Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part One – Where do the Parties Stand on Education Financing?

By Robert Green

In recent months Quebec has been consumed with a single education issue: tuition hikes. The Charest government’s moves to increase tuition and repress dissent have dominated headlines and mobilized hundreds of thousands into the streets. Charest’s handling – or mishandling – of the so called student crisis now stands to be a decisive issue in the upcoming election.

As important as it is, the boisterous public debate over tuition risks drowning out a number of other extremely important education issues. Years of under-funding and mismanagement have left Quebec’s entire public education system in a state of perpetual crisis. If voters are to play a role in electing a party that will address this situation, they need to understand the various dimensions of the crisis at hand.

This series of blogposts hopes to help readers do just that by examining where Quebec’s political parties stand on a number of important education issues other than tuition. The aim of this series is to aid those concerned about public education in Quebec to make a more informed decision come election time. As its scope will remain limited to education issues, this series is in no way intended as a comprehensive review or endorsement of any party’s entire political program.

Those interested in where the parties stand on the tuition/accessibility issue should see the excellent article on the subject by Rabble.ca’s Ethan Cox.

Education Financing: THE issue

While it is true that increased funding does not necessarily lead to improved educational outcomes, it is also true that in a context of systemic under-funding significant improvements to the education system require increased investment. After years of deep cuts to education spending Quebec finds itself in exactly such a context. According to a 2008 manifesto published by a coalition of associations representing students and education workers, Quebec would need to spend an additional $700 million annually just to match the Canadian average in education spending on preschool, elementary and secondary education. In such a context it is extremely important for voters to assess both the willingness of political parties to reinvest in education and also the plan each party has for how they would reinvest any new funds.

Party Liberal du Quebec (PLQ)

The Liberal Party’s economic plan makes no mention of any increased reinvestment in education. To the contrary, in making reference to “tightly controlling budgetary expenditures” and reducing Quebec’s deficit “three years before Ontario” it makes clear that it prioritizes balanced budgets and debt reduction over reinvestment in public services.

That said, Charest has promised two relatively minor spending initiatives: a $100 tax credit for families with children in school to go towards the purchase of school supplies and a doubling of the funding for the homework assistance plan. While families will certainly appreciate such initiatives, they do nothing to address the chronic underfunding of Quebec’s public schools.

The low priority given to education spending by the PLQ is also illustrated by their record in office. In recent years Charest has not hesitated with spending cuts whenever his government’s fiscal balance has been in jeopardy. In 2011 alone the PLQ announced two rounds of education spending cuts, $110 million in May and another $180 million in September.

While the PLQ certainly likes to portray itself as responsible fiscal managers when it comes to public finances, this is not exactly reflected by its record. Since becoming Premier, Charest has repeatedly used the deficit boogeyman to justify a number of policies requiring sacrifices from average Quebecers: cuts to services; increases to user fees, etc. Meanwhile, according to l’Institut de recherché et d’informations socio-économiques (IRIS), between 2006 and 2008 the Charest government brought in over $1.8 billion in tax cuts that primarily benefited society’s most wealthy. In light of such enormous and unnecessary tax cuts, the sacrifices Charest has asked of ordinary Quebecers have not been about “responsible fiscal management” at all, but rather about making ordinary Quebecers pay for the tax cuts of the rich.

Parti Quebecois (PQ)

The PQ’s electoral platform also makes no concrete commitments to reinvest in education. Like the Liberal platform it does, however, make specific reference to debt repayment.

The parallels between the Liberal and PQ election platforms on education financing are matched by their parallel record in office. In the late 90’s PQ governments oversaw the deepest cuts to social spending in Quebec’s history. Then once government finances recovered, rather than restore the funding it had cut from public services, it proceeded with 2 rounds of massive tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the rich. According to IRIS, between 2000 and 2002, the PQ oversaw $3.2 billion in such cuts.

Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ)

The Coalition Avenir Quebcec’s electoral platform seems to promise it all. In addition to a number of spending initiatives such as a 20% increase in teacher pay and additional resources for children with special needs, Francois Legault’s party is offering debt reduction and tax cuts. The CAQ’s education position paper “To Be Endowed with One of the Best Education Systems in the World by 2020” proposes $950 million in new spending initiatives to be paid for through a combination of the savings related to the abolition of school boards, the temporary freezing of government subsidies to private schools, the closing of the Université du Québec’s head office, and gains in efficiency at Hydro-Québec.

Legault’s claim that his party can make massive improvements to Quebec’s education system while cutting taxes and paying down the debt is dubious at best. The CAQ claims it will raise $60 million from a freeze on private-school funding for four years. Though there are enormous potential benefits to be gained by cutting the subsidies that allow families with higher incomes to opt their children out of the public system, the way this proposal is being presented by Legault’s party is highly questionable. Given the influx of students into the public system that such a policy would cause, it is hard to imagine how government could possibly save money. There are many extremely good reasons for cancelling private school subsidies; unfortunately saving money is not one of them. Any party proposing to do so should therefore be honest about the fact that it will require an investment and be ready to explain to Quebecers why such an investment would be worthwhile. Thus far Legault has done neither.

*Update Aug 10 – Yesterday the CAQ announced a new election promise to ensure public schools remain open for extra-curricular activities until 5pm each day. There has been no indication yet of who would supervise such activities.

Quebec Solidaire (QS)

In contrast to the three preceding parties Quebec Solidaire makes an emphatic commitment to increasing social spending. Its 2011 party program promises “to increase human and financial resources sufficiently to meet the needs of the population and avoid the overworking of those employed in the health and education networks”.

Its more recent campaign document “Plan Vert: un développement économique pour une prospérité partagée”, makes specific reference to the creation of 4,200 new jobs for teachers, support staff and professional staff. To fund such initiatives, the Plan Vert outlines a number of  specific measures that would significantly increase government revenues. In addition to the increased tax revenue and economic growth generated by the creation of 166 000 new jobs, Plan Vert outlines $1.9 billion in new revenues from increased fees levied on the mining industry and on the industrial use or pollution of clean water.

*Update Aug 10 – QS has now released a detailed breakdown of how it will fund its various spending initiatives. In addition to the revenues mentioned in le Plan Vert, the QS financial plan includes: tax increases for the wealthy, large corporations and banks; savings from bulk purchasing by Pharma Quebec; savings generated from fighting corruption and tax evasion. The result is a projected surplus of $500 million after 5 years. Thus far QS is the only party to publish such a detailed plan for funding its spending initiatives.

Option Nationale (ON)

While Option Nationale’s platform does not make specific reference to increased investment in education, its various promises certainly imply an increased level of spending. ON promises to eliminate tuition, reduce the drop-out rate, raise the age of obligatory school attendance from 16 to 18 and invest in literacy programs.

Since the projected costs of these spending initiatives are not provided, ON does not provide a detailed plan for their financing. That said, ON’s platform does make reference to several potential sources of new government revenues: nationalized resource companies, restructuring of school boards and measures against corruption and tax evasion.

ON seems to not understand the difference between equal and equitable funding when it comes to Quebec’s minority English school system. Economies of scale mean that there is always a greater cost per student in providing equivalent services for linguistic minorities. However, ON’s platform commits to reducing investment in Quebec’s English school system such that the funding it receives is proportional to its overall demographic weight. One wonders if ON’s leadership would wish the same for Francohones in Ontario or Manitoba who benefit from a similar disproportionate funding of minority language education?

Parti Vert du Quebec (PVQ)

The PVQ platform mentions several specific areas of targeted reinvestment: investment to reduce class size at the primary level, investment in measures aimed at reducing the drop-out rate and investment required to raise the obligatory school age from 16 to 18.

While the PVQ does not provide a detailed plan for financing each of its proposed measures, its platform does include several measures which would clearly increase government revenues, including a host of new taxes on pollution and consumption items. The PVQ also proposes savings from the abolition of school boards.

Check back soon for part two of this series which will examine where the parties stand on the question of Quebec’s curriculum.

 

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10 Responses to “Education and the 2012 Quebec Election: Part One – Where do the Parties Stand on Education Financing?”

  1. The lesson for Anglophone Canadians right now is that most of us aren’t prepared to have Pauline Marois and a Parti Quebecois government be elected on Sept. 4th, 2012. But that’s clearly what is going to happen.

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