Reality check on education spending in Ontario

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, March 16, 2016

There’s a lot to criticize in Ontario's 2016 budget, which was released late last month. Specifically, the province has failed to take adequate steps to rein in overall spending, and as a result the provincial debt continues to balloon.

However, not all criticism of the budget has been fair. For example, immediately following the budget's release NDP Leader Andrea Horwath suggested that the province isn't spending enough money on education. Specifically, she warned of negative consequences for young Ontarians, saying they will “suffer cuts to their education” as a result of the budget.

Providing opportunity for a high quality education to children and teenagers is one of the most important responsibilities of provincial governments in Canada, so these are serious charges. However, a little bit of context illustrates that in no way is public education in Ontario starved for resources.

In reality, Ontario is just now coming off of an extended period when education spending has increased dramatically. Consider that in 2003/04, Ontario spent $16.7 billion on public school education. By 2012/13 (the last year of comprehensive data), that number had climbed to $25 billion—a 50 per cent increase in only one decade.

This growth in education spending is even bigger when you consider that public school enrolment in Ontario declined by 4.6 per cent over the same period. As a result, spending per student grew by 57.3 per cent during this decade. In other words, the province spent more money educating fewer students. Even after adjusting for inflation, per-student spending in Ontario grew by about 34 per cent.

Furthermore, it’s vital to recognize that the latest budget does not in fact “cut” education spending. Spending in the K-12 public school sector is scheduled to increase at an average annual rate of 1.5 percent over the next three fiscal years. This is a slower rate of increase than the unsustainable growth rate that prevailed for much of the last decade. But when the historical context is considered, a slowdown in the rate of education spending growth seems more like a modest and likely overdue adjustment to an unsustainable spending trend than the savage and harmful cuts they are presented as by some.

Ontario's rapid spending growth on education since 2003/04 has placed considerable pressure on provincial finances. In fact, if the government had held per-student spending to the rate of price changes (inflation) and adjusted for enrolment changes since 2003/04, it would save more than $6 billion per year annually. Given the fiscal challenges facing the province, changes that move towards matching growth in K-12 spending to changes in enrolment plus inflation are prudent.

However, if it’s indeed the case that public schools seem starved for resources, it may well be time for a closer look at how Ontario’s education dollars are being used. Spending on teacher pensions, for example, more than doubled in the decade from 2003/04 to 2012/13, and spending on capital grew by almost 75 per cent.

The Ontario budget has and will receive much criticism, and plenty of it will be fair. However, claims that the province is not spending enough on public school education are difficult to defend. The evidence suggests the modest steps towards education spending restraint are both justifiable and necessary.

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