Funding for Ontario’s public schools is $1.3 billion lower than the government projected this school year — mainly because of lacklustre fundraising during the pandemic, and a drop in tuition-paying international students — but overall education spending is set to rise over the next three years.

The Ontario government’s proposed provincial budget released Thursday — just days before the election campaign period begins May 4 — showed education funding for the 2021-22 school year was below what was expected, and that school rental income was also down because of COVID-19.

However, overall, funding will rise from $29.5 billion in 2021-22 to $35.1 billion in 2024-25, an average of 5.9 per cent growth annually, if the Tories are re-elected. Post-secondary funding — which fell short this year by $685 million — will go from $10 billion in 2021-22 to $11.4 billion in 2024-25.

Thursday’s budget also outlined $61 million over three years for a “Learn and Stay” grant to cover tuition for 2,500 post-secondary students — especially those in nursing — to work in underserved areas of the province where they train, starting next spring.

“Let me be crystal clear on investing a huge amount in education … there’s no question about that,” Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy told reporters, noting the government has spent millions on mental health, tutoring and HEPA air filters to improve air quality in schools during the pandemic.

Funding for students “is going up by $600 million,” he also said. “We’ve enhanced the curriculum, so that we put science and technology and math and coding and financial literacy to prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow. There are more jobs than there are workers, and so part of our education strategy is to (ensure) our children have the skills that they need” for the workforce.

But critics pounced on education funding levels, noting a chunk of the increase is due to a boost in daycare — with $1.5 billion set aside for child care in 2022-23, rising to $2.9 billion in 2024-25.

“I look at this budget and I’m going to think to myself, ‘How is it possible with all of the anxiety and all of the difficulty that our kids in those schools across Ontario and their families and our front-line education workers have gone through over the past couple of years — how is it possible that the Ford Conservatives deliberately chose to cut $1.3 billion from public education?” said Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca.

Del Duca also said it appears the Ford government is “in effect blaming moms and dad for not stepping up and doing as much fundraising in our kids’ schools for part of why they deliberately chose to cut the education budget. That is appalling.”

The government said about $479 million of the shortfall is because of lower fundraising, and international student fees were down by $141 million.

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said while fundraising money does show up on boards’ books, it doesn’t go into general coffers as it is spent by school councils — “but that doesn’t mean that funding doesn’t go for very important things.”

She said community-use-of-schools funds typically cover the cost of extra caretaking and run on a break-even basis, but where boards feel the loss the most is with the drop in international students.

“That is badly missed,” she said. “Yes, those students are paying tuition, but a portion of that money goes to pay to heat the school … we hope that once we get back to as close to normal as possible, that once we are back to being able to welcome international students, that will even itself out again.”

Boards, too, like everyone, are facing additional costs “and funding hasn’t kept up … Unfortunately, at the same time we are dealing with inflation, and funding that doesn’t keep up with inflation, we’ve lost this other funding,” she said.

Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, said the “Learn and Stay” grant expansion is good news, and should help with staffing shortages in the north.

But, she added, “the reality is that the shortage is absolutely everywhere — it’s massive” given COVID, retirements and nurses leaving the profession, and the government must now add spots in undergraduate programs in nursing.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy