Michael Van Pelt is the president of Cardus, a Hamilton-based think tank.
On Wednesday, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced her intention to table back-to-work legislation to allow 70,000 students across Ontario to return to school. This follows a predictable pattern – teachers strike, parents and students suffer, and then the government intercedes without addressing the root issues. According to the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights, Ontario is now the national leader in forcing striking workers back to work with legislation. Each time this happens students miss school, teachers miss work, and parents are left wondering what, exactly, their tax dollars buy them. Clearly something is wrong.
In this case, Ms. Wynne might take her cue from former Ontario finance minister Jim Flaherty. In 2001, he developed the Education Equity Tax Credit (EETC), which gave parents up to $3,500 in tax credits for sending their children to an independent school. The argument was easy: Since the cost per child in the public system is over $12,000, the government will save $8,500 for each child incentivized into the independent system. The tax credit also had the benefit of increasing parental choice in their children's education. When the McGuinty government announced plans to repeal the EETC, Flaherty argued: "The overwhelming majority of [Ontario's independent schools] meet specific needs, diverse needs: religious needs, linguistic needs, developmental needs that are not addressed adequately in the public school system."
Besides saving the government money and providing diverse options, the tax credit could have had another benefit: creating accountability within our public education system. When the B.C. public school teachers went on a five-week strike last year, student enrolment at independent schools jumped 6.5 per cent – in some areas as much as 31 per cent – largely due to the support of the B.C. government, which provides 50 per cent funding for private schools. Parents voted with their feet and applied in droves, placing their names on waiting lists to move their children to schools where they would actually get to class – and the government saved money.
This cost-saving measure would help generate a more competitive environment, allowing private schools to break into Ontario's educational monopoly. Currently, more than 12 per cent of B.C. students use the independent system, making it a viable alternative to the public system. But in Ontario, where the EETC was repealed by the McGuinty government, only 5.2 per cent of students can afford an alternative.
It is possible that if the tax credit had not been repealed, we would be in a different situation today. But instead, the government is voting on whether to force teachers back to work. By giving parents options and encouraging teachers' unions to bargain more fairly without the power of an all-out monopoly, the current cycle could be broken. In 2001, Jim Flaherty introduced the EETC, reflecting his cautious competitiveness and respect for institutions. We don't have to look far to find solutions to our current problem.