Spending on B.C. public schools up despite dwindling enrolment

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, September 6, 2017

Back to school is an expensive time of year for many B.C. families. Whether it’s new shoes, school supplies, a bus pass or a new computer, families often take a closer look at their budgets to account for the extra spending. It’s also a good time to take a closer look how much is spent on public schools in British Columbia.

Until the new NDP government presents its “budget update” next week, British Columbians won’t know for sure what changes will be made to education funding. However, the NDP election platform claimed that the province’s education system was “starved” for resources. And there seems to be a general perception that education spending in B.C. has been cut and public schools are being forced to figure out how to do more with less.

But how true is this impression?

A recent Fraser Institute study looks at the levels of education spending by province, and how it has changed over time. It may surprise some that spending on public schools has increased, in every province, over the last decade—and B.C. is no exception.

On the whole, B.C. saw spending on public schools increase by 12.6 per cent between 2005/06 and 2014/15 (the last year of available data).

However, looking at nominal spending increases only tells part of the story. To really understand what’s happening with education spending, changes in student enrolment must be considered. If total spending remained completely flat while enrolment shrunk, we’d actually see an increase in per student spending.

The overall trend across Canada is of declining public school enrolment (only Alberta and Saskatchewan saw an increase of public school students.) B.C. saw its public school enrolment fall 9.1 per cent between 2005/06 and2014/15.

Similarly, we must also account for price levels (inflation) changing over time. To get the most accurate picture, per student spending is both adjusted for price changes and changes in enrolment. Using this per student measure, spending on B.C.’s public schools went from $10,392 in 2005/06 to $11,216 in 2014/15 (using 2015 dollars)—an increase of 14.0 per cent.

In short, even after adjusting for inflation, B.C. is spending substantially more money per student today than a decade ago. This flies in the face of the narrative that education funding has been slashed or that our schools are starved for resources.

Just as back to school can consume a large portion of a family’s budget, spending on public schools consumes a large portion of provincial budgets. When considering what’s spent on public schools, it’s important to measure what’s actually being spent, and not simply take overheated claims that our schools are under-resourced at face value.

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