Editorial: Study shows B.C. getting a big bang for its education buck

`A recent study confers high honours on our province’s K-12 school system. Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan report that B.C. spends less per pupil than any other province, and yet matches the best results in Canada.

Based on total operating costs, the national spending average per pupil in 2015 was $11,274. But B.C. allocated just $9,200. Quebec, which has the richest program, lays out more than $12,000. In themselves, such figures mean nothing. Maybe Quebec is right to spend more. Perhaps B.C. has been miserly.

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The picture becomes more focused when you add school outcomes.

The Saskatchewan university study employed what are known as PISA scores to assess performance. They are designed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and administered across more than 70 countries.

Students at 15 are given standardized tests in reading, mathematics and science.

Among the provinces, B.C. came first in math, second in science and a close third in reading.

Notably, Quebec did no better than other provinces with leaner budgets.

PISA scores are not a perfect measure of performance. For example, they do not look at Grade 12 graduation rates, which are clearly an indicator of effectiveness.

Nor does the overall amount spent take into account the way resources are deployed.

Thus, a school board that lays off teaching aides to save money, as happened recently in Greater Victoria, receives no penalty in the study. Yet this is a vital means of assisting kids with special needs.

We can deal with one of these deficiencies.

The Conference Board of Canada keeps a record of K-12 graduation rates, and B.C. is in a tie with Ontario and Alberta for first place. So here at least, our low rate of spending appears to have done no harm.

What the study does illuminate is the rather uncertain relationship between K-12 expenditures and outcomes. This is not the first report of its kind to show that.

But it does raise a broader question. If money spent is not the only indicator of performance, what other determining factors play a role?

Certainly, family income is important. It’s well known that kids from poorer backgrounds tend to do less well.

Yet here again, B.C. enjoys no special advantage. Our child-poverty rates are among the highest in Canada.

It’s difficult to prove, but the likelihood is that strong school board leadership and high levels of professionalism among teaching staff, are the key to good outcomes.

If our K-12 school system is performing magnificently despite limited resources, that is probably the reason.

There is one additional matter to consider. The study used 2015 PISA scores because those were the most recent available.

Yet in 2016 the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a B.C. law that stripped teachers of their right to bargain class sizes. Gordon Campbell’s Liberal administration passed that legislation in 2002.

The court’s ruling has resulted in a significant increase, both in the number of teachers employed and in overall K-12 expenditures.

In purely legal terms, the decision was correct. The province had improperly constrained the bargaining rights of teachers.

Yet if the University of Saskatchewan study is reliable, the case for any great expansion of resources is less clear. No doubt it will be welcomed by teaching staff and administrators.

That they were doing a difficult job with the minimum of support is clear. For that, we owe them our gratitude.

But as the NDP government struggles to conclude a new contract with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, it is worth keeping this much in mind.

The relationship between funding and student outcomes might not be as robust as some assume.

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