Seeing through the spin on public education spending

We think it is vitally important for the citizens of BC to demand accuracy and accountability from our elected representatives, so we were very glad to hear some education funding statements fact-checked on CBC Radio recently, and we hope to see and hear more media fact-checking in the future. In the meantime, here’s a little of our own fact-checking:

Statement #1: “110 million extra dollars to education this year”

This statement was made by MLA Dan Ashton and was analyzed by the CBC in its fact-checking segment; education minister Mike Bernier used the same wording in a different CBC interview. Presumably what this number refers to is the “total” line for the education budget (exclusive of capital spending), which is approximately $110 million more in 2016 than it was in 2015. What the MLA and the minister didn’t mention is that $48 million of that “extra” money is going to “independent” (private) schools and $36 million of it is going to “other partners” (eg, public libraries).

Public schools operational funding (instruction, administration, Learning Improvement Fund) is being increased by only $28 million. That is a less than 1% increase over last year, which amounts to a cut because inflation is 1.9%. (Not to mention more costs have been added; see Statement #2.)

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Statement #2: “These are local decisions.”

When faced with pleas to save a school or program, provincial politicians often distance themselves by saying these are “local decisions” to be made by the boards.

Yes, the difficult decisions regarding which schools to close and which programs to cut are made by the local school board, but the larger context cannot be ignored: the cuts are necessary because of provincial decisions. The provincial government controls the school boards’ funding and, to a large degree, the costs that boards face. Every time the province raises Hydro rates, MSP rates, ICBC rates, etc., and doesn’t increase education funding proportionately, that amounts to a cut to boards’ budgets. Additionally, the provincial government has a history of making spending decisions (for example, negotiating wage increases with employees, or constructing the Next Generation Network) and then pushing those costs onto the boards without increasing funding. The provincial pattern of downloading costs and not increasing funding is detailed in this letter written by School District 5 and this statement by School District 28.

Statement #3: “The Vancouver and Saanich school districts are the only ones facing a budget shortfall.”

The Times Colonist quoted education minister Mike Bernier saying this on May 14, 2016. By that date, FACE already had 30 districts on our shortfall list, with a combined shortfall of over $84 million. The only thing unique about Vancouver and Saanich was that those trustees had put their foot down about making cuts to cover their shortfalls.

*New* Statement #4: Cuts and closures are necessary “due to declining enrolment.”

Provincial politicians often cite “declining enrolment” as a reason that boards need to close schools or make cuts. This implies that enrolment growth would solve the problem.

However, even districts with growing enrolment, such as Surrey, Sooke, and Maple Ridge, are facing operating budget shortfalls. So enrolment growth on its own is no magic bullet, and the per-pupil amount of funding is clearly insufficient to cover costs. (The per-pupil funding model has many drawbacks: it is unpredictable and punishes kids in districts with declining enrolment, but that is a discussion for another post.)

Context is key

We will keep checking the education funding facts, because it is important for citizens to have correct information. Without context, background, and accuracy, numbers are essentially meaningless.

For more context, questions, and answers, look here.


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