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Archive for the ‘Education Spending’ Category

EdSpendingFraser2021

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.

EdSpendingFraserNS2021

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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Teacher contract negotiations normally rarely hit the news unless the talks go off the rails.  With the school year approaching in August, deals emerge in an atmosphere of urgency where both the provincial government and the unions seek to avert  back-to-school disruptions.  Except for the protracted, bitter 2013-14 British Columbia teachers’ strike and lock-out, government-union negotiating teams much prefer to settle critical contract matters behind closed doors. Until the current round, the Nova Scotia government and the provincial teacher union, the NSTU, kept everything under wraps and the public completely in the dark.

OntarioTeacherProtestsA recent flurry of teacher union settlements in Canada’s largest province may have changed all that. Premier Kathleen Wynne set out to secure “net-zero” salary contracts, then reached an 11th hour deal with the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation (OSSTF) in late August 2015 for 2.5% over the next two years, including an additional paid holiday and improved sick leave. That OSSTF deal set the benchmark and appeared to provide the framework for deals with Ontario’s other teachers’ unions.

Pulling deals out of the fire on the eve of the school year raised suspicions about the avowedly teacher-friendly Wynne Government.  A couple of weeks ago, the province was rocked by a series of explosive Toronto Globe and Mail revelations. The OSSTF settlement included a confidential $1 million pay-out to compensate that teachers’ union for its negotiating costs, and the payouts to all unions totalled $2.5 million. In addition to the $1 million paid out to the OSSTF, the Government paid $1 million to the catholic teachers’ union, plus $500,000  to the francophone teachers’ union in the current bargaining round. Going back to 2008, over three bargaining rounds, the total confidential payouts reached $3.47 million.

Digging deeper, Adrian Morrow of The Globe and Mail then unearthed new information: Ontario’s high school teachers’ union was sitting on more than $65-million in financial reserves while negotiating the secret $1-million payment from the Liberal government to cover is bargaining costs. Furthermore, that same union spent $1.8-million from that reserve fund on political activities and allocated hundreds of thousands more for bargaining expenses in the year before it negotiated the government payout.

While Ontario bargaining deals are dominating the education news cycle, teacher talks are proceeding very quietly in Nova Scotia.  Taking a page from the Ontario Wynne Government playbook, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Finance Minister Randy Delorey broke with the normal protocol.  Starting in August 2015, they prepared the ground for a five year period of public sector salary restraint.  In late September, the Premier went public with an initial offer to the province’s 9,400 teachers: a five-year contract (0-0-0-1-1)  totaling 2 per cent (2015-2019).

The Nova Scotia Government staked out its ground with the public, putting the province’s “ability to pay” on the table.  After noting that 40 per cent of all newer teachers (years 1 to 10) would still get their step increases, the Premier also signaled that, in return, nothing else would be taken away.  That suggested that the province’s costly extra qualification teacher salary upgrade system (exploited by teachers taking Drake University online education courses), ending winter storm season PD days, and removing principals from the union would remain ‘untouchables.’

Teachers unions wield tremendous power in most, if not all, Canadian provincial education systems. In British Columbia, the Liberal Government of Christy Clark has survived intense labour battles, work-to-rule protests and lengthy disruptions, most fought over upholding a 2003 settlement removing class size and class composition from the provincial contracts. Successive BC governments have succeeded in containing education costs and maintaining student performance standards, in spite of recurrent education sector conflict.

Three provinces, Ontario, BC and Nova Scotia, each confront formidable teachers’ unions and seem to be taking differing approaches. Canada’s Pacific province is renowned for its periodic “class struggles.”  Ontario is more typical: taking tough at the outset, then caving-in at the bargaining table. Some independent education observers, most notably Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail, see the Ontario bargaining payouts and contract climb-downs as confirmation that “teachers’ unions rule” the roost.  Whether Nova Scotia holds the line or abandons the field is now anyone’s guess.

Why do Canadian teachers’ unions hold such a sway over the provincial school systems?  Is the British Columbia approach to controlling costs and restoring management rights to the assignment of teaching staff the way to go? How common is the practice of paying the unions to negotiate their own provincial agreements? Who really gains from hard ball teacher negotiations?

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Two retired Ontario educators, Dr. Denis Mildon and Gilles Fournier, have now surfaced in an attempt to preserve and protect the educational investment legacy of the Dalton McGuinty Liberal reform agenda (2003-13). In a Toronto Star opinion column (July 6, 2015), they repeat the familiar claim that Ontario’s system is “considered one of the finest in the world.”

EducationPremier

Ontario’s educational supremacy is presented, as usual, as a statement of incontestable fact. “Though sound research, innovation and policy development Ontario’s system, ” Mildon and Fournier contend, “has become a model of equity and inclusiveness in education and, as a result, in student achievement.”

Ontario education under McGuinty was certainly among the best resourced systems in the world. With OISE school change theorists Michael Fullan and Ben Levin championing increased system-wide investment, spending skyrocketed by over 57% from 2003 to 2011 to $22 billion while school enrollment fell by some 6 per cent. Public funding poured in to support a series of Poverty Reduction initiatives, enhanced special program supports, universal full day Kindergarten, and even Parents Reaching Out (PRO) Grants for parent education.

The origin, of course, of the now infamous “Best System” claim is the two McKinsey and Company reports (2007 and 2010) purporting to identify and then analyze the success of twenty of the world’s leading education systems. It also echoes the very wording used by the Ontario education reform architect Michael Fullan in a high profile  2012 Atlantic article assessing the success of his own initiatives. Aside from Fullan’s 2010 report forward, there is surprisingly little about Ontario initiatives in the actual report, except for one passing reference to PRO grants.

Repeating such claims,referencing the reform advocates themselves,is wearing mighty thin as fresh evidence accumulates that closing the education equality gap does not necessarily translate into improved student achievement. Even more telling, much of the McGuinty era funding-driven “progress” was fueled by increases in spending that are simply unsustainable.

Outsized claims of educational excellence based upon the McKinsey & Company reports are now highly problematic. British researcher Frank Coffield’s 2012 critique of the reports, published in the Journal of Education Policy, has shredded the research and raised serious questions about the reports’ credibility.  Alarmed that the report’s analysis and prescriptions have “hardened into articles of faith” among politicians and policy makers, he argues that the McKinsey-Fullan system-wide reform agenda will “not improve school systems.”

MichaelFullanMuch of Coffield’s critique of McKinsey-style reform applies to Ontario, the Canadian province where Fullan field-tested his school change theories from 2003 to 2013. Centralized reform initiatives, like Fullan’s, he shows, reflect “an impovershed view” of the state of teaching and learning, favouring professionalization over school-level initiatives.

Coffield is particularly skeptical about the legitimacy of the whole assessment. Claims of student success by McKinsey and Fullan are problematic because of the “weak evidence base” and suspect claims about “educational leadership” that “outrun the evidence” in the reports. He’s also troubled by the McKinsey-Fullan language which sounds “technocratic and authoritarian.”  Cultural and socio-ethnic differences are also “underplayed” in such systems-thinking and there is little or no recognition of the role democratic forces play in the public education domain.

One of the few Canadian educators to raise flags about the McKinsey-Fullan ideology was former Peel Catholic Board teacher Stephen Hurley. Writing in March 2011 on the CEA Blog, he expressed concern over the report’s basic assumptions – that teachers come with “low skills” and that centralized approaches are best at fostering professional growth.

Hurley pinpointed two critical weaknesses of the McKinsey-Fullan reform agenda. “As we move forward, how do we give back to our teachers that professional space to develop a strong sense of purpose and efficacy?  How do we as teachers work to reclaim our identities as highly trained and highly competent professionals?”

Two years after McGuinty’s fall from grace, serious questions are being asked about whether the lavish education spending actually produced better results. Staking the claim on rising graduation rates is suspect because, while the graduation rate rose from 68 to 83 per cent, we know that “attainment levels” do not usually reflect higher achievement levels, especially when more objective performance measures, such as student Math scores,stagnated during those years.

Upon closer scrutiny, the Mildon and Fournier commentary is not about protecting student achievement gains at all. Defending current time-consuming evaluation practices, smaller class sizes, preparation time, banking of sick days, ready access to sub teachers, and current curriculum approaches sounds far more like a teacher-driven agenda for Ontario schools. Wrapping Ontario education in that “world leading school system” banner, does not have the appeal or resonance it once had now that parents and the public have a better read on the actual results of that rather high-cost reform agenda.

What did the Dalton McGuinty Education Reform agenda actually achieve in terms of improving student progress and achievement? Where are the independent assessments of McGuinty education reforms supported by serious professionally validated research? Will the Education Reform global “success” story turn out to be essentially a carefully constructed, nicely-packaged mirage?

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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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