Fraser Forum

Education in Newfoundland and Labrador: fewer students, more spending, poorer results

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As Newfoundland and Labrador’s government prepares its budget for the coming fiscal period, the province should not ignore some basic facts related to education spending—facts the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers’ Council asked me to share at their recent annual conference.

The council asked about enrolments, spending and outcomes. All three pieces combined to create a rather alarming narrative.

First, consider changes in school-age population and the effect on school enrolments. For the period 2000-2013, our recent analysis found that while the population in Canada of five to 17 year olds declined by 6.4 per cent, in Newfoundland and Labrador it declined by 24.2 per cent, the greatest provincial decline in school-age population. School enrolments, as we showed in another recent study, reflect the shrinking school-age population. In the decade from 2003/04 to 2012/13, enrolments in public schools in Canada declined by 4.9 per cent compared to an alarming 17.2 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador. Only Nova Scotia, at 17.4 per cent, experienced a larger percentage decline for that decade.

Second, consider spending on public schools in Newfoundland and Labrador. With almost one-fifth fewer students, did spending go down over the decade? Not at all. From 2003/04 to 2012/13, total spending on public schools in the province, rather than declining to reflect the decrease in student numbers, increased by 32.9 per cent, from $653 million to $868 million. In other words, where the province once spent $9,636 per student, a decade later (in inflation adjusted terms) it was spending $12,866.

In another recent study, using data from Statistics Canada, we examined where the money was going. While capital spending (building and maintenance of schools) almost doubled for Canada as a whole over the decade, it almost quadrupled in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Third, consider outcomes. Perhaps, one would hope, dramatic increases in spending would be followed by improved results. One of the common indicators of education results, used around the world, is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. PISA tests 15 year olds in three key subject areas, math, reading and science. In the 2012 round of tests (they occur every three years),  Newfoundland and Labrador ranked lower in each subject area than the Canadian average--in  math (Canada 15th, Newfoundland and Labrador 37th), reading (Canada 12th, Newfoundland and Labrador 29th) and science (Canada 13th, Newfoundland and Labrador 26th).

Another way of considering the 2012 PISA scores for the province is to rank all 10 provinces in each of the three subjects. When the three rankings were averaged, Newfoundland and Labrador ranked 8th, followed only by the lower ranking Manitoba and Prince Edward Island. More alarming, since 2003 Newfoundland and Labradors’ ranking among the provinces in each of the three subjects has declined.

Thus, in Newfoundland and Labrador, with lower ranking PISA scores, dramatic declines in student enrolment, and enormous increases in spending (especially capital), it’s clear that both achievement and efficiency are lagging behind much of the rest of Canada.

Educated, motivated and caring citizens are key to economic prosperity in any province, and improving student performance must become a key priority for Newfoundland and Labrador. As budgets are being designed, provincial stakeholders must confront the question: will simply increasing spending on education cause the turnaround that is required, when a decade of increased spending hasn’t produced the desired results?

Perhaps it’s time to dramatically reform how education is delivered. At the very least, the alarming education facts in the province must be acknowledged.


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