Education: New Brunswick spends more on individual students than neighbouring provinces, but test scores remain low

New Brunswick has been consistently among the biggest spenders in Atlantic Canada for each student, while the other jurisdictions have regularly out-performed this province in academic tests.

It is this fact that perhaps best illustrates the conundrum the provincial government is facing as it moves ahead with its plan to trim its education budget two per cent for each of the next three years.

On the one side of the problem is the government’s need to address New Brunswick’s undeniably worrisome financial outlook, which includes an increase to the province’s debt of $448.8 million for 2011-12 alone. The accumulated debt is already well over $9 billion.

On the other side is students and the concern that cutting education funding will hurt them.

Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an economic and social policy think-tank, refutes the notion that education is a sacred cow that should never be cut.

The fact of the matter, he said, is the evidence has shown “quite unequivocally that how much you spend on education isn’t as relevant as what you spend it on.”

It’s reasonable to say that over the last 15 years, New Brunswick has been among “the highest spenders in Atlantic Canada” in terms of its per-student expenditures for elementary and secondary education, while at the same time, consistently under-performed in academic tests compared to other provinces, he said.

For literacy tests in particular, New Brunswick’s performance has historically been among the poorest in the country.

Recent Statistics Canada data reveals that New Brunswick spent more per student for elementary and secondary school education than any other province in Atlantic Canada in 2002-03, 2004-05, 2005-06 and 2006-07. Newfoundland and Labrador outspent New Brunswick in 2002-03, 2007-08 and 2008-09.

The Progressive Conservative government’s target to reduce spending by two per cent this year and for every year of its mandate has raised the ire of school districts across New Brunswick. Several have gone public about the difficulties they will have to meet such a target and have announced plans to cut mentor positions, community school co-ordinators and learning specialists.

In the case of District 1, there has been outright resistance to the government’s plan to cut spending. Meanwhile, a member of the District 11 education council has resigned in protest of the budget cuts.

On Friday in the legislature, Education Minister Jody Carr said the government is working to tackle the province’s “serious financial challenges” head-on and to deliver the cuts in a way that has the least “impact on the classroom.” He said the government plans to target the cuts on the administrative side of education as opposed to classroom instruction.

“We are sorry that there will not be as much at the district offices or at the office in Fredericton, but there will be more in the classroom,” he told the legislature. “We are minimizing the impact on people.”

Still, the exact nature of the cuts and where the district offices will find the efficiencies they’ve been directed to seek largely remain unknown. The potential impact in the school system continues to be a large concern.

Dale Kirby, assistant education professor at Newfoundland’s Memorial University, described New Brunswick’s plan to cut education funding as “foolhardy” and “shortsighted.”

He said two per cent of the overall budget is “a lot of money” and cautioned governments to be careful when deciding to reduce education funding.

“There may be ways to re-allocate resources within the system and I would advocate doing that instead of cutting,” he said. “There may be ways to trim from one area and put it into another area…there’s always efficiencies to find within, but if you start cutting and hacking, you immediately get peoples’ backs up.”

Kirby cited how former Ontario premier Mike Harris cut “what the Ontario Conservatives called non-classroom expenditures” back in the late 1990s, but still these cuts resulted in many music programs and sports teams going by the wayside.

Harris, who was recently named chairman of Magna International, declined a request for an interview on the subject of education cuts.

But Cirtwill, the think-tank president, said there is a right way and a wrong way to reduce costs.

Across-the-board cutting, he said, in terms of a specific percentage target is “the worst possible way to go through a right-sizing or a downsizing.” He urges governments to first “prioritize” what programs and costs they need to keep most before deciding to reduce costs in areas considered not as important – an exercise he says that will also cost money.

“We think that we can take out the chainsaw and cut off two, five or 10 per cent and everybody is happy,” he said. “It’s costs money to shed things. It’s going to cost money to identify what things need to be shed. It’s going to cost money to transition the people who are inevitably going to lose their jobs.”

But Cirtwill cautions that leaving the cutting up to the local education districts is a way to make “the situation worse” because the administrators “cut the things they know people are the most passionate about with the underwritten intention to avoid cuts entirely.

“The problem will come in New Brunswick is they follow the recent example of Nova Scotia and we get into an exercise where instead of cutting what can go, what tends to happen in these exercises is the local administrators pick the hot-button things – things that they know are going to irritate and agitate the general populous,” he said.

Cirtwill said there’s always room to find savings.

“Yes it’s achievable, but it means the public is going to have to lower its expectations or they have to recognize those expectations come with a dollar sign, a higher cost and that means higher taxes,” he said.

Cirtwill also said “the challenge is to look back at the last time New Brunswick went through this and whether they did it well or whether they did it badly and to learn from that – I would suggest that the last time you did it badly.”

He highlighted a series of cuts that began under the Bernard Lord government nearly a decade ago, including the elimination of all the standardized provincial high school exams for anglophones and all but one for francophones, as well as the decision to move away from local school boards to district education councils.

Cirtwill said New Brunswick’s performance in national and international academic assessments in recent years has either “stagnated or actually slipped a little” and while it’s difficult to point to the cuts to provincial exams as having a “direct” impact on test scores, “one can say that their elimination is in contravention of evidence showing that testing and releasing the information publicly creates better schools.”

Cutting external assessment of students and reducing local control are two things the government “shouldn’t be messing with,” he said.