Election explainer: How does education funding work in Ontario?

This primer explains how education funding in Ontaro works.This primer explains how education funding in Ontaro works.

From staffing and class sizes, to new school construction and and mental health supports, funding is at the heart of many hot button education issues in Ontario.

But how does it work? Is it the Ministry of Education that makes funding decisions, or local school board trustees? How is money allocated to school boards?

With the Oct. 24 municipal election on the horizon and voters across Ontario set to elect school board trustees, what better time to brush up on the basics of education funding?

How much money are we talking about?

The province is spending $26.6 billion on education funding for 2022-23. That includes $90 million to support student mental health and more than $175 million for tutoring support programs provided by school boards and community partners.

The average provincial per-pupil funding amount is about $13,059 for 2022–23, an increase of $339 or 2.7 per cent from 2021–22.

Individual school board budgets vary in size, sometimes by a lot, depending on enrollment.

For example, the Toronto District School Board’s total 2022-23 budget is $3.4 billion, while the 2022-23 budget for Near North District School Board, which serves areas like Parry Sound and North Bay, is $168.3 million.

How are school boards funded?

Revenue to support education funding comes from property taxes which make up about 30 per cent, and provincial grants, which make up the other 70 per cent.

Individual school boards previously had more control over funding — but since 1998, the province has had full control of education revenue that comes from property taxes.

Ontario school boards are funded through a formula called Grants for Student Needs or GSN.

A lot of the funding is based on student enrollment.

People for Education outlines this concept, with examples, in its explainer on education funding.

“Funding for classroom teachers, education assistants, textbooks and learning materials, classroom supplies, technology, library and guidance services, and professional and para-professional supports is allocated on a per pupil basis — eg for every 763 elementary students, the province provides funding for one teacher-librarian.”

Other factors that impact the funding allocated to boards include: the percentage of special education students with high needs; the number of students who speak English or French as their second language; and the unique geographical needs of school boards.

Every spring, the Ministry of Education makes announcements about education funding for the upcoming school year, including changes to the amounts school boards will receive.

Some funding is “enveloped,” which means school boards can only spend it on what is designated for — funds earmarked for special education and capital funding are examples of enveloped funding.

“The ministry recognizes that conditions vary widely across Ontario and the funding formula cannot take every situation into account. This is why local school boards have flexibility in how they use funding,” reads an excerpt from the province’s guide to education funding.

School boards are required to have balanced budgets and meet class size targets set by the province.

School boards are also able to raise funds on their own, for example by renting out school space.

How do the grants work?

The GSN funding has three main parts: foundation grants, special purpose grants and capital funding.

Foundation grants include the Pupil Foundation Grant and the School Foundation Grant — these cover basic education costs.

The Pupil Foundation grant is a per-student amount that funds things like classroom teachers, educational assistants, textbooks and classroom supplies.

The School Foundation Grant pays for school office supplies and school administration staff including principals, vice-principals and office staff.

Special purpose grants support the unique needs of individual school boards have for things like special education, Indigenous education and student transportation.

Capital funding covers constructing new schools as well as repairing and renovating existing schools.

What decisions happened at the local level?

School boards are stewards of the money the province allocates to them. “Thoughtful, transparent budgeting, aligned with a focused strategy, is vital and integral to this goal,” the province says.

Individual school boards make decisions about distributing funding for teachers based on factors like the numbers of students enrolled and special education needs. Boards also decide how many principals, vice-principals, custodians, office staff, libraries and educational assistants each school has. School principals get a budget from the school board and make decisions about how teachers and staff are distributed within the school, as well as decisions about school repairs and maintenance.

School board trustees approve the board’s budget each year and are responsible for it being balanced, meeting the needs of the community and supporting the board’s strategic plan.