Facts belie misguided perceptions about public school spending in Canada

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Appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, September 21, 2017

September is an often an expensive time of year for families across Canada. Whether it’s new shoes for school, 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 the country.

Education is an area of provincial jurisdiction so it’s up to each province to determine how much they spend on public schools. There seems to be a general perception that education spending 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 looked at the levels of education spending by province, and how it has changed over time. It may surprise some Canadians that spending on public schools has increased, in every province, over the last decade.

Specifically, in Canada as a whole, spending on public schools increased from $46.4 billion in 2005/06 to $63.9 billion in 2014/15 (the last year of available data)—an increase of 37.7 per cent. At the provincial level, British Columbia had the smallest spending increase (12.6 per cent,) Saskatchewan had the largest (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 completely flat while enrolment shrunk, this would actually constitute an increase in per student spending.

But the trend, in nearly every Canadian province, has indeed been towards lower enrolment. In Canada as a whole, the number of K-12 students attending public schools dropped 3.0 per cent between 2005/06 and 2014/15. Only two provinces saw an increase in public school enrolment —Saskatchewan, with a small increase of 0.3 per cent, and Alberta with a more substantial increase of 14.1 per cent.

Every other province saw a decrease in the number of public school students, ranging from a drop of 1.4 per cent in Manitoba to a 16.1 per cent drop in Nova Scotia.

Similarly, we must also account price levels (inflation) changing over time. To get the most accurate picture, spending is both adjusted for price changes and enrolment changes. For Canada, average per student spending rose from $10,339 in 2005/06 (using 2015 dollars) to $12,646 in 2014/15—an increase of 22.3 per cent.

Every province increased per student spending, ranging from a 14.0 per cent increase in B.C. to a whopping 41.8 per cent increase in Prince Edward Island (again, adjusting for inflation).

In short, even after adjusting for inflation, all provinces are 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 school expenses can consume a large portion of a family’s budget, spending on public schools consumes a large portion of provincial budgets. And it’s important to measure what’s actually being spent, and not simply go along with misguided perceptions.

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