Time to kill Campbell's gimmicky education fund

I have good news for Premier Christy Clark � a way to deal with Community Living B.C. underfunding that won�t require spending cuts elsewhere or tax increases.
All she has to do is kill a goofy policy initiative of Gordon Campbell that never really made any sense.
Community Living B.C. says it needs about $65 million more a year to meet the immediate needs of adults with developmental disabilities, what we once called mental handicaps.
Clark says the government doesn�t have the money.
But this year the government is committing $47 million to the Children�s Education Fund, a shoddy piece of public policy that came out of nowhere in 2006 when Campbell needed something cool to announce at the Liberal convention in Penticton.
Campbell said the government would commit $1,000 for every baby born after that year to the education fund. Beginning in 2025, every teen graduating from high school would get the $1,000, plus interest � perhaps about $2,200.
It�s one of those silly ideas that makes sense as a short-term political gimmick when people are tossing around ideas in the premier�s office, but serves no real long-term purpose.
There�s no logical basis for the government to decide that a tuition subsidy for students starting school in 2025 is a priority today � more important than caring for the disabled, improving health care or offering a tax cut to encourage employment growth.
In fact, the notion that the government can predict the needs of students two decades in the future is dubious. Imagine the outgoing Socreds trying to come up with a tuition plan that would work for students in 2011.
The amount, for example, could be a pittance compared to the cost of education more than a decade from now.
Or alternately, a future government, given the need for skilled British Columbians, could have decided post-secondary education should be free to some qualifying students, or even all students. That�s not an outlandish notion, given the shift to a knowledge-based economy in the province.
It�s also odd the government decided the needs of students in 2025 would be greater than students today. About 60 per cent of Canadian students graduate with some debt. For those people, the average debt load is $27,000. It would take $90 a week for nine years to pay off the balance.
That�s a big burden, particularly in a soft employment market. Why not take the $47 million and address today�s needs, through scholarships or education credits or tax breaks, or target First Nations� high school graduation rates, or address other educational needs?
It�s also bizarre that the fund makes no distinctions based on the needs of either the province, or the students.
A multimillionaire�s child will get $2,000; so will a youth coming out of care, living on income assistance and trying to get an education.
A smart program would target bright students who couldn�t afford an education, and be based on merit and need. Or it could support education for students entering fields that were critical to the province�s future.
We�re talking about serious money. The program started in 2007; by the end of this year the available money in the fund is expected to have reached $230 million.
By 2025, the government will have stashed more than $1 billion in the fund.
The money isn�t counted as an expense in the current budget year. It�s counted as an investment, with the interest showing up on the books as revenue each year. The actual expense will show up on the government books when the payouts begin in 2025. (A development that might not thrill the government, or the taxpayers, of the day, saddled with an expense by a long-gone predecessor.)
It�s interesting that the Liberals don�t talk about the fund anymore. It�s like they realize it makes little sense, but haven�t quite figured out what to do about it. So they just keep committing more than $40 million a year to poor policy.
So there�s some free advice for Clark. Announce the fund is no longer a priority in the wake of the economic slowdown. Allocate the money to CLBC, or some other useful measure.
And take care in future to avoid such poor policy gimmicks.

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