Reality of education spending in Alberta

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Appeared in National Newswatch September 13, 2016

The school year has begun again, and conversations among parents may turn to “cuts” in education funding, the elimination of an education assistant, the state of class sizes, or perhaps even the closing of a school. So it’s an opportune time to understand the reality of education spending in Alberta versus the convenient rhetoric.

It’s easy for administrators, politicians, and other apologists for public schools to blame the observed problems on a lack of funding. It allows education leaders to point the finger at someone else. The reality, however, is that the public school system in Alberta has received large increases in funding over the last decade, which implies that the problems in the education system relate to organization and management rather than funding.

First, some facts about education spending on public schools in Alberta. According to data from Statistics Canada, total spending on public school education in Alberta has grown from $4.8 billion in 2004-05 to almost $8.2 billion in 2013-14, the most recent year of available data. That’s an increase of $3.4 billion in education spending in just a decade.

But surely, an astute observer might retort, that $3.4 billion increase is justified when student enrolments are considered. Indeed, Statistics Canada data indicate that over that same 10-year period while enrolments in public schools were in decline in every other Canadian province, enrolments increased by 11.1 per cent in Alberta, from roughly 550,000 to 612,000 students.

Yet the increase in enrolments is an insufficient explanation. In fact, the per student level of spending in public schools in Alberta increased 25.4 per cent between 2004-05 and 2013-14. (And this data accounts for the effects of inflation). Specifically, per student spending in public schools in Alberta increased from $10,669 in 2004-05 to $13,378 in 2013-14. Simply put, Alberta is spending considerably more money now, on a per student basis, on public schools than it did a decade ago.

This is not to say that individual schools, school districts, and even the province as a whole are not struggling with K-12 education. Indeed, many parents (including the two authors of this article) are acutely aware of resource challenges at our local schools.

But the explanation for these individual resource challenges cannot be a lack of money. And it certainly can’t be from a cut in education spending, which as noted above, has actually been increased dramatically over the last decade.

Rather, for an explanation for resource challenges in Alberta’s public schools, look to how the system is organized and managed. Public schools suffer from the same incentive and organizational problems as any other government agency or department, which leads to the misallocation and wasting of resources.

Archaic regulations, union monopoly (which helps create misaligned incentives for both bureaucrats and educators), lack of responsiveness to parental demands, and centralized, prescriptive curriculum are just a few of the many handcuffs holding back Alberta’s public school systems. Consequently, the problems in Alberta public education require a fundamental restructuring rather than simple complaints about a lack of resources.

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