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Postsecondary education steals spotlight from all-day kindergarten in Ontario budget

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty builds necklaces with Nathan Skinner, 3, left, and Alex You, 4, in a full day kindergarten class at Stoney Creek Public School in London, Ontario, October 8, 2010.

Geoff Robins for The Globe and Mail/geoff robins The Globe and Mail

Ontario's 2011 budget announced no new funds for full-day kindergarten, leaving lingering questions about whether the province can afford the retrofits and renovations necessary to roll out the program to crowded and aging schools.

Full-day kindergarten was introduced last fall in 600 Ontario schools and will be offered in every school by the fall of 2014. Next school year it will be rolled out to another 200 schools, and then to 900 more in 2012.

With each phase of the rollout, the schools where the program is being introduced are going to require increasingly expensive additions and renovations. Some are located in areas of booming population growth and lack the space to accommodate full-time kindergartners. Others occupy aging facilities that will need more space or added bathrooms.

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"Dalton McGuinty is making all kinds of promises without the funding to back it up," said Tim Hudak, leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. "The fact is these numbers don't add up."

The government has already announced a total of $420-million for retrofits, but much of that money was initially tagged for the first and second years of the roll-out, raising questions about whether resources will be stretched too thin and construction can begin in time.

Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said funding for the program was sufficient, but added his government would consider "adjustments over time."

A government source said that construction and renovations for the first and second phases of the full-day kindergarten roll-out had come in $100-million under budget, and that the remaining funds were expected to cover the cost of renovations for at least two more years.

The funds for school renovations are in addition to $500-million in operational costs, including staffing and supplies, for the first two years.

Full-day kindergarten has been popular with teachers and parents, but its growing price tag has fueled critics who say the money would be better spent fixing crumbling schools or replacing outdated textbooks.

Though there was nothing new for kindergarten, postsecondary education took the budget's spotlight with new funding announcements aimed at promoting employment opportunities for Ontario residents.

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The government promised $44-million over the next three years for literacy and basic skills programs for adults and $22.5-million for a summer jobs strategy that targets youth in high-needs neighbourhoods.

This funding comes in addition to $64-million to build 60,000 additional spaces at colleges and universities by 2015-16. The funds are part of an effort to boost Ontario's postsecondary education attainment rate to 70 per cent from its current level of 63 per cent.

"Experts tell us that 70 per cent of future jobs will require workers with a postsecondary education," Mr. Duncan said. "So we want our workers to be the smartest, most capable and creative workers anywhere."

The funds to open more spots wasn't popular with everyone.

Nora Loreta, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Students' Federation said the money would be better put toward a tuition freeze.

"Creating access to education isn't just about making seats for students, it's about getting them through the door," she said.

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