Archive for the ‘Education Funding Politics’ Category


Some things in education return, year after year, like clockwork. So the dawn of 2021 produced the latest iteration of the Fraser Institute’s perennial report on “Education Spending in Public Schools in Canada. Everyone in Canadian K-12 education attuned to public policy, from coast-to-coast, knows what to expect as regular fare from one of our most conservative, cost-conscious think-tanks.

Public spending, so the narrative goes, is invariably excessive, wasteful, and spread around without much focus on meeting targeted needs. Spending more on public education does not produce better student results and, in the case of the Maritimes, spending rises while student enrolments have declined over the past five years. Those regular monitoring reports also come complete with supporting statistics –in the form of data, bar graphs, and tables.

Flipping through Fraser Institute reports, you can almost hear provincial education ministers, superintendents, and educators muttering something to themselves: “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” That’s a rather snide comment about the persuasive power of statistics, and particularly the kind used to mount or defend weak claims and arguments. While often attributed to former British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881), the phrase originated much earlier and only came into popular usage from the 1890s onward.

That was the phrase that first popped into my mind when reading the recent Atlantic Canadian spinoff from the Fraser Institute report for 2021. “Spending on public schools in Maritime Canada on the rise, despite largest declines in enrolment nationwide.” So read the Nova Scotia media release produced by Tegan Hill and Alex Whelan. What, one might wonder, is new about that pattern?

A year ago, the Fraser Institute 2020 report on Education Spending was mostly a yawn because it did beat the same old drum. Spending on public schools was up by 9.2 per cent per student from 2012-13 to 2016-17, a five-year period, and student numbers had dipped a little, by from 2 to 3 per cent in the Maritime provinces. Looking closer at the numbers, however, those increases averaged 1.8 per cent a year overall, and, at most 2.4 per cent a year in Nova Scotia. Throughout the period, it might be added, Nova Scotia consistently ranked 7th among the provinces in per-student spending, reported at $13,135 per student in the final year, 2016-17. Student enrolment in N.S., over the final year, actually began to edge upward to 118,566, province-wide.

The most recent Fraser Institute report actually did say something new and that may get lost in the whole debate, waged – for the most part—by ideologues holding fast to fixed positions. Something began to happen in 2017-18 that changed the trajectory of education spending in Nova Scotia and, to a lesser extent, in New Brunswick.


Total spending on Nova Scotia public schools, the 2021 Fraser Institute Report found, increased from 2013-14 to-2017-18 by 19.0 per cent to $1.7 billion, an increase of $279 million. Student enrolment did drop slightly over the five years by 1.7 per cent, but that was not the big story. Instead of ranking 7th among the provinces in education spending per student, it now ranked fourth at $14,726 per student. That’s well above the national average of $13,798 in 2017-18.

More was being spent on Nova Scotia public education and student performance, measured on international, national, and provincial tests, has plateaued or slightly declined, like many other provinces. It’s difficult to be definitive because, since 2015-16, provincial tests have routinely been reformatted, postponed or cancelled altogether, making it difficult to reliably track student results. That’s a recurring pattern and one that renders problematic the usual claims of declining standards.

What’s really new in Nova Scotia is the recent cost drivers for education spending. Two major program initiatives with infrastructure costs, Inclusive Education ($15-million per year since 2017-18), and Pre-Primary Program expansion/completion (2016-17 onward), are factors and produce recurring expenditures, mainly in the form of new education sector jobs. From 2017-18 onward, some 449 new positions have been added in K-12 education.

Few question the wisdom of moving forward with Inclusive Education for learning challenged students and universal Junior Primary for 4-year-olds, and those cost pale in significance when considering the real cost drivers in the extraordinarily high recent Nova Scotia education spending increases, all in the pension, benefits, and contract services domains.

Human resources costs represent the largest share of total education expenses, but under the public sector wage restraints, salaries and wages remained at or below the cost-of-living. Supply and services costs, including contracted work, reached $394 million in 2017-18, representing 22,9 per cent of all expenditures. Together, the employer share of pensions and fringe benefits totaled $324 million, up significantly over the previous five years.

Pension and benefits costs incurred by the K-12 system are running well ahead of all other expenditures, averaging more than 10 per cent increases per year. Carrying a monumental provincial liability, defined benefit education pensions cost $91 million to sustain in 2017-18 (representing 5.9 per cent of all spending) and addressing the problem continually gets deferred by the government and the education unions. Back in 2017-18, employee fringe benefits, including retirement allowances, were 13.5 per cent of all expenditures, double the national average, and up 31 per cent over five years.

Capital spending in K-12 education is hard to track because so much of the procurement and spending is financed over long-term financing arrangements. Some provinces simply report the annual costs paid in principal and interest on long-term contracts, disclosing only the annual carrying costs to the system. In the case of Nova Scotia, the provincial budget for 2020-21 will absorb $265.6 million in costs for capital projects. The deferred financing will cover the cost of renovating 16 schools and for the purchase of 16 Public-Private Partnership schools from developers at the conclusion of 30-year lease agreements.

Conservative business and public policy tanks are prone to “cry wolf” when wading into the regular waves of government spending, particularly in K-12 education. It would be tempting to dismiss the Fraser Institute’s 2021 Education Spending report on similar grounds. That would be a mistake, given the recent surge on Nova Scotia education spending, commencing before we were all hit with the pandemic.

Why are education policy reports from business-oriented think-tanks like the Fraser Institute routinely ignored or brushed aside in Canadian K-12 education? Why does so much education reporting and analysis focus almost exclusively on trumpeting new programs proposed to meet every conceivable need and boasting of dozens of new hires? Do human resource costs in K-12 education escape critical scrutiny? Who’s monitoring and overseeing rising human resource costs, particularly pensions and benefits? Should such dollars be focused more on meeting student needs in the classroom?

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The Fraser Institute’s Centre for Improvement in Education is stirring it up again in the normally tranquil world of Canadian K-12 education. The latest report, Education Spending in Canada: What’s Actually Happening? , released in mid-February 2015, returns to one of the Vancouver think tank’s familiar themes. While the popular news media outlets in Canada’s provinces are quick to report on every “education cut” or proposed “cutback,” public spending in the sector continues to rise as predictably as sun in the morning.

EdSpendingGraphicThe newest report, produced by Deani Neven Van Pelt and Joel Emes, was delivered with a rather provocative media release and an eye-popping infographic. Seizing upon the most glaringly sensational statistic, the Fraser Institute graphic artists depict the rise in “nominal spending” from 2001-2 to 2011-12. Seeing that “public school spending” rose from $39.9 to $59.6 billion or 53.1% while enrollment dropped across all provinces by 6.2% is hardly news. Learning that per pupil spending over that decade also rose from $7,250 to $11,835 or 63.5 % is enough to raise your temperature.

The Fraser Institute, for the uninitiated, is to Canadian education what Greenpeace is to the environmental movement. Setting-off emergency flares is the West Coast think tank’s stock-and-trade.  Like most of their reports, it’s important to cut through the sheen of pure free market analysis to get at the real meat of the matter.  In this case, it’s the valuable work done in reconstructing the growth in spending per pupil, province-by-province, adjusted for inflation and enrollment. Those figures are less “sexy” but far more relevant for education observers and policy-makers. It is also what that national education ‘paper tiger’ CMEC, the Council of Ministers of Education, should be producing for public accountability purposes.

The overall growth in education spending in “nominal dollars” is hardly earth-shaking and it pales in comparison with rising costs in health care, not really properly acknowledged in the report. When compared with enrollment declines in every province except Alberta (up 5.4%), the provincial spending levels are worth noting. The reported Ontario spending level of $24.7 billion is staggering, especially when compared with 2001-2, when it was $15.2 billion, or about $9 billion less. It’s hard, however, to get worked up over PEI spending 51.3% more, bringing the total spending to a mere $236 million.

EdSpendingPerPupil2011Comparing provincial student enrollments with per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, produces some significant insights. Alberta’s student enrollment rose by 5.4%, and so did its K-12 education spending (up $1.5 billion or 37.0%). Declining enrollments from 2001-2011, hit a few provinces particularly hard without impacting much on their overall spending levels. Newfoundland and Labrador absorbed a 22% enrollment drop, and spending per pupil after inflation/enrollment adjustment declined by 3.1 %. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, like two peas in a Maritime pod, spent 3.4% and 3.6% more to educate 18.2% and 16.5% fewer students. Without the absorption of Kindergarten into the public system, PEI would likely have demonstrated a similar pattern.

The Fraser Institute’s most potentially valuable findings are the estimates for provincial overspending on K-12 education in so-called “government schools.” Overall, Canada’s provincial enrollments declined from 5.36 million to 5.o3 million students, but spending still rose 15% after adjusting for inflation and enrollment.  All together, they also spent some $15 billion more than if they had contained costs to the adjusted levels, allowing for inflation and enrollment. In the case of Ontario, enrollment dropped by 5.5%, but the Ministry of Education spent 15.8% ($2.4 billion) more ( in real terms) to educate 120,000 fewer students.  The Ontario overspending figure is double the total cost of educating Nova Scotia’s 125,500 students.

British Columbia teachers will be intrigued by the Fraser Institute study’s findings.  Comparing the new figures with the BCTF’s “Fair Deal” graphs shows how data can be manipulated to prove almost anything in education.  The new Statistics Canada figures for 2011-12 tend to show that the BC government has taken a “tougher line” and made gains in closing the gap between declining enrollment and spending levels. While BC student numbers plummeted 11% from 622,800 to 550,700, spending was contained to a 19.3% increase (or a 5.4% increase after inflation and enrollment adjustment). Salary and wage restraints affecting teachers explain how BC was able to break the cycle of escalating education costs so evident in Alberta and Ontario.

What the Fraser Institute study does not do is answer the big question – why do education expenditures (nominal, per pupil, and adjusted) continue to rise while enrollments decline? It is possible, however, based upon provincial research studies, to isolate three of the leading cost increase components.

First and foremost, salary and wage settlements for teachers and support staff, representing at least 75% of all recurrent education expenses and guaranteeing step increments to teachers in their first 10-12 years of service.  Second, provincial class size policies, particularly class enrollment caps, which — if poorly administered — result in overall much lower PTRs and smaller classes over time.  And finally, the growth of Special Education expenditures (once 15% of the budget, now as much as 20%) driven by the “student supports” philosophy and the trend to providing EAs in many more regular classes.

The key K-12 education cost inflators are much easier to identify than to analyze and assess, especially in the absence of a national education accountability office charged with such a public responsibility. Nor is there much definitive evidence that any of these relatively costly policy measures correlate positively with improvements in student engagement and achievement or preparedness for a productive, fulfilling life.

Why do Education Spending levels continue to rise in the face of overall declines in student enrollment? How credible are the Fraser Institute findings that compare “nominal spending”, province by province, over a ten year period? What is the real utility of the comparative figures for spending per pupil adjusted for inflation and enrollment?  To what extent are the main spending escalators “fixed costs” and, if so, is it possible to develop a spending model more closely aligned with improvements in student engagement and performance?

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In September 1979, the York Region Public School Board locked me out. After reporting for school one morning, my OSSTF Representative Dick Barron stopped me in the Thornlea Secondary School parking lot. Huddled together with the other teachers, I was told that the Board had shut down the schools and we were advised to go home until further notice.  As a youngish teacher in my sixth year, all I wanted to do was teach – and the frustration welled-up inside, not really knowing who to blame for the shutdown.

OntarioTeachersWalkoutD12That infamous York Region dispute, following a year of OSSTF “work-to-rule” actions, came back to me last week as hundreds of elementary teachers marched outside the York Region Board offices on Wellington Street in Aurora, Ontario.  Back in 1978-79, the York Region teachers succeeded in holding the line, but not much more was really gained. It is also a safe bet that history will repeat itself again.

The raging Ontario teachers’ dispute with the Dalton McGuinty Liberal Government, sparked by Bill 115, has led to bitter denunciations, a breakdown in contract negotiations, the suspension of voluntary secondary school extra-curricular activities, and a rotating round of teacher walkouts. Walkout, lockout, or mini-strike –it’s the worst rupture in labour peace since the Ontario teachers’ war against Mike Harris Conservative Common Sense Revolution in the late 1990s.

The essentials of education are all too often mistaken for the “extras.”  Suspending voluntary extra-curricular activities and “walking-out” of school may serve some purpose in defense of teacher rights and current salary levels, but such actions tend to have damaging long-term effects. Students remember being held hostage waiting out the disruption.  Provincial governments come away with a blackened public reputation, striking teachers feel persecuted and underappreciated, and school boards are left to put the shattered pieces back together again.

Everyone in the public education sector these days claims to be “putting students first.” That phrase rings mighty hollow in the throes and the later wake of labour disruptions like those in Ontario and in British Columbia over the past year.

Students come first in schools when principals and teachers, supported by school boards, provide those “extras” above and beyond the normal contracted services. It’s only visible when school authorities run the risk of sponsoring student-run conferences, principals support Ottawa or Washington experience field trips, and teacher professionals volunteer to coach the low profile, time-consuming track or tennis teams.

Student engagement is what transforms opportunities into real, deep learning experiences. Filing into class each day, taking classroom notes, and writing tests or examinations rarely stay with you at the end of a school year. “A theatre club can build all those life skills that matter more than knowing how to calculate a math equation,” says Dr. Doug Willms, Director of the Canadian Research Institute on Social Policy (CRISP) at the University of New Brunswick.

Dr. Willms’ ongoing CRISP Student Survey, now in its eighth year and including close to 500,000 students, has demonstrated conclusively that student participation in teams and clubs has a very positive influence on class attendance and overall student success, and, to a slightly lesser extent, on individual academic grades.  A 2009 U.S. study involving 8,000 students, cited recently in The Globe and Mail, showed that active, engaged high school students, a decade after graduation, were earning more money than their less involved contemporaries.

Teacher labour disputes, just like band program cuts, can adversely affect critical relationships in schools.  Toronto educator, Stephen Hurley, founder of VoicEd.ca, perhaps put it best: “Look what people do when they leave school,” he recently told The Globe and Mail. “Everything is grounded in relationships.”

Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty invested heavily in public education, increasing spending by 45 per cent between 2003 and 2011, not even counting the massive amounts for full-day junior kindergarten. Most of that money went to salary increases to the very teachers now cheering his downfall.

McGuinty’s prized Ontario educational legacy now lies in tatters and not even a strategic climb-down can salvage the broken relationship with the teachers’ unions.  Regular elementary classroom teachers, fired up by the EFTO’s Sam Hammond, are sure to remain embittered for months or years to come.  Militant secondary school teachers may, once again, harbour resentment and continue to punish kids by refusing to initiate or supervise voluntary extra-curricular activities.  Pity those new teachers entering the profession amidst the poisoned labour-management environment in schools.

Who is responsible for the current breakdown in negotiations and teacher walkouts in Ontario and earlier labour disruptions in British Columbia?  After pouring millions of dollars into public education, how can reversing field be justified, let alone explained?  Who gains from such bitter labour disputes — and what are the long-term consequences for students, for student-teacher relationships, and for public support of our provincial systems?

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School boards across Canada are habitually crying poor and the local and national media are filled with stories about “education cuts” threatening to “devastate the system. ” When asked, where can cuts be made, school officials and teacher unionists respond with blank stares or proclaim, rather lamely, that there is “no fat” whatsoever in the system.

Money is tight in public education, or so we are told, when “educuts” are on the table. Potential cuts to administrative and classroom expenses are then openly debated, except when it comes to the matter of investing in computer technology. Why, I wondered, is Information Technology (IT) so sacrosanct?

Several months ago, Paul Taylor of the British Columbia firm Blue Curl, but based in New Glasgow, NS, contacted me with what seemed to be an outlandish claim. School boards could reap “major cost savings ,” he insisted, if they abandoned their current Information Technology (IT) policy and infrastructure, embraced “N-Computing” technology, and implemented “virtual desktops” on a larger scale. Not only would the education system dramatically cut costs, it would also greatly expand computer access points in our public schools. http://www.bluecurl.ca/

Almost everyone in public education circles seems to accept that putting computers in schools costs big money and IT would be the last place to look when cutting costs. Besides, promoters of the “21st Century Skills” curriculum simply assume that plenty of public-private partnership funding will automatically materialize for IT-driven school reform. Few Canadian educators are even aware of the divisive public debate raging in Detroit, Michigan, over “cutting teachers, while adding computers.” http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2011/01/budgeting-cutting-people-adding-computers.html

Desktop virtualization is not really new, but you would think so, judging from official response across the Maritimes. NComputing was founded by Californian Steven Dukker in 2003, and it now leads the world in producing virtual desktop computer devices. It greatly reduces the cost of computing by allowing multiple people to simultaneously share a single computer.

With the release of its new L300 model featuring enhanced video capabilities, the NComputing product has taken-off and sold 500,000 seats in the 18 months ending in September 2007. Since the, it has now been adopted by America’s largest school system in New York City as well as in California, Macedonia, Mexico, Nigeria, India, and all over the Asia Pacific. http://www.smbworldasia.com/en/content/ncomputing-cusp-changing-economics-it

While Nova Scotia is lagging, NComputing pilots are underway in New Brunswick’s District 16, Newfoundland, Labrador, and Prince Edward Island. Most of these small scale experiments involve retiring 10 aging PCs in favour of one much cheaper L300 virtual desktop system at a minimum saving of 50% per seat.

What’s behind the resistance within the system? Most school superintendents still depend heavily upon the computer experts in setting policy and defining the priorities. Many IT directors are “old guard” computer science teachers or techies. They not only tend to favour name brands like Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, and Apple but are products of a system based upon segregated computer labs and restricting student access to the Internet on school property. http://www.zdnet.com/blog/education/tablets-netbooks-thin-clients-cheap-desktops-what-to-buy/4378

Many school boards have also grown dependent upon the Industry Canada model of distributing “hand-me-down” donated computers to the schools. That is why Nova Scotia has 60,000 computers in a system serving 127,000 students, many of which badly need replacement.

Blue Curl’s Taylor sells what was once called “thin client” technology and he puts it much more bluntly. “Many in the IT field, believe it or not, are wedded to the ‘fat client’ model, favouring products where parts break down and upgrades prove lucrative.”

Nova Scotia’s technology consultant, Wayne Hamilton, is typical of many educational techies. He’s known about “virtual desktops” for 7 years and has personally experimented with the NComputing product. Initially, he found fault with the devices, questioning the quality of the prototypes, software licensing costs, and the potential band-width challenges.

In a public system, saddled with hundreds of broken-down computers, Hamilton was spooked by use of “open source software” and the need to invest in better “parent” computers. Reducing the number of computers requiring servicing, also threatened jobs, posing another significant deterrent.
Adopting NComputing will save significant tax dollars. In the Chignesto-Central School Board, some 23,000 students now are served by 12,000 aging computers sucking tremendous amounts of electrical power. Implementing NComputing, Taylor contends, would cut IT costs by 50 per cent and save on power usage. Indeed, many schools could aspire to having carbon neutral computer labs.

Cutting “the fat” in educational computing is bound to ruffle a few feathers. Yet Taylor is one determined Nova Scotian computer salesman. After months of flogging his NComputing technology, cracks are appearing in the passive resistance. He takes heart from small victories in Northern New Brunswick, Cape Breton and Indian Brook First Nation. In school computing as in personal life, slimming down requires self-analysis, setting achievable targets, and sheer determination.

Back to the fundamental question: Why is a serious scrutiny of IT expenditures in public education rarely, if ever, undertaken? Do new innovations such as NComputing’s virtual desktop have the potential for significantly reducing the costs while maintaining or enhancing service? If so, why do senior bureaucrats and IT managers resist such initiatives?

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Nova Scotia, like most Canadian provinces, is grappling with a looming financial crisis and public education is facing a serious crunch.  And when the NDP government of Darrell Dexter recently announced its upcoming round of Budget Consultations, the leaders of the province’s main education lobby groups were first off the mark. On January 21,2010, the voices of education officialdom issued a “pre-emptive strike” with a fancy website and a catchy slogan “Save Grade 2.”  Sifting through the rhetoric and posturing, the educators were really asking for the province to increase edu-spending by 3.6 % or some $36 million.

What’s the crisis all about?  The Nova Scotia government has identified the essential problem – the province is “spending far more than it is taking in” when it comes to revenues.   The provincial debt is astronomical and annual deficits are projected to rise from $525 million in 2009 to $1.4 billion in 2012-13.  If nothing is done, Health expenditures will continue to consume half the provincial budget and education spending will rise from $1.4 billion to $2 billion dollars per year.  More alarming, debt servicing  now consumes more than Nova Scotia spends on Community Services.  With the province’s population aging, it is also forecast that the school-age population will decline (by 11.5 %) from some 130,000 students to 114,500 by 2014-15.

What’s the threat?  The education lobby groups now claim that the public system will soon be presented with “impossible choices.”  If funding for education decreases, they fear that cruel “cuts” will have to be made, such as releasing 800 teachers, cutting literacy improvement, reducing education assistants/bus drivers, trimming the textbook budget, closing additional schools, chopping special programs, or increasing class sizes.  How “Saving Grade 2” relates to all this is unclear, but presumably the total projected reductions total the cost of operating that program. ( See http://www.savegrade2.com)

The initial questions were: What are the real choices facing the Nova Scotia government in the field of education?  What’s your response to the “Save Grade 2” initiative?  Is Grade 2 really at risk or is it an example of political gamesmanship?  Does anyone in Nova Scotia really believe that the NDP government poses a threat to public education?

Flash forward nine moths to October 2010.  Darryl Dexter’s NDP government seizes the initiative, claiming that reductions are imperative because the provincial school system was losing 3,000 students a year. Without warning, school boards in Nova Scotia are told to prepare for budget cuts that could total $196 million over three years. In full panic mode, the Nova Scotia School Boards Association claims that the province’s cuts amount to 22% and threaten to “devastate” the whole system.

Going into the second round, new and more fundamental questions arise cutting to the root of the problem.  What is really accomplished by simply adjusting grant levels and postponing structural changes?  Has the time come to depart from the grant-driven cycle?  Without downsizing, can Nova Scotia deliver education at an affordable cost to taxpayers?  And should the province be looking at innovative options, such as e-learning and distance education?

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