When it comes to education, New Brunswick taxpayers are not getting good value for their money.
The province has been among the highest spenders in Atlantic Canada on individual students in elementary and secondary schools over the last 15 years, while at the same time underperformed on academic tests compared to neighbouring jurisdictions.
To make matters worse, New Brunswick no longer requires students to take standardized high school examinations, an important measurement tool. How can the province properly assess its educational spending without a clear picture of its academic results?
Charles Cirtwell, the CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, is critical of special interest groups that constantly demand more money be spent on education. What’s more important, he argues, is how taxpayers’ money is spent. For instance, where is the evidence that spending more money on professional development days for teachers improves learning in the classroom? Where is the proof that having more administrators in district offices results in better student test scores?
Although he’s a fiscal conservative, Cirtwell is also critical of the Alward government’s approach to putting in across-the-board cuts of two per cent in education over the next three years. He believes this will encourage administrators to cut important and popular programs, a political ploy that could create a backlash against policy makers.
While this is no doubt a risk, and the province is encumbered by too many school districts that should eventually be consolidated, there is a simpler solution over the short term.
Already, the Department of Education has provided advice to recalcitrant administrators, such as the bureaucrats running School District 1, showing where it could save money without hurting students. The Department of Education could also step in if it realizes that local administrators are cutting programs or services that are essential for better academic results. The two per cent formula over three years should only be a starting point. We are encouraged by Premier David Alward’s comments that he won’t let the education department slide back to old ways, even if the province’s finances suddenly turn around. In a well-run business, executives are constantly looking at results and devising ways to make operations more streamlined and efficient. The same should be true with bureaucrats in a any government department: Programs and services should be routinely reviewed to make sure money is being spent wisely.
The cutbacks demanded by the Alward government is a wake-up call to bureaucrats that paying big money for mediocre results is no longer acceptable in New Brunswick.
The challenge before New Brunswick is to spend less on education and come up with better results. One step would be to standardize more tests, so that the province can properly measure what students are learning and compare it to other jurisdictions. The other important step, already partially underway, is to challenge administrators to do better.