publication Date: 
20 May 2014



Like a record stuck in a bad groove, Tim Hudak relentlessly preaches that jobs and the economy are the defining issues of the current provincial election campaign. Ironically, he seems to be the only one out there who does not know that high quality education from the ground up is the essential ingredient for fostering a healthy economy.

Hoping that constant repetition of his mantra will fool the electorate, Hudak is selling an education plan whose mélange of false claims and incoherence would be obvious to any fifth-grader.

Hudak's double-talking reaches a crescendo of dangerous superficiality when he vows to seriously cut Ontario's Full Day Kindergarten (FDK) program that, until recently, he vowed to scrap.

Likely faced with focus groups and polling that suggested he back off dumping the widely popular program, Hudak is now hiding behind the Don Drummond report. Authored by the respected retired bank economist and commissioned by former premier Dalton McGuinty, the report, which was unencumbered by concerns about quality, made several cost-cutting suggestions regarding FDK.

The government wisely ignored this aspect of the report because of the substantial evidence regarding the economic gain from a high-quality early learning program. It's worth noting that Drummond also pointed out these economic benefits in his report.

In Ontario, before we initiated full-day learning for four and five year olds, almost 28 per cent of children were showing up in grade one as "vulnerable" compared to their peers. Many of these students are unable catch up. But even after only four years of FDK, preliminary but very promising research already points to lower first-grade vulnerability rates.

Why is this so important economically? Research sponsored by the Business Council of British Columbia that for every 1 per cent drop in this vulnerability rate, a 1 per cent increase to the GDP will accrue as a result over the working life of the cohort in question. This return on public investment represents millions upon millions of dollars.

Quality early childhood education programs are an excellent investment. No matter how often Hudak makes the case that the short-term savings entailed by dismantling our successful system justify the long-term costs, it just isn't so. By ignoring the importance of these programs and the children who will never catch up without them, Hudak's approach would take a jackhammer to the foundation of the human capital supply chain required for an "all hands on deck" economy.

Like his mentor, former premier Mike Harris, who slashed $5 billion from education, Hudak also plans to make huge cuts to elementary and secondary education. Sad, considering that Hudak sat at the Cabinet table as Harris cut education so deeply that the system began to stagnate and then regress.

Our successful recovery from the Harris era over the past decade includes an incredible increase in high school graduate rates, from 68 per cent to over 83 per cent, as a result of focused policies and targeted investments. Does Hudak not get the connection between these advancements and Ontario's recent and laudable international recognition for educational progress? And what about connecting the dots between our growing high school graduation rates and Ontario's enviable post-secondary participation rates?

Hudak also vows to scrap the 30 per cent post-secondary tuition credit that is enabling so many in Ontario to get the education and training they need. Obviously, Hudak views this program as expendable gravy rather than essential protein required for a robust and diverse labour market. How does he square extracting money from the wallets of struggling students and, by way of huge proposed cuts in corporate income tax, transferring the proceeds directly to the bank accounts of businesses, many of which are already sitting on a pile of underperforming cash?

What Hudak is clearly missing is that essential to creating jobs and building a healthy economy is a coherent and integrated approach to education that begins with early childhood programs like FDK. These reduce vulnerabilities in children, preparing them for success in elementary school, which in turn shapes high school and post-secondary graduation rates.

When smart policies line up and the right investments are made, the result is the flexible and highly trained human capital required for good jobs and a robust economy.

Hudak's broken record is an oldie we've heard before and folks in increasing numbers aren't buying it. Once again, we have someone to remind us that tough political choices come in two varieties - smart and dumb.

- reprinted from the Toronto Star