Study says Nova Scotia education system spends 15% less per child than national average
By Jeffrey Simpson, Chronicle-Herald Staff writer 

Nova Scotia spends less per student than any other province or territory when it comes to public schools, a study released Thursday says.

The province spent $7,200 per student compared with a national average of $8,504 in 2003-04, Statistics Canada determined after compiling data from 1997-98 to 2003-04.

But Charles Cirtwill, vice-president of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, said the amount of money might not be the most problematic of the report’s findings.

“It’s time to start talking about what we’re spending money on and not talking about how much money we’re actually spending,” Mr. Cirtwill said in an interview.

In the Yukon, expenditures equalled $15,000 per student and in the Northwest Territories it was over $13,000, while Manitoba, Ontario and Alberta each spent over $8,500.

When looking at total expenditures per capita of provincial and local governments, Nova Scotia also lagged behind the rest of the country – $1,140 compared with the national average of $1,332.

Despite spending less per student, the study indicated Nova Scotia was increasing its per capita spending at a more rapid pace than other provinces and spending a greater percentage of its gross domestic product than provinces such as Quebec, Ontario and those in Western Canada, Mr. Cirtwill said.

“We’re spending faster than Ontario and British Columbia,” Mr. Cirtwill said. “The growth trends seem to indicate we’re spending hand over fist.”

Yet pupils in the province aren’t benefiting as much as they should, which is a greater concern than how the province compares to others in totals, he said.

“We’re, quite honestly, not getting a return on those dollars,” he said, adding that standardized test scores in several areas have remained the same or worsened in recent years.

The Education Department’s budget for 2006-07 is $1.37 billion, $85 million more than last year. The study noted that comparisons between jurisdictions should take into account factors such as the size of the school-age population or declining enrolment, in which case education departments could face pressure to reduce program spending.

“In Nova Scotia, every single year, there’s been a decrease in the school-age population,” said Patric Blouin, one of the report’s authors.

The report also found that enrolment is down at Nova Scotia’s schools. Between 1997-98 and 2003-04, the number of students registering at public schools in the province was down by about eight per cent. Nationally, there was a drop of 1.2 per cent.

Statistics Canada attributed this trend to migration to other provinces, an aging population and the fact the children of baby boomers are now starting their post-secondary education.

The ratio of students per educator also decreased by 1.7 between over the years examined by the study, to 16 from 17.2, in Nova Scotia, which is in line with the national average.

But this has nothing to do with class size and doesn’t mean the province hired more teachers to improve classroom conditions, Mr. Blouin said. Casey pointed out in a news release that despite the province’s last-place ranking in per student expenditures, that figure reached $8,217 in 2006-07.

“We believe that the increase in high school graduations and the pupil-to-educator ratios are good measures of the quality of an education system, and this report shows that Nova Scotia is doing well,” Ms. Casey said.

NDP education critic Bill Estabrooks says Ms. Casey in wrong to think everything’s fine with the province’s schools.

“She’s truly dreaming in Technicolor,” Mr. Estabrooks said. “There are a lot of challenges there, and coming out with this endorsement of the system, that’s not how to solve the problem. There’s no doubt we need more bang for our buck.”

Liberal MLA Diana Whalen accused the education minister of trying to gloss over problems.

“We’re still at the bottom of the pack,” Ms. Whalen said of per pupil funding. “And I don’t think that is doing justice to our students.”