Quebec and B.C. spend less on education than other provinces—while outperforming most provinces

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Appeared in Calgary's Business, January 15, 2020
Quebec and B.C. spend less on education than other provinces—while outperforming most provinces

One of the great advantages of Canada’s federation—composed of federal, provincial and local powers—is that subnational governments can experiment with different ways of providing public services, and adopt the best system based on those experiments. In the case of public education (a provincial responsibility) other provinces can look to Quebec and British Columbia to learn about successful models of spending and delivery.

Let’s review education spending across provinces.

In terms of K-12 education, a recent Fraser Institute study found that inflation-adjusted per-student spending increased in seven out of 10 provinces between 2012/13 to 2016/17, the most recent year of available Statistics Canada data.

The level of per-student spending varied significantly by province. Quebec ($11,543) and B.C. ($11,879), were the lowest-spending provinces while Saskatchewan ($15,423) and New Brunswick ($14,768) were the highest-spending.

Put differently, the lowest-spending province (Quebec) spent 25 per cent—or $3,880—less per student than the highest-spending province (Saskatchewan).

And crucially, despite lower levels of spending, students in Quebec and B.C. outperform students in many higher-spending provinces.

Indeed, according to PISA scores, the gold standard of international testing, students in Quebec and B.C. outperform students in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick in all three PISA test subjects—math, science and reading. In fact, Quebec and B.C. have consistently led in student performance in Canada.

Why? One possible explanation may relate to the very different approaches among provinces on how to deliver K-12 education.

Quebec and B.C. have fairly simple public education systems, relying on independent schools to provide the bulk of educational choice including religious-based education, alternative educational approaches, and content-focused programs such as STEM. In contrast, other provinces (including the highest-spender, Saskatchewan) offer religious education and other programs within their public schools. And these provinces tend to have a more complex public school system (Saskatchewan has three competing school systems, for example).

In B.C. and Quebec, approximately one in eight students attend independent schools, the highest proportion of all provinces, compared to less than one in 100 students in New Brunswick (the lowest rate of all provinces).

Remember, in Quebec and B.C. the government provides financial support to eligible independent schools. In the Atlantic provinces and Ontario, the government provides no financial support for students attending independent schools.

As a result, Quebec and B.C. rely much less on the public school system to provide choice to students than do other provinces. Clearly, providing greater educational diversity through independent schools helps these provinces achieve better student performance—at a lower cost.

Provinces should take advantage of one of federalism’s great benefits—the fact that it allows subnational (in our case, the provincial) jurisdictions to experiment and innovate with different policy models to find out what works and what doesn’t. The combination of strong student outcomes and relatively low costs to government (and taxpayers) in Quebec and B.C. suggests other provinces could learn from their approach. The evidence suggests many provinces could spend less—and improve student performance—through education reform.

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