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Rise in B.C. government K-12 spending 'astounding,' says UBC researcher

A recent study says K-12 funding was 250% higher in 2020 than it was in 1970, but the president of the teachers' union says 'the idea that schools are running at anything less than a shoestring is inaccurate.'
Classroom with young children COVID
The idea that the education system is bloated doesn’t add up with what Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, see in the classroom.

British Columbia’s spending on K-12 schools has surged in recent decades in what one UBC researcher describes as an “astounding” uptick despite changes in government. 

According to a new UBC study, the province’s education budget has more than doubled since 1970. After adjusting for inflation, the $315 million spent in 1970 would work out to $2.1 billion in 2020 dollars. In reality, the province spent $5.3 billion last year, more than two and a half times the money spent 50 years ago.

“There are many claims that school funding and spending in B.C. has decreased,” says author Dr. Jason Ellis in a written statement this week. “…but this misperception of spending reductions is not based on historical research.” 

Party ideology did little to dampen successive government attempts to control spending, according to the research. Sometimes left-wing governments cut funding and sometimes right-wing governments increased it, says Ellis.

Ellis found that most of the growth in spending has come from adding more teachers to the system, along with increases in salaries and benefits.

“Paying our teachers more isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I’d argue they aren’t paid nearly enough. But having so many teachers might be an ineffective use of resources,” says the researcher.

A QUESTION OF CLASS SIZE

Driving down average class size has been a central argument to increase the number of teachers across the province, according to Ellis. He says whereas, in the 1970s, there were roughly 22 students per teacher in B.C. Now, there are 14.

“The research tends to show smaller classes are better for outcomes. But how small?” says Ellis.

Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), pushed back against the study's conclusions Wednesday, saying the findings neglected a paradigm shift in the province’s education system. 

That has meant increased pressures on teachers to ensure all students graduate, no matter what learning difficulty they face.

One of the most dramatic changes in education over the past 50 years, says Mooring, was moving from segregated classrooms to ones that included children with special learning needs. That required smaller class sizes so teachers could handle the workload, and inevitably, more teachers.

Still, says Mooring, the numbers don’t add up. Ellis’s class-size ratio of 14 students per teacher is “extraordinarily misleading,” she says, because it counts principals and everyone working in district offices. 

“There’s a flaw here. Class sizes don’t keep on going down,” says the head of the union representing roughly 45,000 teachers across the province. 

“We’re talking about kindergarten classes of 20, and the numbers going up from there. In Grades 4 to 12, the average class size is 30 and that has remained static since 1993.”

Since 2017, Mooring says the province has had a “critical teacher shortage” to the point where uncertified teachers are working in the system. She attributes part of that to low salaries and not being able to attract teachers from out of province.

Data from the BCTF shows its teachers are the second-lowest paid among their counterparts in other provinces, with Quebec at the bottom, Alberta at the top and Ontario in second place.

When it comes to B.C. students, Mooring says they receive $1,800 less funding per student than the national average. 

A SOURCE OF 'DRAMA'

What has shaped spending growth over the last half-century? 

Ellis says it wasn't total spending but “dramas” over teachers’ salaries and collective bargaining, class size and composition, and school districts’ taxing and spending powers.

For years, the BCTF was locked in a court battle with the province over class sizes. 

In 2016, the federation finally won a landmark case at the Supreme Court of Canada when it ruled the former BC Liberal government had illegally torn up contracts as far back as 2002. The ruling also restored the teachers’ contract language around class size and composition.

In the latest round of bargaining between the province, school boards and the BCTF, class size and composition was once again a major stumbling block. When an agreement was finally approved in May 2020, the issue remained unresolved after both parties agreed to defer it for another three years. 

The impasse, says Mooring, comes from the patchwork of class-size restrictions across the province’s 60 school districts. 

For grades four to seven, six districts have no class-size language whatsoever, including West Vancouver, she says.

“Those classes can be as large as the district wants.”

HOW WILL EDUCATION COMPETE FOR PUBLIC DOLLARS?

At some point in the future a ceiling will have to be put on K-12 spending as education competes with limited public dollars, says Ellis.

Whether it’s fixing a long-term care sector revealed to be broken by COVID-19 or investing in climate change mitigation, Ellis says there are growing pressures on the public purse.

In the end, Ellis says he’s not advocating for cuts or increased funding — rather, his research points to an “oversimplified” story of chronic underfunding. What’s needed, he says, is a more careful look to ensure money is spent in the right places. 

But for Mooring, the idea that the education system is bloated doesn’t add up with what she sees in the classroom.

“Right now, inclusive education is underfunded and has been underfunded for decades. What that means is students with diverse learning needs are excluded from school for periods of time,” she tells Glacier Media.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed how important school is to prevent those gaps from opening into chasms, says Mooring. 

Across many jurisdictions in the United States and Canada, school closures disproportionately affected people of colour and those facing poverty. 

“In B.C., school stayed open. That was one of the reasons why the economy continued to function,” says Mooring. 

Funding gaps remain, she adds; the flailing of international education programs has meant some school districts are striking deficits, and Mooring says even the pilot programs looking to test daycare programs in public schools are not fully funded. 

“The idea that schools are running at anything less than a shoestring is inaccurate,” she says.

With files from the Canadian Press