Are B.C. schools really ‘starved’ for resources?

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, July 26, 2017

After a close election and lengthy period of uncertainty, John Horgan and his cabinet were recently sworn into office. Former NDP party leader Carole James is the province’s new finance minister, and former education critic Rob Fleming is British Columbia’s new education minister.

While there are always challenges to be addressed, both Fleming and James have inherited portfolios that are in comparatively good shape.

For example, B.C.’s students perform very well on international standardized tests and lead Canada in student performance in several areas. This has been achieved while keeping per student costs in public schools among the lowest in the country.

As for Finance Minister James, B.C.’s finances are among the most sound in Canada—the province is projecting a fourth operating surplus and maintains a relatively small public debt burden. The comparatively low per student costs in B.C. schools contribute to the province’s fiscal success.

In most areas of economic life, it’s common sense that combining high performance with low costs is seen as a positive outcome. And so it should be in government. It’s worrying, however, that the NDP and Green Party coalition often speak as though the province’s comparatively low costs in public education are a problem that must be solved rather than an advantage that has helped keep the budget balanced.

The NDP platform claims that Christy Clark’s government “starved” the province’s public schools. Meanwhile, the Greens accused the Liberals of “chronic underfunding” of the public education system. Both imply the education system needs more money thrown at it in order to serve students better.

Again, students are performing well at current funding levels. According to historical data, claims that the province’s education system is “starved” for resources and are “chronically” underfunded are just hyperbole. In fact, the province has actually increased education spending in recent years, not removed money from the system as such rhetoric suggests. Between 2004/05 and 2013/14—the last year data was available—education spending grew from $5.3 billion to $6.4 billion. Crucially, this spending growth occurred during a period when enrolment in public schools declined by 9.5 per cent.

In other words, the province is spending more money on fewer students. On a per student basis, inflation adjusted education spending in public schools increased by 18.3 per cent from 2004/05 to 2013/14.

It’s difficult to describe this increase as “starving” the public school system, especially when it has been sufficient to deliver excellent student performance outcomes. Some provinces, such as Alberta, have increased spending considerably faster than B.C., but without clear evidence of positive impacts on student performance. What’s more, the more modest rate of spending growth in B.C. in this large area of expenditure is one of many reasons that B.C.’s budget is in better shape than Alberta’s today.

Simply put, keeping up with expenditures in other provinces is not a good enough reason to increase education spending. Instead, it’s important for the new government to clearly articulate the gains in student outcomes they hope to achieve from any additional spending and present a plan to measure whether the extra money actually leads to better results.

For example, if the allocation of more money simply means increased staff compensation in B.C. schools (which already consumes the majority of all education spending) and no additional gains in student outcomes, it would be hard to see how the increased spending would benefit students or taxpayers.

B.C. enjoys one of the strongest performing education systems, and soundest public finances, in Canada. These advantages are important for the province’s long-term growth prospects and economic well-being. The province’s mix of comparatively moderate education spending and excellent student results is best viewed as an advantage to be maintained and consolidated—not as a problem to be solved.

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