Per student spending in Ontario up more than 23%, despite claims to the contrary

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, September 6, 2017

Back to school is an expensive time of year for many Ontario 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 look how much is spent on public schools in Ontario.

Education is an area of provincial jurisdiction so it’s up to each province to determine how much they spend on public schools. With groups such as the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario claiming that students and schools are being “shortchanged,” there seems to be a general perception that education spending in Ontario has been cut and public schools are being forced 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 Ontarians that spending on public schools has increased, in every province, over the last decade—and Ontario is no exception.

On the whole, Ontario saw spending on public schools increase from $19.5 billion in 2005/06 to $26.6 billion in 2014/15 (the last year of available data)—an increase of 36.6 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 was shrunk, we would see an increase in per student spending.

But the overall trend across Canada is of declining public school enrolment (only Alberta and Saskatchewan saw an increase of public school students). Ontario saw its public school enrolment drop 5.4 per cent between 2005/06 and 2014/15.

Similarly, we must also account for price levels (inflation) changing over time. To get the most accurate picture, per student spending is both adjusted for price changes and changes in enrolment. Using this measure, per student spending on Ontario public schools rose from $10,762 in 2005/06 to $13,276 in 2014/15 (using 2015 dollars)—an increase of 23.4 per cent.

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

Just as back to school can consume a large portion of a family’s budget, spending on public schools consumes a large portion of Ontario’s budget. When considering public school spending, 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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