ENOUGH already. Nova Scotia’s education elites have launched a campaign called Save Grade 2 to fend off supposedly impending cuts to education budgets. They argue that these cuts would cause immeasurable harm to education in Nova Scotia. Of course, they also say that these cuts would come on the heels of years of doing more with less. The problem is, education funding has been going up and up and up.
According to the Department of Education, school board spending went from $725 million in 1996-97 to $1.038 billion in 2006-2007. Statistics Canada verifies this trend, saying our total per-pupil funding has climbed from $5,120 in 1996-97 to $9,409 in 2006-07. Even if you adjust for inflation, because a dollar today doesn’t buy what a dollar bought even 10 years ago, we find that over this same period our real education spending has still increased by almost 50 per cent.
What has also been rising during that time is the cost of regional board management, the number of teachers, the number of system consultants, and the average income of teachers. What has been declining is student enrolment. Again according to Statistics Canada, and looking at ’96-97 to ’06-07, our enrolment has fallen from 163,941 to 138,661 while our number of educators has risen from 9,712 to 9,931. The result is our pupil-teacher ratio has fallen from 17.5 students for every educator to 14.4.
So, more money, more teachers and fewer students, with limited results. One begins to see where the real crisis lies.
I say limited results because the objective evidence we have about the effectiveness of our schools is mixed, at best. National and international tests consistently show our Nova Scotia students well below national averages most of the time. By playing with the numbers and ignoring other provinces or other areas of the world, we can, on occasion, create glimpses of progress. Even our own provincial exams report a dismal history of helping our kids learn.
It is not surprising, then, that private and home schooling have increased by 40 per cent during this time, that university professors and employers alike bemoan the quality of our graduates, or that our adult illiteracy rate is among Canada’s worst.
This brings us nicely back to saving Grade 2, and the final problem with the proposals that have been put forward to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. The final problem is that the glossy ads and dire warnings are not meant to save Grade 2; they are meant to scare us into coughing up even more money than we already have.
The Save Grade 2 crowd admitted early on (not right away, but early on) that Grade 2 is indeed not at risk. The warning is just an eye-popping way to get people’s attention. Regrettably, having admitted that they were in it to scare us, they then proceeded to offer further, similarly inflammatory, suggestions about dire consequence if they do not get their way: widespread cuts to teaching positions, increased class sizes or double-grade classes, cuts to the literacy program, cuts to the textbook budgets, school closures, etc.
Why these suggestions and not ideas like eliminating the Nova Scotia School Boards Association itself? The NSSBA spends around $650,000 a year to basically deliver common purchasing services that could easily be delivered by existing staff at the department.
Better still, why are we not having a serious conversation about eliminating the school boards? The boards spent $35.5 million in 2006-2007 on “regional board management” — that’s overhead, not busing or cleaning or teaching, just “managing.”
New Zealand runs an entire country without boards. In fact, we too started down that road in Nova Scotia with every school having its own local School Advisory Council to work with the principal to manage the school. So we built a new level of management and then forgot to eliminate the existing ones — oops.
Not that bold? How about just reducing the number of boards? Between them, Edmonton public and Edmonton Catholic school boards have basically the same number of students as all of Nova Scotia: Two boards instead of eight — I’ll take it.
Especially since it means less administration, fewer people looking over teachers’ shoulders and more money for direct classroom support. Oh, and better, not worse, education for our kids.
Charles Cirtwill is president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies ( www.AIMS.ca), an independent, non-partisan public policy think tank in Halifax. This year, AIMS will publish its eighth report card on Atlantic Canadian high schools.