Why the provincial government should stop bragging about K-12 education funding

August 24, 2016

For families getting ready to send their children back to underfunded and overcrowded classrooms, it’s no secret that BC’s public education system is stretched to the breaking point. Yet our Premier and Minister of Education like to brag that provincial education funding is at "record levels,” pointing the finger at local school boards as the culprits for school closures and other cutbacks. But the government’s claims simply don’t add up.

At least half of the province's school districts faced budget crises this spring, forced to make impossible trade-offs between shutting schools and axing vital programs and supports. These crises are the direct result of chronic underfunding by the provincial government, not a failure on the part of individual school boards.

Public funding for elementary and high school education in BC fell by 25% as a share of the province’s economic pie between 2001 and 2016 – from 3.3% of GDP to a projected 2.5% in 2016. BC has the second-lowest level of public education funding the country – nearly $1,000 per student below the national average. To top it off, hundreds of millions of public taxpayer dollars are diverted into private schools every year.

The provincial government has also fobbed off a whole array of rising costs to local school districts. These are costs the government largely controls but doesn’t provide sufficient funding to cover—including substantial increases in BC Hydro’s electricity rates, Medical Services Plan premiums, WorkSafeBC rates, and the carbon tax, along with provincially mandated computer network upgrades. 

When costs are increased without enough compensating dollars flowing into our schools, the system is left under enormous pressure. 

According to an estimate released under Freedom of Information legislation, cost pressures on school districts amounted to a province-wide total of $192 million over the 2012-13 to 2014-15 school years.

Even the legislature’s majority-Liberal Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services admits the funding shortfall in the public education system. In its recommendations the Committee recognizes that “additional funding is necessary to ensure the provision of quality public education and to properly meet the increased cost that schools are currently facing.” 

But the government has used all sorts of sleight-of-hand to obscure this fact.

Sometimes it points to a decline in overall school enrolment in BC. But the funding crunch has hit school districts with growing enrolment as well as those seeing declines. And government’s own data show that declining enrolment is largely a temporary issue, with an increase in enrolment of almost 40,000 students projected by 2024. 

The government also talks about the target of having schools 95% full, but many don’t realize that in their calculation, dedicated art, computer and music rooms are considered “empty.”

Back in the spring, the government announced $25 million in funding as a “reinvestment of administrative savings.” But the devil is in the details: the government had previously mandated $54 million in administrative cuts over two years, and the announcement simply scaled back part of the original cut. There was no new money at all there. 

There’s no question BC can afford to reinvest in public education. This year alone the provincial government declared a $730 million budget surplus, and stashed away another $300 million in a “prosperity fund.” It also sent over $310 million in public tax dollars to fund private schools – a practice opposed by three quarters of British Columbians, according to recent polling.

In fact, if we dedicated the same share of our economy (GDP) to public education today as we did 15 years ago, we’d have nearly another $2 billion at hand. That much additional funding might go beyond what’s necessary, but it tells us what’s in the realm of the possible.

The economic returns to education spending are also enormous and widely recognized. A strong public education system is not just "nice to have" – it's an essential, long-term investment that pays big social and economic dividends. Short-changing the system may yield some minor "saving" in the budget now, but only at a much larger long-run cost.

We also know from the education research that investment in smaller class sizes, for example, substantially improves outcomes for students overall – and helps disadvantaged students the most. In an era of growing inequality, education is one of the great remaining equalizers. 

The truth is that we could invest substantially more in public education in BC, but we—or rather our government leaders—choose not to. And it’s a choice that will cost us all. 

Alex Hemingway is the Public Finance Policy Analyst at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office. His work focuses on the state of BC’s public services, including education, healthcare, social services and regulation. He is the author of What's the real story behind BC’s education funding crisis? available at http://policynote.ca/education-crisis.