B.C. government wants to fix a school system that isn’t broken

B.C. students lead Canada in student performance in several areas while keeping per-student costs in public schools among the lowest in the country

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By Ben Eisen
and Angela MacLeod
The Fraser Institute

Are British Columbia’s schools really “starved” for resources?

After a close election and lengthy period of uncertainty, New Democratic Leader John Horgan and his cabinet have been sworn into office. Former NDP leader Carole James is the province’s new finance minister and former education critic Rob Fleming is B.C.’s new education minister.

While there are always challenges to be addressed, Fleming and James have inherited portfolios that are in comparatively good shape.

B.C.’s students perform very well on international standardized tests and lead Canada in student performance in several areas. This has been achieved while keeping per-student public school costs among the lowest in the country.

Ben Eisen

And B.C.’s finances are among the most sound in Canada – the province is projecting a fourth operating surplus and maintains a relatively small public debt burden. The comparatively low per-student costs in B.C. schools contribute to the province’s fiscal success.

In most areas of economic life, it’s common sense that combining high performance with low costs is a positive outcome. And so it should be in government. It’s worrying, however, that the NDP and Green Party coalition often speak as though the province’s comparatively low costs in public education are a problem that must be solved rather than an advantage that has helped keep the budget balanced.

The NDP campaign platform claimed that then-premier Christy Clark’s Liberal government “starved” the province’s public schools. Meanwhile, the Greens accused the Liberals of “chronic underfunding” of the public education system. Both imply the education system needs more money in order to serve students better.

According to historical data, claims that the province’s education system is starved for resources and are chronically underfunded are just hyperbole. The province has actually increased education spending in recent years, not removed money from the system as such claims suggests. Between 2004-05 and 2013-14 – the last year for which data is available – education spending grew from $5.3 billion to $6.4 billion. And this spending growth occurred as public school enrolment declined by 9.5 per cent.

Angela MacLeod

So the province is spending more money on fewer students. Per student, inflation-adjusted spending in public schools increased by 18.3 per cent from 2004-05 to 2013-14.

It’s difficult to describe this increase as starving the public school system, especially when it’s been sufficient to deliver excellent student performance. Some provinces, such as Alberta, have increased spending considerably faster than B.C., without clear evidence of positive impacts on student performance. What’s more, the more modest rate of spending growth in B.C. in this large area of expenditure is one of many reasons the province’s budget is in better shape than Alberta’s.

Keeping up with expenditures in other provinces is not a good enough reason to increase education spending. Instead, it’s important for the new government to clearly articulate the gains in student outcomes they hope to achieve from additional spending and present a plan to measure whether the extra money leads to better results.

If the allocation of more money simply means increased staff compensation (which already consumes the majority of all education spending) and no additional gains in student outcomes, it would be hard to see how the increased spending would benefit B.C. students or taxpayers.

B.C. enjoys one of the strongest performing education systems, and soundest public finances, in Canada. These advantages are important for the province’s long-term growth prospects and economic well-being.

The province’s mix of comparatively moderate education spending and excellent student results is an advantage to be maintained and consolidated – not a problem to be solved.

Ben Eisen is director of provincial prosperity studies at the Fraser Institute and Angela Macleod is an analyst with the Fraser Institute’s Barbara Mitchell Centre for Improvement in Education.

Ben and Angela are Troy Media contributors. Why aren’t you?

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Ben Eisen

Ben Eisen is a Senior Fellow in Fiscal and Provincial Prosperity Studies and former Director of Provincial Prosperity Studies at the Fraser Institute. He holds a BA from the University of Toronto and an MPP from the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. Prior to joining the Fraser Institute Mr. Eisen was the Director of Research and Programmes at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax. He also worked for the Citizens Budget Commission in New York City, and in Winnipeg as the Assistant Research Director for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Mr. Eisen has published influential studies on several policy topics, including intergovernmental relations, public finance, and higher education policy.

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