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Updated: BCTF says education funding below national average

The BC Teachers' Federation will tell the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services this afternoon that B.C. provides less funding and less teachers-per-students than the Canadian average, and it's time to bring the province back to national standards.

"We know these changes will take time and will take significant investment," says Susan Lambert, president of the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF).

"While we would obviously like to be above average, it is a realistic goal to begin by moving at least to the Canadian national average on the various indicators of educational effort."

Lambert says spending on Kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) as a percentage of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is below the national average at 3.3 per cent. She called on government to increase spending to 2001 levels of 3.6 per cent of GDP--which is also the current national average--a cost of approximately $609 million.

*Operational funding also needs to increase by 7.3 per cent, or $377 million to keep up with the national average.

Student-to-educator ratio in the province is 16.6, slightly higher than the Canadian average of 14. But Lambert says the measurement, which comes from Statistics Canada, includes administrators in the educator role and B.C. has a higher administrator-to-teacher ratio, masking the true student-to-teacher numbers in the province.

"Even after the global recession of 2008, K-12 spending as a percentage of GDP increased across Canada while remaining stagnant in B.C.," she says.

B.C. needs approximately 5,800 more teachers to close the gap, especially special needs, English Language Learner, teacher librarians, and Aboriginal teachers, Lambert says, at a cost of $500 million.

Last year the Ministry of Education estimated enrollment for the 2012/13 school year would be 534,691, about 6,005 fewer students than in 2011/12.

But Lambert says the ministry's own documents show the decline in student numbers, so often cited as a reason not to increase education spending to the levels the BCTF request, has stopped.

The government's Budget Consultation 2013 report, on which the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services' public consultations are based, highlights a loss of $240 million in provincial revenues for natural gas and the government's commitment to a balanced budget.

That, combined with previous statements from the ministry of education on the continual increase in provincial education funding, makes it unlikely government will follow the union's advice.

Despite this, Lambert says it's BCTF's duty to try to influence government policy on education.

"I think that this plan is a reasonable plan, but we have to start on it right away," she says.

"I cannot understand why a government would be so irresponsible as to shortchange its next generation of the kind of education experiences each and everyone of our students' needs to be fully productive, fully engaged, fully committed citizens. It's an astounding legacy of this government."

**Education Minister Don McRae hadn't read the full BCTF submission to the Standing Committee when he spoke to The Tyee, but he was familiar with the BCTF's funding demands. He says given the annual education budget is currently about $5 billion, government can't afford the 30 per cent increase the union is asking for.

"If I had money to inject into the education system, I'd really want to make sure I have a conversation with parents, superintendents, trustees, teachers, of course, and the BCTF," he says.

"But at this stage right now we're coming out of the great recession, one of the worst recessions in seven years: I don't have $1.5 billion to give to the BCTF and the education system right now."

Student enrollment will continue to decline beyond the 2012/13 school year, he says, but should level off soon. Provided the government mandate remains the same.

"For example, in the 1990s under the NDP, we had 50,000 people leaving British Columbia. Most of them went to eastern Canada to work and a lot of them took their families with them," says McRae.

"But I'm hoping that next year we'll grow the economy of British Columbia, we'll do our best to make sure we keep taxes low and let families keep dollars in their pockets instead of taxing them too much."

Despite the discrepancy in funding compared to the national average, McRae says B.C. continues to outperform most other provinces academically. Lambert says B.C.'s performance is dropping, however, citing the province ranked first or second in the 2000 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). But by 2009 our ranking had dropped to eighth.

According to OECD and provincial government documents, in 2000 B.C. ranked third in literacy, seventh in math, and and sixth in sciences. But by 2009 those scores had dropped to eighth in reading, sixteenth in math, and eighth in science.

* and **Updated at 2:33 p.m.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter at @kehyslop.

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