The Myth of Education Spending Cuts in British Columbia

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun

The provincial government will deliver its budget today, amid a backdrop of fallen commodity prices and a generally sluggish economy. In light of British Columbia’s mounting government debt, vigilance and restraint will be key.

Spending on K-12 education, the second largest spending envelope in British Columbia, can rightly been seen as an important investment for the next generation. It provides the building blocks for a prosperous and opportunities-oriented society.

There is no doubt, though, that those who profit from government spending increases will argue that restraint will mean continued cuts in education. The reality is quite different.

According to data from Statistics Canada, between 2001-02 and 2011-12, the most recent years available, spending on public schools in British Columbia increased from $5 billion to $6.3 billion—an increase of 24.7 per cent. When price changes (inflation) are considered, the increase is 4.6 per cent.

However, these numbers are a rather rudimentary way of understanding education spending because they don’t account for changes in student enrolment. If a jurisdiction increases education spending but simultaneously experiences a larger proportional increase in the student population, it can actually be cutting per student spending. Alternatively, a jurisdiction with a declining enrolment could actually reduce total education spending but still increase per student spending. A recent study calculated the per student levels of education spending over the last decade.

Except for three of the eastern provinces, B.C. experienced the largest provincial decline in public school student enrolment—from 622,800 to 550,700 between 2001-02 and 2011-12, an 11.6 per cent decrease.

This enrolment decline amplifies the increase in education spending. During the same 11-year period, spending on a per student basis increased 41.1 per cent, from $8,093 to $11,418.

Another common claim, which is potentially more damaging, is that there’s a consistent relationship between education spending and education results. In this simple world, all you have to do to improve education is spend more money. It’s a simplistic and incorrect way to think about inputs and outputs.

Look at B.C., which had the lowest spending increases--on both a nominal and per pupil basis--of any province in the country. Yet unlike other provinces, many of which experienced a worrying decline in the OECD’s Programme for Student Assessment (PISA) scores in math, reading and science, B.C. has some of the highest PISA scores in the country.

Study after study has demonstrated that it’s far more important to focus on how money is spent rather than worrying about the total amount spent. The key to better education isn’t spending more—it’s spending wisely. A recent study examined B.C.’s system of school choice, and confirmed its positive effect on test results. Consider, for example, that one-in-eight students in B.C. attend independent schools, which offer parents real choice in their children’s education and fosters competition between schools. Choice and competition are the keys to a well-functioning, efficient education system.

As the government in Victoria delivers its budget, it’s important to note that contrary to the rhetoric, spending on public education in B.C has increased. And while the increases have been the most modest in the country, performance has not suffered. The focus should be on reform—how we spend on education, and how we deliver that education to students. Not on simply worrying about increasing the amount we spend.

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