Student performance does not reflect increased spending on Ontario public schools

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Appeared in the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, February 14, 2019
Student performance does not reflect increased spending on Ontario public schools

Parents in Ontario are concerned about the state of sK-12 education in the province. Results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are alarming, particularly in math. Yet there’s a pervasive myth that large cuts to education spending are responsible for the decline in student performance. But the province is spending more—much more—than it did a decade ago.

In fact, as noted in a recent Fraser Institute study, between 2006/07 and 2015/16, spending on public schools in Ontario increased from $20.2 billion to $26.6 billion—an increase of 31.5 per cent.

To get a more accurate picture of the change in education spending, we must take both the changes in enrolment and changes in price levels (inflation) into account. The number of K-12 students enrolled in public schools in the province has declined from more than 2.1 million students in 2006/07 to just under 2.0 million students in 2015/16—a decrease of 5.2 per cent. As a result, per student inflation-adjusted spending increased from $11,238 in 2006/07 to $13,321 in 2015/16 (in 2016 dollars), an increase of 18.5 per cent. Ontario is also spending more than the Canadian average of $12,791 per student.

So what’s the result of this spending hike?

If increased spending resulted in improved academic performance, we should observe at least marginal improvements. Each year, students in Grades 3 and 6 write provincial exams in reading, writing and math. Fewer than half (49 per cent) of Grade 6 students who wrote the exams met the standard in math exam in 2017-18. This is a further one percentage point decline from the previous year’s dismal results. Grade 3 students fared better, with 61 per cent of students meeting the standard, but this is also down from 67 per cent in 2013/14.

The PISA exams, the gold standard for international testing, also indicate a decline in math performance. These exams are administered to 15-year-old students worldwide every three years in reading, science and math. Scores in math declined between 2003 and 2015 (the latest year of available results) by a statistically significant degree. Ontario also scored lower than British Columbia and Quebec in all three subjects.

We owe it to young Ontarians to ensure they gain the knowledge and skills needed to be successful and productive adults. It’s clear that something must be done about the declining student performance in Ontario, and there are many reform options available. But one thing is certain—if this was a problem that could be solved by simply spending more money, it would be fixed by now.

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