The myth of public education spending cuts in Alberta

Spending way up but student performance down

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EDMONTON, CALGARY OUT

By Deani Van Pelt
and Jason Clemens
The Fraser Institute

VANCOUVER, BC, Feb 16, 2015/ Troy Media/ – It’s budget season in Edmonton but Premier Jim Prentice has already announced a 5 per cent across-the-board reduction in program spending to help deal with an expected $7 billion-plus deficit.

Of course, those who benefit from the status quo will vigorously oppose any spending reductions. However, understanding where the province has been, and how it arrived at its current precarious financial position, is critical to getting the future right.

Public education spending important

Spending on K-12 education, the second largest envelope of spending in Alberta, can rightly been seen as an important investment for the next generation. It provides the building blocks for a prosperous and opportunities-oriented society.

There are, however, two prominent myths related to education spending that cloud both the past and future.

public education
Alberta students’ performance in decline

The first myth is that Alberta students have suffered from spending cuts in education. According to Statistics Canada data, between 2001-02 and 2011-12, the most recent years available, spending on public schools in Alberta increased from $4.1 billion to $7.8 billion – an increase of 92.4 per cent. When price changes (inflation) are considered, the increase is 48 per cent. No other province increased education spending on public schools as much as Alberta during this period.

Total spending on education, however, does not account for changes in student enrollment, and is therefore an incomplete way of thinking about education spending. After all, if a jurisdiction increases education spending, but simultaneously experiences a larger proportional increase in the student population, it can actually be cutting per student spending. Alternatively, a jurisdiction with a declining enrollment could actually reduce total education spending but still increase per student spending. A recent study calculated the per student levels of education spending over the last decade.

Alberta was the only province to experience an increase in public school enrolment over the period 2001-02 to 2011-12 – from 548,100 to 577,800 students, a 5.4 per cent increase.

Meanwhile, Alberta per student spending increased 82.5 per cent – from $7,396 to $13,497 per student, the highest per student spending in the country in 2011-12.

The second myth: that there’s a consistent relationship between education spending and education results. In this simple world, all you have to do to improve education is spend more on it. It’s a simplistic way to think about inputs and outputs, and it’s quite incorrect.

In reality, increased spending is not necessarily associated with increases in achievement. Performance scores collected by the OECD’s Programme for Student Assessment (PISA), for example, show a worrying decline in performance from 2000 to 2012 for Alberta students. Average scores declined in math from 547 to 517, in reading from 550 to 529, and in science from 546 to 539.

Key to better public education spending is about spending wisely

Indeed, a growing body of research demonstrates that it’s far more important to focus on how money is spent rather than worrying about the total amount spent. The key to better education isn’t spending more – it’s spending wisely.

As Alberta prepares to deliver its budget, and concerned parents and citizens brace themselves for what will be a difficult budget, it’s important to note that, contrary to the rhetoric, spending on public education in Alberta has increased dramatically over the last decade and that increased spending hasn’t translated into better education results. The focus should be on reform – how we spend on education, and how we deliver that education to students. Not on simply worrying about increasing the amount we spend.

Deani Van Pelt is Director of the Barbara Mitchell Centre for Improvement in Education. Jason Clemens is Executive Vice President at the Fraser Institute.

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