Feeding the education machine has a way of calming the waters. By investing $24.5 million more into the Nova Scotia school system, the Liberal government honoured its election commitment, placated the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, and elicited barely a peep out of the core P-12 education interests.

Increasing education funding to $1.244 billion in 2015-16 (a two per cent increase) was also such “good news” that it completely escaped in-depth post-budget analysis. That included CBC TV News analyst Graham Steele who, as NDP finance minister just four years ago, confronted the same spending conundrum and embarked on a completely different course of action.

Back in 2012, Mr. Steele was championing “Back to Balance” and that included the education sector. While pointing out that Nova Scotia’s per pupil spending would rise to $10,457, the highest ever, his budget booklet contained this stark assessment: “(Student) assessments show we are losing ground in fundamental skills such as math, reading and writing, Previous governments spent more and more money on fewer students, yet results did not improve.”

Compare that appraisal with the one rendered in Myra Freeman’s October 2014 Education Review report. Nothing has really changed with regard to students’ mastery of basic skills, but now investing more money is once again the answer to that problem.  Elections, it seems, have a way of re-arranging the facts. A deeply ingrained “learning-support” philosophy runs through the entire system. For every problem, there is a provincial or board-wide solution with a price tag.

Policy-makers in Nova Scotia and elsewhere talk about doing more with less, but — for the most part — have given up on applying that approach in the P-12 education sector. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they have not succeeded in implementing significantly more productive or cost-effective models, even though education spending continues to outpace both GDP growth and inflation.

The two most recent Nova Scotia education reviews, Ben Levin (2011) and Myra Freeman (2014), reached essentially the same conclusion. So far, student performance levels have not responded to providing more resource teachers, more learning supports and more education assistants. Labour-intensive public sector services, like education and health, gobble up more and more tax revenues while the population declines, and it’s hard to see any improvement in quality of service, productivity, or measurable outcomes. It’s known as Baumol’s Disease, in honour of William Baumol, a renowned Princeton economist, who provided the first diagnosis in the 1960s.

Will investing some $17.5 million more in schools finally produce the desired results? That depends upon where it is being invested and whether the programs are better than their predecessors. The lion’s share of the proposed increase ($7 million) goes to hiring more teachers to implement elementary class size caps, impacting mostly fast-growing suburban schools. It would, of course, be far better spent targeting high-needs classrooms in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Spreading $3 million out to improve mathematics performance in some 400 schools sounds like a stretch, and pumping $973,000 more into existing early literacy programs will not make much of a difference. Only a research-based set of completely reinvented early math and literacy programs spearheaded by new consultants will turn this situation around. Investing $1.3 million more in community-based early intervention programs, a move lauded by Autism Nova Scotia, is a very positive step forward, serving more kids with complex needs. Yet it’s also strangely at odds with the overall approach to Student Equity and Support Services, which was cut by $330,000 in the budget.

Most of the provincial initiatives are, in fact, extensions of NDP government programs, including $2.7 million for the Early Years, and yet another $500,000 for four new SchoolsPlus sites. Most of the Early Years top-up goes to adding seven new department staff. We are still awaiting an independent assessment of the actual impact SchoolsPlus is having on “at risk” children and their families.

All of this program spending is just a pittance compared to the potential cost of paying increased teacher salaries, benefits and pensions. Over 70 per cent of the total budget will be determined by salary contracts, principally with teachers. We already know that $69.4 million will be spent in matching contributions for teacher pensions, some $7.5 million (12.1 per cent) more than 2014-15.

An American Education Sector report aptly titled “Frozen Assets” released back in January 2007 identified the eight most important hidden-cost provisions: graduated step salary increases, credential salary upgrades, professional development days, paid sick days, class-size limitations, mandatory teachers’ aides, premium health/insurance benefits, and defined benefit pension plans.

The stakes are high going into the upcoming round of Nova Scotia teacher salary negotiations. Based upon U.S. research findings, these eight key salary provisions add up to almost 20 per cent of all primary and secondary school spending. That’s about $200 million in Nova Scotia dollars. With that much on the table, the coming education sector negotiations will determine the success of the intended Liberal provincial strategy of curtailing spending. The true route “Back to Balance” runs through the coming collective bargaining round with teachers and education staff.

Paul W. Bennett is director of Schoolhouse Consulting and adjunct professor of education, Saint Mary’s University. He is an author and regular contributor to AIMS. Article originally published in the Chronicle Herald.