Lawrie McFarlane: Spending not a sign of education value

A new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (the Fraser Institute’s left-wing counterpart) is a striking example of how not to measure government performance.

The report criticizes B.C.’s Education Ministry for allowing school budgets to decline as a proportion of the provincial economy. This, apparently, is a “funding crisis.”

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To start with, there is a false equivalence here. Why should economic growth and education budgets march hand in hand? What has one got to do with the other?

Families, on average, spend less today on computers than they did two decades ago. Is that a bad thing? No, because the price has fallen.

Similarly, the cost of education is down because the number of school-age kids has declined. There are 70,000 fewer pupils across the province today than there were in 1996.

The relevant baseline, then, isn’t the absolute amount spent, but the amount spent per child. On that basis, B.C. ranks sixth among the provinces (not ninth, as the report alleges.)

But the fundamental problem with this whole line of thought is that it fixates on inputs (money) rather than outputs (the quality of education). Yet any number of studies show that the relationship between per-pupil funding and outcomes is hugely elastic.

In 2012, for example, the United States ranked fifth among 65 countries in the amount spent on K-12 education. Yet our American neighbours stood 36th in math, and not much better in science and reading — worse indeed, than nations with far lower budgets, such as the Slovak Republic and Vietnam. (These numbers come from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s PISA results — a set of standardized tests administered every three years.)

Now let’s consider B.C.’s performance. Presumably, if spending determines outcomes, our results should be mediocre. They aren’t.

Not all of the provinces participated in the 2012 PISA, but among those that did (and they include all the big provinces), B.C. came first in computer-based math, first in science, first in reading and second in paper-based math.

Those scores also place B.C. in the top tier among countries — we rank fifth in reading, sixth in science, 12th in math, and first in all categories across the English-speaking world.

Where, then, is the evidence of a funding crisis? What we have, rather, is proof of a superior performance by our school system.

Yes, money is tight. Blue-collar incomes have stagnated for the better part of three decades, and that takes its toll.

But without detracting in any way from the marvellous accomplishments of our teachers, this is the modern reality of public service. Everyone faces the same challenge — making do with less.

The postwar period of expanding government is over. It ground to a halt in the mid-1990s, as deficits reached unsustainable levels and the economic buoyancy of earlier times began to fade.

With the turning of that page, the growth era ended, and the demands on public-sector managers changed forever. Their job now is to preserve the core necessities in a steady-state environment where more money is not an option.

Do the people at the CCPA not realize this? Their calls for additional spending and higher taxes have a Peter Pan-like quality — the boy who never grew up.

What we need from think-tanks is some actual thinking. What is the best (i.e. humane) way to shrink a program whose client base is shrinking? Where do we find new ways to drive health costs downward? How are the needs of an aging population to be met in straitened circumstances?

This is the real world our public servants inhabit, not some fictional Neverland with a pantomime plot.

jalmcfarlane@shaw.ca

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