Reality of education spending in Ontario

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Appeared in the Globe and Mail, September 1, 2016

It’s that time of year again when parents across Ontario are preparing their kids to return to school after the summer break. And when parents meet in the schoolyards and drop-zones for the first time in months, conversations 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 Ontario 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 Ontario 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 Ontario. According to data from Statistics Canada, total spending on public school education in Ontario has grown from $18.4 billion in 2004-05 to $25.7 billion 2013-14, the most recent year of available data. That’s an increase of $7.3 billion in education spending in just a decade.

But crucially, that $7.3 billion increase underestimates the real increase in education spending in the province because it ignores enrolment. Statistics Canada data indicate that over the same 10-year period, enrolment in public schools in Ontario declined 5.1 per cent, from roughly 2.1 million students to 2.0 million students.

Accounting for the higher spending levels and lower number of students means that the per student level of spending in public schools increased 25.0 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 Ontario increased from $10,204 in 2004-05 to $12,753 in 2013-14. Simply put, Ontario 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 Ontario’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 Ontario’s public school systems. Consequently, the problems in Ontario public education require a fundamental restructuring rather than simple complaints about a lack of resources.

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