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Teachers walk an information picket line at Sir Guy Carleton school in Vancouver on March 5, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Teachers walk an information picket line at Sir Guy Carleton school in Vancouver on March 5, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Policy expert calls for independent review of education spending in B.C. Add to ...

The numbers are real, but when applied to education budgets in British Columbia, they’re known to turn, twist and dance.

More than 40,000 B.C. public school teachers are on a three-day legal strike this week, largely over disputed education budget numbers that control class sizes, student make-up of those classes, and, of course, teacher pay.

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The teachers maintain the B.C. government has slashed education funding, a position often repeated by frustrated parents.

The government maintains the education budget continues to increase.

“It’s really tough because you can see the B.C. Teachers Federation as an advocacy group that represents teachers,” said Prof. Kim Speers, a public policy expert at the University of Victoria’s school of public administration.

“Then there’s the government who does their own research and sometimes those numbers don’t always match.”

They almost always don’t.

Last fall, the BCTF presented a position paper to the government’s all-party finance committee suggesting B.C.’s education budget would be $6.8-billion today if the government funded education at 2001 levels, the first year the Liberals were elected.

“The falling ratio has resulted in a significant loss of funding to public education,” said the report. “If 2011-12 funding for K-12 education were restored to the 2001-02 percentage of the provincial budget, an additional $1.6-billion would be available for public education.”

The report said education funding comprised 26 per cent of the B.C. budget in 1991 and it is 15 per cent today. If education funding was restored to 1991-92 ratios, the budget would increase by $3.9-billion, the report said.

But Niels Veldhuis, a Fraser Institute budget expert, said his calculations find that education funding has increased by 32 per cent since the Liberals were elected in 2001 and when inflation is factored into the equation, the increase is still 10.8 per cent.

He said the teachers’ union is calling the education numbers a cut when the money has actually increased, though at a slower rate than spending on health care.

“What they (the teachers’ union) are doing, in my opinion, is purposefully misleading British Columbians because they’re suggesting that education has been cut when that is 100-per-cent absolutely false,” said Mr. Veldhuis, who suggested skeptics consult page 144 of the government’s current budget and fiscal plan to see the increases.

Education Ministry statistics also indicate another source of the confusion: Money for education is based on the number of pupils in the system and those numbers are dropping. Ministry statistics show student enrolment has dropped almost 42,000 students this year compared to last year to 556,045 students provincewide.

Per-pupil funding has increased $2,229 per student to $8,491 for each student, but there are fewer students being funded.

And the numbers show the belt around education funding growth is tightening, as it is around health-care spending growth.

Education budgets were rising at a rate of 4.8 per cent in 2005, but that dropped to 1.1 per cent in 2009 and the goal outlined in last month’s budget is to restrict it further to 0.6 per cent growth each year for the next three years.

That compares with health-care spending, which had been increasing at 7 per cent per year, but is estimated to drop to 3.2 per cent each year for the next three years.

The ministry and school districts say they can meet the targets by continually looking to find efficiencies in their operations.

Shared service agreements between 17 Vancouver-area school districts could more efficiently deliver $400-million in outside classroom services, the budget suggests. Potential savings in joint tendering and transportation services could produce savings between three per cent and eight per cent annually.

Prof. Charles Ungerleider, an education sociologist at the University of B.C. and a former B.C. deputy minister of education, said shared services, including unifying payroll systems across the province, could save money, but not much, because over the years education funding hasn’t kept pace with rising costs.

“I think it’s true that there are some efficiencies to be found in the system,” he said. “I don’t think there are enough efficiencies to be found in the system to come up with sufficient money to meet the needs of school boards.”

Mr. Ungerleider said in the past, school boards were forced to juggle budgets to pay salary increases to support staff without budget increases. For example, he said the current budget includes a 4-per-cent medical service premium increase that school boards must cover from their existing budget.

Mr. Ungerleider said the government’s plan to hold budget increases below 1 per cent for the next three years is only a target the government is trying to hit.

“It’s more of a statement of belief or aspiration at this point,” he said. “It remains to be seen if that can be achieved.”

The University of Victoria’s Ms. Speers said the furor around teachers’ bargaining in British Columbia has become so entrenched, with little give on the part of government and the BCTF, that it may be time for some sober, second, outside thoughts on the matter.

“That’s why I’m wondering if some type of commission, like an independent commission on education on the state of education is needed, just to get figures that are a bit independent from the stakeholders and the government,” Ms. Speers said.

Mr. Veldhuis agreed: “Anything that will increase the debate about how the education system ought to be structured – how we get improved performance at either the same of lower cost – I’m in favour of.”

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