The summer’s brief respite from the war of words on provincial education funding is officially over.
With less than two weeks to go before classes begin on Sept. 6, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a report that says British Columbia’s per-student funding for public education is the second lowest in Canada.
Author Alex Hemingway says the report will help parents, students and policy-makers penetrate the government’s education funding rhetoric.
“We’ve had this situation where on the one hand the government is talking about this record level of funding, and then parents and students are seeing at their local school districts these budget crises,” said Hemingway, public finance policy analyst in the centre’s B.C. office.
The report – “What’s the real story behind BC’s education funding crisis?” – finds education spending has dropped 25 per cent as a proportion of provincial Gross Domestic Product since 2001, the year the BC Liberals first formed government.
B.C. also has the second lowest per-student and per district funding in the country, with only Prince Edward Island spending less, the report finds, citing StatsCan data.
The Education Ministry disagrees. In an emailed statement, a ministry spokesperson who asked not to be identified challenged the finding that public education had fallen from 3.3 per cent of GDP in 2001 to 2.5 per cent this year.
The government changed the way it reported education spending prior to 2009, the spokesperson said, included debt-servicing costs and prepaid capital expenses that were shifted to the Finance Ministry budget in 2009.
The ministry was unable to provide its calculations of education spending that showed Hemingway’s were wrong. “We would need an advanced copy of the report with sources to analyze the numbers,” the spokesperson said.
But Hemingway said that the government’s own reports – specifically the 2013 and 2015 BC Financial and Economic Review and Budget 2016, all published long after any funding changes in 2009/10, were the basis of his report.
His report also analyzes operating grants to school districts, excluding capital costs, and found they declined from 2.8 per cent of GDP to 1.9 per cent between 2001 and 2016.
The ministry spokesman said enrolment has declined by about 10 per cent over the period.
But the report’s analysis of per-student funding does reflect enrolment declines.
It found British Columbia was outspent by every province in per pupil funding except PEI in the 2010/11 school year, the most recent for national statistics are available. Overall, B.C. spent $1,000 less per pupil than the national average that year.
Using other data, the report concludes B.C. public education spending increased by 5.6 per cent from 2009 to 2013, less than half the 12.3 per cent national average.
The report also challenged the argument about declining enrolment, calling the claim “a red herring.” All districts, including ones with increasing enrolments like Surrey, are facing funding shortfalls, it said.
“Where enrolments do decline, thousands of dollars are clawed back for each fewer student enrolled, but the operating costs of heating and keeping the lights on at a school with one fewer student stay largely the same, leaving a funding gap,” the report reads.
The Education Ministry also challenged the finding the province was spending the second lowest amount per-pupil in the country
The Statistics Canada data fails to consider the different ways provinces report spending, the spokesman said, adding the ministry does not like interprovincial comparisons for that reason.
Nevertheless, the government says its analysis shows the province only trails five provinces in its level of per student funding. “We stand by our numbers and the contention that the analysis presented in the report is flawed,” said the spokesperson.
Sixth place is nothing to crow about, Hemingway said.
“Being sixth out of 10 provinces... is not an achievement and does not address the cost pressures that the government has imposed on school districts in B.C., nor the reality on the ground,” he said.
The ministry should publish the numbers it’s using to make its claims, he said.
Hemingway said restoring education funding to match the share of GDP it had in 2001 would mean an extra $2 billion for schools, compared with the current $5.1 billion for public education.
He added school districts have been hurt not just by underfunding, but also by government decisions to download costs like Medical Services Plan premiums and BC Hydro bills.
Hemingway says the government could easily afford to restore education funding to its 2001 share of GDP by reversing tax cuts of the early 2000s.
The CCPA report also examines the requirement that the Vancouver School District work toward a 95 per cent capacity utilization, either by increasing enrolment or closing schools. The district is currently at 84.6 per cent and planning school closures.
The report echoes concerns that classrooms used for art and music and computer labs are counted as empty by the ministry.
The ministry says the study – and past media reports – were wrong and classrooms used for instruction in those subjects are counted as utilized.
But Hemingway says only classrooms designated for art, music or other uses in a school’s original facility plans are considered utilized by the ministry. With some Vancouver school buildings more than 100 years old – when computer labs were the stuff of science fiction – many classrooms won’t be counted, he said.
The report is meant to help parents, students and policy-makers decipher government-speak and look at the numbers on education funding, says Hemingway.
Yet if the ministry’s reaction to the report is any indication, this is a war of words, not numbers. One that’s likely to continue full force until the provincial election day next May.