Spending on public schools reaches new heights despite teacher union rhetoric

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, January 3, 2024
Spending on public schools reaches new heights despite teacher union rhetoric

According to a common refrain from the teacher unions, government-run public schools in Canada are forced to do more with less year after year.

But in reality, between 2012-13 and 2020-21 (the latest year of available comparable data), spending in public schools across Canada increased by $7.8 billion more than was necessary to account for changes in enrolment and inflation. And per-student spending (inflation-adjusted) on public schools increased by 8.3 per cent.

Among specific provinces, the increase was far more significant with Quebec experiencing the largest increase (32.9 per cent) followed by Nova Scotia (26.9 per cent) and Prince Edward Island (19 per cent).

So public schools in most of Canada are definitely not doing more with less.

Only two provinces (Alberta and Saskatchewan) experienced declines in per-student spending, due primarily to strong growth in student enrolment, with Alberta leading the country at 12.4 per cent enrolment growth. (Although like every other province, total education spending in Alberta and Saskatchewan increased over the eight-year period.)

It's critical for Canadian parents and taxpayers to understand how much of their money is being spent on government-run public schools, but it also matters how that money is spent. So, where does most of the money go? Textbooks? Smart boards? Hot lunches for kids? Not quite.

While capital spending on infrastructure such as buildings or facility upgrades has increased over the years and grown as a share of overall spending, by far the largest and costliest aspect of education spending across Canada is compensation for employees including teachers, which grew from $45.6 billion in 2012-13 to $57.3 billion in 2020-21, an increase of $11.7 billion or 25.6 per cent.

Within the compensation envelope, salaries and wages comprised the largest share of the growth at 77.7 per cent. Fringe benefits and pension costs increased as well.

The cost of sending one child to government-run public school varies from province to province, but is highest in Nova Scotia where schools spend $16,873 per student. Contrast that with Alberta where the per-student spending tab ($13,464) is the lowest in Canada.

Which raises the most important question—in light of all this spending, how are the kids doing in school?

Unfortunately, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the world’s leading standardized test, Canada’s average scores have been declining, and the share of high-performing students in Canada, who do exceptionally well on the PISA tests, is declining as well. In science and math in particular, the academic achievement of Canadian students is tumbling.

Maximizing student success and wellbeing is the goal of any healthy education system. Canada’s 10 provincial education systems demonstrate that spending more does not automatically deliver better results—quite the contrary. But one thing is certain; spending on government-run public schools is rising and parents are right to ask how more money is helping to improve the education of their children—or if it’s helping at all.

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