When the provincial budget dropped Feb. 28, many were surprised and disappointed to see that the province’s increased spending on social issues like housing, mental health and addictions treatment, and jobs training did not translate into more money for public schools.
The Education Ministry’s budget did increase by nearly two-thirds of a billion dollars, $625 million of that earmarked specifically for public schools — a “clearly sizable” budget increase of nearly 10 per cent over the 2022 budget, says John Malcolmson, a former research analyst for the BC Teachers’ Federation and CUPE.
But the majority of the new funding is already spoken for in terms of new costs school districts need to cover, not to mention high inflation on existing costs.
The Tyee spoke with Malcolmson, who serves as a board member at the Institute for Public Education and has been following public education spending for over 20 years, about what the budget means for public education in B.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: What are your thoughts on this budget?
John Malcolmson: There is a substantial increase in this budget in nominal current dollars. But when you look at the prior commitments in terms of covering off existing costs and inflationary increases, and begin to add in the anticipated cost of significant growth in student enrolments, and then the new initiatives, particularly the school meals plan, you come to the realization it was only about one in 10 new dollars of funding which is not encumbered.
That's quite consistent with the way things happened in the past. This is the first year we've had a very significant increase on the wage and salary side for many years, because we've had low inflation and government policy aimed to restrict the growth of wages and salaries. But it's also the first time we've had a significant anticipated salary increase, which this year will essentially add six and three quarters per cent onto the wages and salaries of just about everybody in the system.
My back of the envelope calculations suggested it would eat up probably over $360 million in new funding, in terms of actual wages. But there are many benefits paid to employees, which rise or increase stepwise with wages and salaries. That chews up the lion's share of the money.
What do you see as the biggest issues that come out of this budget?
Many of us, myself included, have long argued that our system is underfunded. I think we still face an underfunded system.
In previous times we had budgets which were underfunded. School boards had to scramble around and try to cut other discretionary areas of expenditure in order to meet fixed obligations that could not be cut back or adjusted.
What's distinctive this time is coming out of a COVID environment. Although I don't have hard data on this, I suspect in our K to 12 system, as is likely the case in many other areas, the COVID crisis triggered somewhat of an accelerated exodus in the system. People who were in a position to contemplate retirement or were making plans accelerated their plans if they were in a position to do that. We've had an exodus of people, I believe.
We're facing staffing recruitment and retainment problems.
In addition to the other challenges in the system, we now face this situation in K to 12 where different people who work in the system are questioning how safe and healthy their work environment is. What's going on with the air in my school, in my classroom? As it affects me, my students, my colleagues, and anyone else in and around the school system? And I think this is probably corroborated by the accounts of others: we face significant growth and morale problems within the system. Is the system healthy or not? It's very stressful to work in it.
We're facing, I would argue, similar dynamics in the health-care system, in post-secondary education and perhaps in a variety of other areas. But I think they're coming home to roost in K to 12.
There was a court case that the teachers won, I believe it was 2016, three to four years in advance of COVID. The overturning of the court case mandated government to repair the damage that had been done by overturning class size and composition language in teacher collective agreements. So, there were changes in policy and funding arrangements then, primarily to add over 3,000 new teachers, mostly intended to go back into the special education area in the public system. Districts have had a hard time meeting those goals. Some problems predate COVID.
The new variable in the mix is recruitment and retention problems, which, to some extent, have their origins in the underfunding situation that has long faced our system.
[Editor’s Note: The BC Teachers' Federation reports teacher retirement levels decreased in the last three years (2,804 teachers have retired since March 1, 2020) compared to the previous three-year period (3,172 teachers retired between March 1, 2017 and Feb. 29, 2020). However, the union does not track teachers leaving the profession to pursue another career.]
Are there ways in which this budget could improve things?
Well, I think the school meals initiative is a laudable one. That's something that poverty advocates have been talking about for a long time, and public schools have had meal and lunch programs for a number of years now. They've tended to be fairly small and carry rather modest cost obligations. They've also tended to be very targeted towards very specific lower income areas.
So given the evidence that exists, which shows very clearly you get worse learning outcomes when you have students who are hungry, I think this is a real opportunity to make some significant headway on that issue. I wholeheartedly applaud that initiative from the vantage point of providing support in the struggle against the effects of poverty, and in particular, the effects of poverty upon what students are able to accomplish in our schools.
Teachers and education assistants’ wages haven't kept up with the cost of living, even with these new increases for teachers. To your knowledge, how does this compare to other unionized professionals in the province?
Most of the negotiating mandates across the different sectors have been highly co-ordinated for many years through the Public Sector Employers' Council and through employer organizations like BC Public School Employers' Association, which answers to PSEC. I would suspect the extent that teachers and support staff are experiencing this in K to 12 is mirrored in the other professional areas, just by virtue of that reason.
How significant of a difference in the budget would it be if we stopped funding private schools?
We're approaching levels of almost half a billion dollars per year that goes towards the subsidy of the private system in this province. So these have become quite significant amounts of money over time.
Now, some of the arguments that are made — “Well, if we discontinued private school funding, then we'd have a flood of kids coming back into the public system, so the cost benefit of not providing money would be a wash, because we'd have all these new kids we'd have to pay for” — I suspect that's probably true for a portion. Although, I think there would be a significant portion of parents and kids in the private system who would want to remain because of philosophical or in some cases religious reasons, which are strong motivators for why they're in the private system to begin with.
So I think there would be a net benefit financially. But it wouldn't be dollar for dollar, because there would be some kids who would likely return to the public system.
The other piece, if we return to the underfunding theme for a minute, is the ministry policies — perhaps less so under the current government, but certainly under previous governments — that are meant to encourage school boards to become more entrepreneurial, in terms of their own capability for raising money. And the main expression of that is a very explosive growth in international student tuition for kids coming into the public system.
It's quite interesting — if one goes back three years ago, that was close to $260 million in international tuition. But one of the impacts of COVID was that the whole marketplace took a huge hit. In 2020-21 the tuition fell to $151 million — over $100 million lost in the space of one year. And 2021-22, it's bounced back a little bit to $212 million, a little more than half of the loss has been recouped. We don't have the numbers for 2022-23 yet.
But two points to be made: first of all, it's a very volatile market. And if anything COVID has shown the kind of immediate shock that can happen when you have a public health crisis like COVID. Students aren't able to travel internationally; those that are here in many cases are quite anxious to get back home.
But the other question is equity around the distribution of the money. Lower Mainland school districts account for approximately half of public school enrolment in the province. But they corralled amongst themselves over two thirds of the proceeds of international education. Not all boards of education have the capability of mounting these programs. And not all of them are really in a position to attract students and may find themselves being outcompeted by school districts elsewhere. We just imported the whole significant degree of inequality into the way we support our schools that is quite disturbing in terms of its implications.
You mentioned earlier an increase in the student population. In Vancouver every year we have a lottery for kindergarten spots, and kids are being waitlisted or sent to schools across town. Are you seeing that kind of front-end overpopulation in other districts?
I think we're probably seeing pockets of it. And we'll see pockets of it here in Vancouver, and probably smaller pockets of it the further one gets away from here. Population dynamics will vary depending upon a number of different variables. In Vancouver there's a certain amount of influx of people migrating here from international destinations, interprovincial migration or even internal provincial migration.
If you go out to other areas, population dynamics will be driven by perhaps more random variables: for example, there's a mill opening up or closing down. That will have a profound impact on a smaller community, and it will filter all the way down to the number of kids who show up when the school's open in the fall. As compared to a larger urban centre where those kinds of events don't have as profound an impact because they tend to get lost in the bigger context of economic change.
Bringing new school facilities online tends to be a multi-year process, governed by budgets, planning and other things: land acquisition, construction, whatever. So there will always be a certain amount of misalignment there, which is hard to predict and plan for. Maybe it's time we had a different system for how we allocate land for new schools that doesn't rely upon having to go out into the marketplace, that is perhaps more deeply built into the way in which our cities and towns are planned. Such that the opening of new subdivisions perhaps should include an automatic provision for some of the land being made available for public services like K to 12 schools. Just a thought.
How has education funding under the NDP differed from under the Liberals?
I think the Liberals tended to be more punitive in terms of looking at making policy or legal changes, ripping up collective agreement provisions. And also perhaps more restrictive in regards to the policy governing negotiations. The NDP, I think, have been a little more upfront in terms of saying, “Okay, if we have these cost pressures within the system, we're going to try to reflect that in the way in which the budgetary allocations are made.” That's a question of degree, as opposed to a qualitative question around how we are funding schools and at what level. But it is, I think, a perceptible difference.