Underfunding is a fact

As part of a continuing effort to focus on the facts regarding education funding, rather than spin and talking points, FACE founding member Jen Stewart sent this letter to the Globe and Mail in response to a recent article by Gary Mason.

Re: “Vancouver school board needs to face the facts about enrolment,” June 21, 2016 (*1)

I am a parent in Vancouver. I spend far more of my time than I should have to advocating for adequate funding for public education in BC, so I am familiar with the facts on this issue, and it pains me to see the Globe print a column such as Gary Mason’s, which omits key points and contains misleading figures. I hope you will consider printing what I have written below as a counterpoint to Mr. Mason’s opinion piece.

Mr. Mason’s column dismisses education underfunding as “a tiresome and misinformed trope”; as evidence, he cites a supposed $1 billion increase in education spending since 2001. This is misleading: Mr. Mason has clearly not adjusted for inflation so he is making a completely inaccurate comparison between 2001 and 2016. It is impossible to compare education funding across years unless you talk about constant dollars, adjusted for inflation.

I do not have the 2001 figures, but I do know this about how 2002 compares, after much back-and-forth discussion with the finance department of the Ministry of Education: After making adjustments to reflect the fact that the 2002 and 2016 budgets contained various amounts that have since been moved to other ministries or do not directly fund K-12 education, the amount allocated in the 2002 budget to the Ministry of Education was $4.297 billion dollars. That converts to $5.557 billion in 2016 dollars. The adjusted 2016 Ministry of Education budget is $5.565 billion— an increase of only $8 million or 0.1%.(*2)

Mr. Mason points to lower enrolment, but he does not point out the fact that boards’ costs have increased, even taking enrolment into account. In many years, the school districts’ budget has not been increased enough to cover inflation, let alone other costs imposed (but not funded) by the government, such as carbon offsets, pay increases, Hydro and ICBC rates, and MSP premiums. The BC Association of School Business Officials estimated in 2009 that districts faced $293 million in unfunded new costs, and in 2014 the same organization calculated that the districts had a cumulative total of $193 million unfunded cost pressures for school years 2012/13 to 2014/15.(*3) In other words, much more than a 0.1% funding increase could cover.

Mr. Mason refers to Prince George having to close 21 schools “to deal with funding issues it has faced,” but he leaves the reader hanging about the source of those funding issues, and whether closing those schools solved the issues. The answer is no, closures didn’t solve the problem. Prince George, like at least 30 other districts around the province, had to deal with an operating budget shortfall yet again this year. Prior to the government deciding not to go through with this year’s round of administrative cuts, Prince George’s shortfall was about $3 million for 2016/17; for the 31 districts it was about $85 million.(*4) And many of those districts have been through years of school closures, as Mr. Mason points out. Several of them, such as Surrey and Sooke, have shortfalls despite growing enrolment.

The source of these shortfalls is underfunding. The government has not been allocating enough money to boards to cover their increased operating costs discussed earlier (to say nothing of their capital costs) and so boards need to make cuts every year. This is a fact acknowledged by the Legislative Finance Committee, which consists of BC Liberal and NDP MLAs, and which unanimously approved a conclusion that “additional funding is necessary to ensure the provision of quality public education and to properly meet the increased costs that schools are currently facing.”(*5)

In order to provide stable, predictable, adequate funding for education, the Finance Committee recommended a review of the funding model for education. The current per-pupil model has severe deficiencies: it is unstable, does not address the fixed costs of providing education, and essentially punishes children who happen to live in districts with declining enrolment. The BC School Trustees Association has called on the government many times to create a funding model that allows districts to make long-term strategic plans that meet students’ needs,(*6) and the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils has characterized the current model as “broken” and “in need of a complete overhaul.”(*7)

Yet Mr. Mason doesn’t mention any of this in his column; I guess including facts like this would have made it harder for him to dismiss underfunding as “a misinformed trope” about which the VSB is “whining.” I wish he was right, but parents all over BC know that underfunding is a fact. We also know that our kids, our future, deserve better. They deserve the stable, predictable, adequate funding that the Legislative Finance Committee recommended.

Jennifer Stewart

Co-founder, Families Against Cuts to Education (facebc.wordpress.com); member, Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education (panvancouver.ca)

You can find this letter in pdf format here.

*6 Letter from BCSTA president to Premier Clark, dated June 16, 2016. (https://twitter.com/rparmarSD62/status/743658104361910273)
*7 BCCPAC media release, dated June 20, 2016. (https://twitter.com/FACE_BC/status/745052535396831232)