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.
The 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.
Comparing 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?