Nova Scotia still spends less per student on education than most other provinces do, but the education minister says that’s because the province is making the most of its money.

A Statistics Canada study released Thursday shows Nova Scotia provided $7,728 for each student during the 2004-05 school year, compared to an average expenditure of $9,040 across the country. Nova Scotia beat out Prince Edward Island ($7,583) for total dollars doled out, moving this province from the lowest spender per student in 2003-04 to the second-lowest spender per student the next year.

Those numbers are proof that “our education system is very cost-effective,” said Education Minister Karen Casey.

“Other jurisdictions may have higher per-pupil expenditures, but that does not always translate into the in-class improvements we have seen in our province,” she said in a news release Thursday.

“Per-pupil expenditures also include non-classroom-related costs such as transportation and heating, which can vary greatly from province to province to territory.”

Ms. Casey also pointed out that ’04-’05 marked the second year of her department’s “long-term education vision” dubbed Learning for Life.

That campaign has so far resulted in more than a million new books and thousands of computers being added to classrooms and hundreds of new teachers joining the public school system, she said.

But education critics aren’t convinced. Liberal MLA Leo Glavine said Thursday there are some strengths in Nova Scotia’s school system but also plenty of problems that provincial cash hasn’t addressed. Those challenges include low math scores and skills, unacceptable dropout rates among students in their early teens, high student-teacher ratios and lack of services for special-needs students, Mr. Glavine said.

“Talking about how much money is put into the system, ticking a few statistic areas, doesn’t address a system that has a whole number of deficits,” he said. The Kings West MLA also emphasized that most of the additional money in Nova Scotia’s education budget this year was directed toward post-secondary spending, not public schools.

The Education Department’s budget for 2007-08 is $1.5 billion, which represents a jump of $73.2 million from last year. New Democrat Bill Estabrooks said Thursday that moving one rung up the ladder from last to second-last in spending per student doesn’t suggest a lot of improvement.

“You’ve got to put the money in the right place to make sure that these children, as they proceed through the school system, get the full bang for their buck,” the Timberlea Prospect MLA said.

“I don’t think we’ve got a lot to brag about.”

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said the latest Statistics Canada numbers don’t reveal any real change.

“Our number of students is going down, our per-pupil spending is going up and our performance doesn’t indicate that new spending is having any impact,” he said Thursday.

Statistics Canada analyst Patrick Blouin co-authored the research paper, which compares the 2004-05 data, the most recent available, with numbers as far back as 1997-98.

Mr. Blouin said it’s important to take into account the differences among jurisdictions when comparing dollars and cents.