The myth of education spending cuts in Canada

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Appeared in the Daily Courier and Woodstock Sentinel Review

It’s budget season again, with provincial governments across Canada delivering their annual budgets amid a backdrop of falling commodity prices and provincial deficits. And once again, a mythology surrounding education spending will likely influence spending choices from coast to coast.

The story goes something like this: government A (insert your province here) has been forced to cut education spending to deal with its deficit. But education is an investment in our future and such cuts are short-sighted.

We agree, in part. Spending on K-12 education can rightly been seen as an investment, and an important one for the next generation.

But education cuts? That’s a myth.

According to data from Statistics Canada, between 2001-02 and 2011-12, the most recent years data were available, spending on public schools in Canada increased from $38.9 billion to $59.6 billion, an increase of 53.1 per cent. When price changes (inflation) are considered, the increase is 24.9 per cent.

This measure, however, does not account for changes in student enrolment, and is therefore a very rudimentary way of thinking about education spending. After all, if a jurisdiction increases education spending, but simultaneously experiences a larger proportional increase in the student population, it can actually be cutting per student spending. Alternatively, a jurisdiction with a declining enrolment could actually reduce total education spending but still increase per student spending. A recent Fraser Institute study calculated the per student levels of education spending over the last decade.

In total, public school enrolment in Canada dropped from 5.4 million in 2001-02 to roughly 5 million in 2011-12, a reduction of 6.2 per cent. Every province except Alberta recorded a decline in public school enrolment.

The declining enrolment amplifies the increase in education spending, when examined on a per student basis. Nationally, per student spending in public schools increased from $7,250 to $11,835 per student—a 63.2 per cent increase. At the provincial level, per student spending increases ranged from 41.1 per cent in British Columbia to 91.5 per cent in New Brunswick. Simply put, per student spending in public schools increased in every province.

Apart from understanding the reality of education spending in Canada, why is this information important? Because many interest groups link education performance with spending. It’s a simplistic way to think about inputs and outputs, and it’s quite incorrect.

Increased spending has not been associated with increases in achievement. Performance scores in math, science and reading collected by the OECD’s Programme for Student Assessment (PISA) show a worrying decline in Canadian performance from 2000 to 2012. For example, according to PISA, there’s a steady increase in the number of countries outperforming Canadian students in mathematics.

Ontario is an unfortunate example of declining provincial performance. While spending on public K-12 education in the province has increased by 72 per cent per student since 2001-02, recent measurements of mathematics by the Education Quality and Accountability Office show declines in the percentage of Grade 3 and Grade 6 students performing at or above the provincial standard. Specifically, only 54 per cent of Grade 6 students achieved at or above the provincial standard in math, down from 61 per cent five years ago.

Study after study has demonstrated that it is far more important to focus on how money is spent rather than worrying about the total amount spent. The key to better education isn’t spending more—it’s spending wisely.

As governments across the country deliver their budgets, and concerned parents and citizens brace themselves for what might be a difficult budget season, it’s important to note that contrary to the rhetoric, spending on public education in Canada has increased over the last decade. And spending more doesn’t necessarily mean better results. The focus should be on reform—how we spend on education, and how we deliver that education to students. Not on simply worrying about increasing the amount we spend.

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