Despite overheated claims, Alberta public schools are not under-funded

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, September 6, 2017

Back to school is an expensive time of year for many Albertan 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 at how much is being spent on public schools in Alberta.

Education is an area of provincial jurisdiction, so it’s up to each province to determine how much they spend on public schools. Groups such as Save Our Students Alberta claim that schools suffer from “chronic underfunding.” And there seems to be a general perception that 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 Alberta is no exception.

On the whole, Alberta saw spending on public schools increase from $5.2 billion in 2005/06 to $8.3 billion in 2014/15 (the last year of available data), an increase of 59.7 per cent. This is the second highest overall increase in Canada—Saskatchewan was greater, with an increase of 65.0 per cent.

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 stable while enrolment increased, we’d actually see a reduction in per-student spending.

The overall trend across Canada is of declining public school enrolment. Alberta is one of just two provinces that saw an increase (of 14.1 per cent) in public school enrolment between 2005/06 and 2014/15. (Saskatchewan is the other province that experienced an enrolment increase, of 0.3 per cent.) So we can expect the provincial budget for education to increase to account for the increased number of public school students.

Similarly, we must also account for the fact that price levels (inflation) also change over time. To get the most accurate picture, spending is both adjusted for price changes and considered on a per student basis. Using this per student measure, spending on Alberta public schools rose from $11,157 in 2005/06 to $13,115 in 2014/15 (using 2015 dollars)—an increase of 17.5 per cent.

In other words, even after adjusting for inflation, the government is spending substantially more money per student in our schools than a decade ago. This flies in the face of claims that the province’s public schools are chronically underfunded.

Just as back to school can consume a large portion of a family’s budget, so too does spending on public schools consume 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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