By Charles Cirtwill

Just under a billion dollars, according to Statistics Canada – that is how much New Brunswick spent in 2003-2004 on primary and secondary education. That’s an 18 per cent increase in annual expenditures from 1997 to 2004.

At the same time spending was going up, enrolments were going down. There were 13,000 fewer students in 2004 than there were in 1997. So, if increasing per-pupil funding was the key to improved student performance, New Brunswick should be flying high.

Yet in the latest round of PISA testing (the Program of International Student Assessment) New Brunswick ranked ninth out of 10 provinces. Three years before that, New Brunswick was dead last.

This lagging performance carries forward into the adult population as well. On the most recent International Assessment of Adult Literacy, fully 56 per cent of New Brunswickers could read only at the lowest two levels. Far worse than the national average.

But it can be argued that these are relative measures, and relatively speaking New Brunswick, while spending more than the rest of Atlantic Canada and Saskatchewan, spends less than the other provincial high flyers. So presumably, performance should be lower than those who spend more.

I don’t buy it.

First, not only does New Brunswick’s performance lag those that outspend it, it also generally lags those that it outspends. Second, in 2003-2004 expenditures, per student, grew faster in New Brunswick than any other province, and its spending on education as a per cent of provincial GDP is actually the second highest in the country.

Furthermore, the relative decline in student performance is accompanied by an absolute one as well. Consider that in 2004 only 49 per cent of French 16-year-olds and 62 per cent of English 16-year-olds were meeting national expectations in science, a seven percentage point drop for English students and an 11 point decline for French ones over their 1999 levels. The decline in performance for 13-year-olds is actually a bit worse.

Then consider the equivocal performance on provincial tests. The last round of high school provincial assessments for English students showed declines in all subjects except English 111/112. The ongoing francophone high school exams show students holding their own or improving slightly in math and French, but they are holding their own at the low to mid 60s. On the 2003-2004 elementary assessments, only 42 per cent of students in Grade 2 were meeting the provincial standard in writing, although they do better in reading with only one third of them not meeting the standard.

On every measure, provincial, national and international, results have stagnated or gotten worse while spending has increased. It is time to stop focusing on how many dollars are being spent and to start focusing on what is being done with them, because so far it isn’t working.

Charles Cirtwill is Vice President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and co-author of the annual AIMS High School Report Card.