Manitoba budget—cutting independent school funding may actually increase education costs

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Appeared in the Winnipeg Sun, April 11, 2017

Manitoba’s provincial government is expected to table its budget today. Premier Brian Pallister should be commended for his goal to reduce the deficit—and education spending should be scrutinized during the process. But cutting spending on students who attend independent schools could be counterproductive. Here’s why.

Restraining education spending can have a dramatic impact on any province’s bottom line. As a recent study by the Fraser Institute found, had Manitoba more carefully restrained education spending over the recent decade and simply kept pace with inflation and student enrolment (between 2004/05 and 2013/14), it would have dramatically reduced its deficit from $522 million to $79 million. So the good news is that restraint matters and it can have a significant impact.

But the bad news is that after Saskatchewan, Manitoba is the second highest spender on public schools in the country, spending $13,887 per public school student in 2013/14. Clearly more restraint in education spending is needed.

But again, cutting the partial funding for independent schools could actually have negative fiscal consequences.

Consider this. One of the most striking aspects of education delivery in Manitoba is the widespread enrolment of students in non-government schools. In fact, almost one in 10 students (9.4 per cent) in the province is educated outside of the government school system, the third largest proportion among provinces. More specifically, in 2014/15, according to Manitoba government statistics, 7.9 per cent of students attended an independent school and 1.5 per cent was homeschooled.

Now imagine that these 18,734 students had attended a public school, at an annual public student spending amount of $13,887 per student, the government would have spent more than $260 million on their education. Instead, in accordance with its policies to partially fund qualifying independent schools, it only spent $68.8 million on these students.

Not quite all of the independent school students are funded, and none of the homeschool students are, but it turns out that the $68.8 million spending on the 14,038 students in the 59 funded independent schools works out to $4,900 per student, nowhere close to the $13,887 the government in Winnipeg spent per public school student.

In fact, if the government eliminated funding for independent schools, and if any more than 4,950 students left the independent school sector because the families could no longer afford an independent school education, then any potential savings for Pallister could be wiped out as taxpayers paid for the new students to enter the government system.

So while Premier Pallister should look at education spending in his effort to reduce red ink, cutting the partial funding of independent schools could ultimately have a negative effect on the bottom line. Bad news for every family in Manitoba.

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