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Free Tuition for Poor Kids a Liberal Master Stroke – But the NDP still has a Play.


Where did THIS come from?

The very last issue of this report called upon the Ontario NDP to look very seriously at free tuition for college and university as a possible centerpiece issue for the 2018 Ontario provincial election. American Presidential candidate and self- described Democratic Socialist Bernie Saunders has demonstrated the deep and broad appeal the issue has. Much as we would love to claim credit as clairvoyants, the plan must have been in the works for weeks if not months at Queen’s Park.


What exactly are the Liberals doing here?

The Liberal government is offering grants, a new Ontario Student Grant (OSG), to fully cover the ‘average’  university or college tuition costs for any student from a family with a ‘family’ income below $50 000. The plan kicks in in September 2017. The money will be available before tuition needs to be paid as opposed to a tax credit, not really useful until tax return time, eight months later. Part of the political genius here is that there is no new money in this. The Ontario Tuition Tax Credit and the Education Tax Credit are being cancelled and the funds redirected to fund the OSG.


Half of the students of families making less than $83 000, will also qualify for grants that will partially cover, or in some cases fully cover average tuition.


The take up is expected to be mainly college students who are already much more likely to be low income. As a result most grants will cover the average $2 768 of college and far fewer will be taken up to pay the average $6 160 of university tuition.

Why is it a political master stroke?

To us at The Little Education Report, a progressive policy must pass three tests:

Is it progressive? Is it indeed progressive in that it advances the interests of the working class and other equity seeking groups?  Clearly free tuition for the poor gets a yes. It also advances the entire society by helping to create a better educated generation of young people.

Is it popular? This is a political test but we can expect it to be wildly popular as polling in the USA based on the Bernie Saunders campaign, shows.


Is it affordable? We all want rainbows and unicorns but does a policy pull its own weight and not become a dead weight on the province’s finances. So far it looks as if this policy has been accomplished without any new money simply by the cancellation of the other grants.


Part of the brilliance of this political chess move is that it ALMOST totally preempts an NDP move in the same area. Even if the NDP chooses to out-bid the Liberals by moving the threshold higher, as they should, the political high ground has been seized once again, just as it was with all day Kindergarten and all day JK. The party that should have initiated it, fought for it, and demanded it of a weakened or minority Liberal government in 2018 has been cut off at the pass.


If it is such a good policy, why does the NDP still have a play here?

The Liberals have left one vulnerability in the new policy as held against, for example, What Bernie Saunders is proposing. Saunders is correctly proposing that ALL tuition in PUBLIC colleges and universities ought to be free. The Americans have an extensive network of private universities (Harvard, Princeton, Yale…) that simply do not exist in Canada. Saunders would not ‘means test’ the students and their families and this is a critical element left out of the Liberal policy.


The Liberals want to be seen as progressive and this is a very good policy but the truly progressive policy is to make college and university as free as elementary and secondary school. Means tested policy tries to use tuition itself to rebalance the obvious inequality between rich and poor. A truly progressive policy is based on the principle of universality. Under a universal policy, ALL tuition would be abolished and the entire bill for the cost of post-secondary education would be presented to the top 1% of income earners in the form of an income tax increase.


We don’t, in Canada, say that some affluent people can afford to pay for their own health care or their own K-12 education. These are universal programs and tuition ought to be treated the same way.


For those lacking the intestinal fortitude to ‘go there’ the policy could come in stages. Notwithstanding the ideal of universality, the Liberal income cutoff for free tuition is far too low. Yes, many families between $40 000 and $80 000 will also qualify for generous grants but not necessarily full tuition. This is still FAR too low and this is the entry point for the NDP. They can thank the Liberals for establishing the principle for free tuition for lower incomes but in today’s world, a two teacher family with 10 years of experience would have a family income of closer to $200 000 yet they should also qualify for free tuition. This is far closer to a realistic cut off point if we need one at all.


The Liberals seem to believe that only those with family income below $40 000 are poor but what they are missing is that all families below $250 000 are ‘poorer’ than they have been in decades and are profoundly underpaid with regard to the available wealth in society. At this point, it simply becomes inefficient to collect from the remaining, more affluent families through any mechanism except income tax.


Both parties are, to some extent, out of touch with the zeitgeist, especially post 2007.


The Liberals believe they have solved the tuition problem when this policy is little more than a down payment in the province with the highest tuition. The split in society is no longer 20% poor vs. 80% “doin’ all right Jack”. The split today is a 1% as rich as Croesus and getting rapidly richer, while 99% are suffering and scraping to get by. Nobody can get ahead with these mountains of student debt. The Liberals have missed the political reality of a middle class in decline.


We don’t just need free tuition for public housing tenants and welfare recipients. We need free tuition for the families of nurses and teachers and journalists and firefighters and cops and factory workers and farmers and loggers and miners.


The NDP, I also say, in the spirit of self-criticism, is out of touch with where people actually are. It has been axiomatic within the NDP since the 1960s, that for tactical reasons, the NDP must be dragged kicking and screaming, towards the political center “where the votes are”, if it ever wants to form a government (again). The argument might have held water in affluent times when steelworkers and autoworkers had good jobs and formed the spine of the NDP but those days are simply over and gone.


The NDP needs to wake up to the fact that they have moved so far to the center that they were flanked (or seen to be) by both Wynne and Trudeau in recent elections. The free tuition policy is the result of being flanked once again. One could say they have been ‘forked’ using game theory. You can take that any way you like.


It remains to be seen when exactly, it will dawn on the NDP that there are more votes/seats/and governments to be had in 2016 by actually shifting policy to the left. They need to leave behind the timorous ‘me to’ ‘balanced budget’ mentality and present bold popular policy to the public to even get on the radar. Millenials are clearly open to major change. They have all taken their staggering student loans for their BAs and gone to work as baristas at Starbucks.


Indulge us while we elaborate on some well-known political science. George Lakoff will do but many others promote the same ideas. Notwithstanding a very few political partisans in all parties, the vast majority of voters have no fixed ideology. They support some policies of ‘the Left’ and some policies of ‘the Right’. Due to this cognitive dissonance, many end up voting ‘in the middle’ (Liberal, Hillary…).


People vote left or, can be persuaded to vote left primarily on three issues, but they are each huge issues. The majority of the public actually supports left-of-center positions on health, education and the environment. If one actually looks at the Ontario budget, you can see that health and education is what provincial governments do. They are the number 1 and number 2 expenditures with ‘roads’ a very distant third.


The very same public supports right or right-of-center policies on international security, criminal justice, taxation, and the military and so on. This is the reason left parties emphasize ‘their issues’ and the right campaigns on ‘their issues’.


This puts the Ontario NDP and others across Canada in somewhat of a box. We have a nearly complete Medicare for all system. The last unresolved issues might be PharmaCare and DentaCare. We can nitpick on underfunding, wait times, hallway medicine but the system is built.


On the environmental file we have an Ontario Liberal Party that makes headlines for ending coal fired power generation, moves ahead with cap & trade and only actually gets into trouble by building too many wind generators.


On education, the Ontario NDP is consistently caught reacting, instead of acting, on All Day K-JK and now on free tuition for poor kids.


Where this leaves us is with a situation where the Ontario Liberals are constantly eating the NDPs lunch on the only issues where a left wing party has any real chance of moving forward.


It is time for the Ontario NDP to shake off the cobwebs and begin to understand the meaning of the phrase “GO BIG OR GO HOME”.

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