The current quarrel over school funding sounds familiar to old-timers. Just as in the 1980s, school boards are laying off teachers and closing schools, while the education minister says they've never had it so good. Who's telling the truth? And does it even matter?
The Liberals have consistently argued that education gets more money every year, and that the teachers and trustees are misrepresenting the situation in their endless demands for ever more funding. Their "shortfalls," we're told, reflect only their endless wish list of inessentials.
One way to judge the merits of the dispute is simply to look at the average operating grant per student in constant dollars. (The amount varies from district to district, but we're talking about the provincial average.)
Is inflation confusing the true level of funding?
That's too simple, says John Malcolmson. He's the CUPE research representative for the kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) sector, and has decades of experience in studying school funding. A yardstick based on the consumer price index, he observes, doesn't work for education: "School districts don't buy groceries." What's more, schools are spending money differently from 10 years ago as needs have changed for various education services.
Dealing with 'structural funding shortfalls'
In a March 15 briefing note to CUPE and other staff-support unions in K-12, Malcolmson defined "structural funding shortfalls" in the schools: They occur, he said, "where available district revenue falls chronically and persistently below that required to fund and maintain publicly mandated programs."
He drew that definition from Joan Axford, secretary-treasurer of School District 63 (Saanich). To explain school funding problems in general, and Saanich schools' problems in particular, Axford has created two memorable PowerPoint shows. (Look for them in the right-hand column of the Saanich district home page .)
One, on "Learning from the Past," is a brilliant and concise history of school funding since the 1980s. The other, "Public Budget Meeting Presentation," was made to the board on April 21. It shows the provincial picture and then uses Saanich as an example of structural shortfall.
Axford shows that education in 1991 took 26 per cent of the provincial budget; in 2000-01 it fell to 20 per cent, and this year it's just 15 per cent. Per-student funding seems to have gone up from $7,097 in 2005-06 to $8,381 in 2010-11.
But with cost pressures factored in, the operating grant per student has actually fallen from $6,409 in 2005 to $6,289 in 2010-11.
Saanich has seen a steady decline in student enrolments: the district lost just over 1,000 students between 2002-03 and 2006-07, and expects to lose almost 1,200 more between 2007-08 and 2013-14. Axford estimates that a fall of 200 students reduces costs by $690,000. But the funding allocation is reduced by $1,348,000 -- leaving the district with a net shortfall of $707,000.
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