Fraser Forum

The reality of public education in Canada: spending up, enrolment down

Printer-friendly version

I regularly receive enquiries about the trends I see emerging in education. I’m not positioned to make predictions, but the work we’ve done in the past year in the Barbara Mitchell Centre does point to some dramatic changes in the last decade or so.

Two key, and rather unexpected, findings surfaced. They are in the areas of education spending and education enrolments, findings which might indicate some trends (and are particularly relevant as governments across Canada are tabling budgets).

First, repeated claims about education spending cuts caught our attention. When, using Statistics Canada data, we examined total spending on public schools in Canada between 2003-04 and 2012-13 (the most recent decade of available comparable data), we found spending (in absolute terms) increased by 45.9 per cent. At the beginning of the decade, all provinces considered, we spent $41.6 billion on public schools. Ten years later we spent $60.7 billion.

Of course, if school enrolments also increased, we might not have been as alert to this dramatic increase in spending.

But enrolments didn’t increase. Again, using Statistics Canada data we found that enrolments in public schools in Canada for that decade declined from close to 5.3 million students to just over 5.0 million students. So, on a per pupil basis, spending in public schools, on average, increased by even more than we first noted—a full 53.4 per cent increase.

How to account then for claims about cuts in the classroom? Again, our analysis on how the money was spent showed that for the decade (2003-04 to 2012-13) increases in public school spending went mostly to compensation, and also to fund school facilities. In fact, annual spending on teacher pensions and on capital almost doubled over the decade.

So, is spending more (especially on teachers and buildings) to serve fewer students a trend? Hard to say, but it’s a fact from the last decade.

And, second, speaking about fewer students, we examined whether decline in the school-age population in Canada is the only explanation for declining public school enrolment.

While it explains a lot of the public school enrolment decline, it doesn’t explain it all.

Using data from all the provincial ministries of education, we looked at enrolments in public schools, in independent (private) schools, and in home schools, over the 13 years from 2000-01 to 2012-13. In every single province the share of all students who were enrolled in public schools had declined. But the share of students enrolled in private schools had increased in nine provinces and the share in home schools had increased in eight provinces.

So, are declining shares of enrolments in public schools and increases in market share of alternative education providers a trend? Hard to say, but it’s a fact from the last decade.

What’s causing these changes? Will they continue in the direction they are headed? Those are questions for another time, and for others to join in answering. But anyone with an interest in trends in education should give those topics due attention.


Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.