Accountant Al Rosen had some pretty harsh things to say about Toronto, Ontario school trustees after he audited their books and found them $90 million short.

Of course, by the standards of today’s accounting scandals, this one looks pretty tepid — no billion-dollar fantasy revenues, no multi-million-dollar stock options or retirement packages, not even a single hand found in the till. No, instead the school trustees stand accused of flagrantly spending public money on … public schools.

Rosen, who tosses around accusations of “dysfunctional” behaviour on the part of the trustees — “heroic” is another adjective that comes to mind — wants cuts made right away throughout the school system. He endorses proposals for slashing, among other things, the number of educational assistants (who help out in kindergarten classes), nixing music instructors, cutting back money for textbooks, scrapping early literacy programs, increasing the size of international language classes, and eliminating free Toronto Transit Commission rides for nine-hundred needy students who live too far to walk to school.

Won’t all Canadians feel better when we know this sort of rot and corruption has finally been weeded out — and that, in the future, needy students won’t be gorging on all that free transportation to and from school. (Instead, presumably, with the TTC gravy train cut off, they’ll be hanging around alleyways closer to home, learning practical stuff like how to make a living in the cocaine trade.)

This sort of no-frills education would drive anyone with any resources to a private school — a potential exodus that never worried former Ontario premier Mike Harris, who seemed determined to create as much tension as possible within the public school system.

The Harris legacy of underfunding, now carried on by the government of Ernie Eves, has left school boards with the choice of either running deficits, or eliminating programs that most of us would consider pretty basic.

Eves now wants to distance himself somewhat from the contentious Harris years, so he’s treading carefully here. His government has already seized control of the Ottawa school board, after it refused to make $23 million-dollars in cuts to avoid a deficit, but he wants to avoid such heavy-handed tactics with the boards in Toronto and Hamilton.

Of course, a simple solution would be to put more money into the public school system by cancelling promised tax cuts. The first to go could be the tax break for private school tuition, which is expected to eventually cost Ontario $300 million-dollars a year. It’s hard to imagine the rationale forever subsidizing private schools, which have the right to refuse students they don’t want. But to subsidize private schools while denying public schools enough money for textbooks, teaching assistants and transportation for poor children, one would have to be downright … well … dysfunctional.

The real problem is that in recent years we’ve been in the grip of a fierce ideology — championed vigorously by the Harris government — which argues the private sector can always do things better and the public sector should be cut back.

Interestingly, despite efforts by media and business commentators to get us all to think this way, the broad mass of Canadians remains stubbornly attached to strong public programs. Frank Graves, head of the Ottawa polling firm Ekos Research Associates, notes that Canadians have long favoured social investment over tax cuts or debt relief, and he says that support for social investment seems to be stronger now than ever.

Furthermore, tax relief has “almost disappeared” as an issue with the public, according to Graves.

Oddly, these clear Canadian preferences don’t seem to be reflected in the high-profile political leadership races currently going on, where the focus is largely confined to the clash of personal ambitions. Certainly, the media rarely seem to venture beyond weighing questions like whether Paul Martin should be able to force out the Prime Minister right now, or be obliged to wait the full eighteen months.

Sometimes it seems that the pundits actually believe the public is as caught up in the drama of these leadership races as the leaders and the pundits themselves are. One almost senses the personal anguish felt by National Post columnist Andrew Coyne, for instance, when he wrote about last week’s developments in the Chrétien-Martin duel: “The strategy of rewarding powerful rivals with senior cabinet positions, as many successful leaders have done before Mr. Chrétien, now lies in tatters.” In tatters! No! Say it ain’t so.

One suspects that if Canada’s education system wasn’t at risk of being reduced to tatters, the country could somehow struggle by as a country — even without a strategy for rewarding powerful political rivals with senior cabinet positions.

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