The British Columbia government says that public education funding is at record levels, but critics call this misleading, pointing to inflation and additional costs that school boards are now required to pay.
With the recent announcement of potential school closings in Vancouver, and last week's deadline for B.C. school districts to submit balanced budgets, parent and teacher groups have been vocal in protesting what they say is the government's chronic underfunding of the public education system.
The Liberal government counters by saying it has allocated $5.1-billion to public schools for 2016-17, an increase of $1.2-billion, or 32 per cent, from when it came to power in 2001, according to the Ministry of Education.
Money allocated to public education, as listed in the 2001 and 2016 provincial budgets, is not directly comparable. The 2001 figure, for example, includes debt service costs, the amortization of prepaid capital expenses and federal funding from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, items that are no longer included as part of the education budget.
Figures provided by the ministry that remove items that were not included in this year's budget bring total public education funding for 2001 down to $3.85-billion, the ministry says, which is how it arrived at the $1.2-billion increase.
Advocacy groups, the B.C. Teachers' Federation and other critics are quick to point out that, adjusted for inflation, the 2000-01 allocation of $3.85-billion would equal $5.23-billion today. So while the government may now be allocating $1.2-billion more, it doesn't translate into a meaningful increase in funding, they argue.
"It is irresponsible and misleading of the government to rely on a false comparison like this," said Jennifer Stewart, who has researched the issue as founder of the advocacy group Families Against Cuts to Education.
"If they are going to use this kind of face-value comparison, why don't they go back even further and tell us how many billions education funding has increased by since 1916 or 1966? Unless you are adjusting for inflation, it is a false comparison that is always going to make the current year look great in comparison to years gone by. But it tells us nothing real and serves no purpose other than misleading the public."
Education Minister Mike Bernier was unavailable for an interview. A ministry statement provided by public affairs officer Craig Sorochan noted that student enrolment has declined by 70,000 since 2001 and that school districts are funded based on enrolment.
Mike Lombardi, chair of the Vancouver School Board, pointed out that funding does not account for expenses that must be covered by school districts, such as health-benefit premiums, carbon offsets and BC Hydro costs.
"All of those additional costs are built into our budget and not covered by the provincial government, even though they are imposed by the provincial government," he said.
"They do increase the per-pupil grant each year by a bit, but it in no way covers off all the other costs. So what happens is school boards have this incredible pressure of underfunding because they've got to go into their budgets to cover those costs."
In Ministry of Education notes released under freedom of information legislation, the B.C. Association of School Business Officials estimated that school districts had more than $192-million of cost pressures in the 2014-15 school year.
According to the B.C. Teachers' Federation, 241 B.C. public schools have closed since 2002.