Education crisis – can a “sustainable” education system actually educate anyone?

Education is suddenly a front burner issue in Nova Scotia.  In an article in Wednesday’s Herald, Premier Dexter had this to say:

Dexter said the province has to come to grips with declining enrollments in schools. He said the first place the boards are to look for savings is in administration.

“The simple reality of the matter is that we’re working with the boards, we’ve told them where we have to get to,” he said.

“If we’re going to have a sustainable system over the future, then we have to get this under control now. If we don’t, it would only mean deeper cuts later.”

The NDP government floated a trial balloon several months ago, looking at what a 20% cut would do to school budgets.  There was not a lot of chatter in the media in response to this for the simple reason that no one believed it would come to pass.

So, we need to “get back to balance” and we need to do our part?

Anyone who reads this blog knows I am a complete fiscal conservative and want to see a balance budget, but how can we expect Nova Scotia to succeed in the 21st century if we cut education?

So, the question I have for Mr Dexter and his government is: where will the workers come from to power this economy if we have one of the worst funded public education systems in Canada?

Where will the taxes come from if the only jobs we can attract to the province in this post-literate future are call centre and service industry jobs?

Some readers may remember that for a couple of years I was deeply involved in a drop down lay ‘em out fight with the Halifax Regional School Board about school closures on the peninsula in Halifax.  During that time I learned a lot about P-12 education and funding, and I have learned even more about education since becoming an instructor at NSCC.

One of the things I learned in 2006 is that HRSB and all school boards in Nova Scotia are chronically underfunded.

Proving this is simple – use Google and common sense.  I looked up school board annual reports in districts that educate medium size cities like Halifax.  I looked at successful cities in successful parts of the country, but not too rich, so I picked St John’s, Waterloo, Regina, Winnipeg but British Columbia and Alberta were out.   I left out New Brunswick, they spend even less than us on education, and get those results.  I used the latest available figures, but they are not all from the same year, but are all from 2009 or 2010.

Back in 2006 when I first did this, the gap was huge.  Halifax was 25% lower than Waterloo, or Winnipeg.  Today the stats look like this:

St John’s $365,127,716.00 40950 $8,916.43
Winnipeg $322,964,200.00 32802 $9,845.87
Waterloo $534,479,632.00 56697 $9,426.95
Regina $185,512,482.00 20000 $9,275.62
Halifax now $417,700,000.00 52107 $8,016.20
Halifax after cut $334,160,000.00 52107 $6,412.96

Halifax, the economic engine of Nova Scotia, is already underfunded by 16% compared to the average of the four medium size and successful cities listed above.

I say again, we are 16% behind, before the cuts, right now.

If the Dexter government cuts 20% from education, our funding will drop to 66% of this average.

We will be trying to turn out competitive workers and citizens with one third less money than the other cities we compete with.

I can tell you that four years of teaching at the post-secondary level have re-enforced my long held view – that the most important thing we can do to improve the long-term prospects for Nova Scotia is increase funding to the P-12 system.

To be competitive with the rest of the country, HRSB needs a $75 million dollar increase, not an $83 million cut.

The education system is already stressed.  We have for a decade produced grads from a system where up to half are failing provincial exams.  To compete economically, and foster a culture that values knowledge and learning, P-12 needs more, not less.

Failure to address education will doom the province to continue to be a struggling, have not concern.

It is hard to understand how a social democratic government could even contemplate further damaging our public school system.  We need to fix this, or we will surely sink, all hands lost.


Here is more data, something often missing in NS policy debates.

One person messaged me to point out I was dividing the General and Supplementary budgets by the enrollment in HRM.  This is not fair, as this Sup fund is restricted to Music and Art and is spent primarily in Halifax and Dartmouth.  Even if included it is still only $20 million a year, so it doesn’t actually increase the per head that much, about $600 per student.

Here are the stats, with enrollment, going back to 2005, showing the slow crawl out of horrible funding into merely bad at HRSB:

2005-06 $343,167,932.00 54526 $6,293.66
2006-07 $363,474,821.00 53379 $6,809.32
2007-08 $377,297,759.00 52655 $7,165.47
2008-09 $384,827,803.00 52107 $7,385.34
2009-10 $387,618,924.00 52107 $7,438.90

Now, note that HRSB has not posted the 2009/10 stat on their website, so I used the 2008, but you get the drift.  Without Sup funding we are still $2000 a head behind comparable systems in other cities.

Now one commentator threw out the line that enrollment is down over 20%!  Well maybe, but not in HRM.  Here are the actual figures for 2003 to 2009.

2003 56,498
2004 55,657
2005 54,526
2006 54,526
2007 53,379
2008 52,655
2009 52,107

In seven years the enrollment has dropped by all of 7.7%.  During that time funding has still stayed 20-25% lower when compared to comparable Canadian jurisdictions in other provinces.

  • Hey Waye – are there any numbers on expected future enrollment? Really just curious.

    • Slow decline, maybe 3000-5000 down over 15 years, though it is hard to say because people with school age kids move to Halifax from the rest of the province. At most 10% reduction over 15 years.

      That said, current funding is tied to enrollment. When government says “20% cut” that means the per-student funding being cut. If a school board shrinks, so does funding, already.

  • Slow decline, maybe 3000-5000 down over 15 years, though it is hard to say because people with school age kids move to Halifax from the rest of the province. At most 10% reduction over 15 years.

    That said, current funding is tied to enrollment. When government says “20% cut” that means the per-student funding being cut. If a school board shrinks, so does funding, already.

  • Great post, Waye, but it flies in the face of our current financial realities.

    The NDP Government’s initial proposal is, as you well know, designed to start a needed “planning exercise” in a system experiencing significant student losses, year to year. The goal is to reduce education spending by $196 million over the next three years because of province-wide declining enrollments. We’ve lost 18,000 students since 2000-2001 and expenditures still rose by 40 per cent. The province is forecasted to see a drop in enrollment of 11.5% by 2014-15 and the system is losing 3,000 students a year.

    Money is not the answer to everything in education. Yes, the Nova Scotia system is underfunded, but so is everything in our province.Since arriving here six years ago, I calculate that, like rents, the differential is about 33% less. It certainly applies to rents and a few other cost indicators. So, the spending per student isn’t that far out of line. By the way, your analysis works far better for PEI, ranked last in terms of PISA student performance. That is a situation calling for more spending on education.

    The NSSBA is leading the charge in opposition to the proposed budget cuts. That’s a problem. Based upon a high side 22% cut, the NSSBA is out to spook parents with another version of “Save Grade 2″ which AIMS’s Charles Cirtwill has aptly dubbed the “Classroom Cuts Horror Show.”

    Premier Darryl Dexter hasn’t changed his spots! He just finds himself in a strange position. As an NDP premier, he is standing firm — insisting that “the cuts” come “first from administration, not the classroom.” He’s right and no one, as far as I know, really wants to cut classroom expenses.

    Not everyone is being bamboozled by the NSSBA “fear factor” blitz.

    Save Community Schools see another agenda at work in Nova Scotia. I continue to be impressed with their ability to see through a smokescreen!

    Yesterday’s Save Community Schools Alert (8 December 2010) was a prime example. THey correctly point out that something is missing from the NSSBA show — cuts to administration. That ignores the Premier’s directive to focus on administrative downsizing. In a cash-strapped Board, Strait Regional Board, administrative expenditures have increased five times as much as inflation and student/instructional costs over the past five years.

    The NSSBA, the Antigonish parents point out, focuses instead on school closures, programs, or teachers, sending a “telling message” about ” the priorities of School Boards across the province.”

    It’s hard to outsmart parents like those behind Save Community Schools. Spooking the parents you purport to serve is not recommended for School Boards whose very legitimacy is being called into question. And provincial politicians backing the Big Scare had better be careful in choosing their bedfellows.

    So far the public reaction has been overwhelming, judging from the Herald. School Boards are living on borrowed time and this could well be there undoing. There’s an anger out there and, whether you like it or not, they see “fat” at the top of the system.

    The real tragedy is that Nova Scotia public education has serious structural issues and the current nonsense simply threatens to postpone the inevitable. I have seen a confidential NS Ed plan and it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the NSSBA nightmare scenario.

    Something else is in the wind.

    • I am not in any way arguing that the system can stay the way it is outside of Halifax.

      I am only writing about HRM. The “fat” is debatable. One stat I heard today is that the school boards are all of 5% of the budget. This is not a factory where you can improve productivity in conventional ways. In HRM, a cut of 20% will mean 20% less teachers, closed schools, and 35-40 student classrooms

      The bottom line is our competitors are prepared to spend more money than Nova Scotia is on education, and I suspect they get better results, and will reap the rewards.

      • The HRSB will likely get off easy because their enrolment is stable, albeit until this September when it absorbed a surprise 0.8% loss. So I don’t see where you are getting those inflated job loss numbers. The average was 3.0 % in losses with Tri-County coming in at minus 3.8 per cent.

        When it comes to the HRSB, the big savings would come from a financial review of the testing program to assess the ROI ( Where are the promised results in improved student learning?) You also know, from teachers, that the literacy coaches implementation model is very expensive. (The one per school formula – 138 X $50 K annually). On the facilities side, the move to Park Lane in Burnside cost taxpayers $900,000 more per year. That’s many times the cost of the MLA expenses irregularities. In the current fiscal situation, how can that be possibly justified? These are just a few starting points.

        • Oh I agree with the testing (easy to get rid of) and the new office (hard to get rid of now, contracts are what they are). (I also have a problem with a critical arm of government being located out in the middle of an industrial park, sucks to be a Mom or Dad who takes the bus everywhere. But that is another story.) But the government asked HRSB to come up with a 20% reduction plan, as they did all the Boards, so that issue is on the table right now.

          • Now that the NSSBA has posted the figures, let’s take a closer look. It’s only two measily pages, so that should be easy!

            First of all, the NSSBA proposal to secure $196 million in savings is totally unacceptable because it completely ignores the Education Department’s instruction to start first with cuts to administration.

            Taking $146,938,548 out of Program Delivery to Students is simply a ruse. The focus should be on the School Management level to reduce the administrative build-up outside of the schools.

            Meeting the target, without compromising learning in the classroom, can only be achieved by reducing the superstructure.

            Let’s assume: The teacher force will shrink with enrolment declines by at least 10 per cent or $59,616, 000. That’s more realistic.

            Salary concessions from the NSTU are unlikely, so that is not a viable option, especially after “Rae Days” and with an NDP government.

            By reducing or eliminating the school boards, the short term savings might be in the $ 20 million dollar range. I would favour going down from 7 to to 3 English boards (HRSB, Nova East and Nova West) Many would go further.

            Further reductions could be made in school management/administration costs. A 10% cut would yield almost $10 million

            Costly new facilities expenses such as the new HRSB headquarters simply cannot be justified. We should try to recover the $900,000 annually lost through this one decision. A moratorium on new administrative facilities expenditures (retroactive to September 2010) would be a great stating point

            I’ve always favoured maintaining direct classroom-related per student expenditure levels and putting every other expense on the table. That’s the reverse of what NSSBA has served up!

            In short, instructional salary costs can and should go down with enrolment levels, but the NSSBA’s own data shows that only “downsizing” will secure the required annual recurrent savings.

            The current “planning exercise” is not likely to yield the desired results for the simple reason that the “lead partners” are in conflict of interest.

            How can the logjam be cleared away? Ralph Surette is right. It is time for a major financial review of public education. It won’t be Tim O’Neill .. he has enough on his plate.

            • Paul, this is really good data. The question I have is the education system meeting the goals set out for it? I would like to see far deeper analysis of successful school boards, like Edmonton, for example, and an education report that directs not just cost management, but focuses on excellence. I suspect that once we start looking at what has been proven to work elsewhere, and then at what it costs, that cuts won’t be compatible with a goal achieve excellence.

  • Sarah C

    I can say authoritatively that student enrolment is declining and quite rapidly. Enrolment last year was about the same as 1950-51 if you can believe it (2009 Minister’s Report) and we’ve actually lost a little over 18,000 kids out of the P-12 system since 2002 which is a little over 12% (!!!)

    – Sarah C (Department of Ed)

    • Sarah, do school boards get funded per head, or not? Sarah, do those other school boards get more money per head, or not? Surely you don’t want to have a smaller, crappier, less funded system for the children who remain? In education we talk about outcomes, right? So the outcome I expect from the Department of Ed is a system that is not failing our students. Can you do that with $6600 per head? I don’t believe you can.

      • Sarah C

        When you look at that 20% cut, as I understand it, you’re not taking this year’s budget number and dividing it by 1.25, you’re looking at what the budget would have been in a couple of years, factoring in cost and wage increases, and dividing that by 1.25. Even so, HRSB is a big hulk and I honestly think they will not be asked to absorb those cuts to such a degree. 5-10% maybe. Yes, the in-board testing should probably go — super expensive — and I can think of a few other things. But I also think that it’s possible buildings could close and jobs could go.

        I would say the other school boards probably do get funded more per head, because small population + big area = big operating expenses. I think if you do see up to 20% cuts, they will happen in those smaller boards.

        • Okay, I understand the math of it, I understand it will be phased in over time, I understand HRSB may take less of a cut than others…. here is the thing. In business planning you have to look at the input cost. So our teachers, our maintenance, or learning support cost pretty much the same,I think, as Regina,or Winnipeg, on a per head basis.

          So the input cost of producing “a unit” of education is arguably the same in Halifax as any other medium size city. So if you cut education by 10% in HRM, you are looking at spending 25% less than comparable jurisdictions elsewhere.

          Does anyone really think that Nova Scotia can figure out a way to provide competitive education for a bargain price? I think we will get what we pay for.

          • Waye, the current buzzword of “business planning” is really tired and overdone. Most people with a financial background know how to do that. Yes, you have to look at costs. You have to look at all costs. So are those other school boards paying their own capital costs? You know that here in NS, school boards do not build schools, right? Is that the story elsewhere? What is the cost of a teacher in the west versus here? It costs a helluva lot more to live in Calgary that it does in River John, right? So does everything else out there except gas. So you have to take into account all sorts of things that a superficial view does not reveal. What other programs do those jurisdictions provide? Maybe they have even worse bloat than we do and it just has not been addressed yet.

            All I know is that our existing system does not work and that it needs to be blown up. What about charter schools? Why are we not discussing that? Each parent gets a cheque from the govt for a specified amount based on the # of kids in school and their grade level. Then the parent is free to select whatever school they want. You can have a performing arts school, a left-wing school, an arts and crafts school, a music-centered school, whatever. There is a basic core curriculum and then the operators are free to add whatever else they want to specialize in. They find a building and hire a staff and run it like — guess what — a BUSINESS. They have to compete for students. Ones that do a good job get lots of students. Ones that don’t, don’t. And, by and large, they would be outside the control of the NSTU, always a good thing.

            This is a discussion that needs to happen.

            • Keith, do you think Charter schools cost less or more than the current model?

              The leading jurisdiction in Canada with Charter schools in Edmonton. Edmonton Public Schools has $823 million budget, which pays for 79,908 students education, at $10,339 per head. About 40% more than the average per head in Nova Scotia after a 20% cut.

              I am totally in favour of a plan to reform education. Cutting is not reform.

              • Perhaps you are being a little harsh on Keith. He’s looking West for exemplars of best practice.

                The Edmonton Public School Board, as you may know, is one of the country’s finest. It leads in student performance with very few publicly-funded charter schools. The Edmonton model is based upon “school-based management” and is cited in educational research as being an exemplar of that governance approach. Principals have far more autonomy and are entrusted with financial and budgetary responsibilities. It’s far more responsive to local community needs. Nova Scotia flirted with SBM in the mid-1990s, but it was undermined by the defenders of the status quo.

                For the record, Alberta has charter schools but only 13 exist because of the enabling legislation requiring regular charter renewals and high performance targets. Most of the charter school students are actually in Calgary, not Edmonton. Alberta Education trumpets school choice, but — even there — it’s quite rationed. Having said that, Alberta continues to be the leader in student performance with an enviable record of educational innovation.

                Proposing education cuts is a time-tested strategy for shaking up the educational status quo. Whatever you might think of the strategy, it can work. During the Savage Years, it also proved mighty effective in driving education reform. Savage’s ghost still haunts NS politics.

  • Sarah C

    Student enrolment is declining and quite rapidly. Enrolment last year was about the same as 1950-51 if you can believe it (2009 Minister’s Report) and we’ve actually lost a little over 18,000 kids out of the P-12 system since 2002 which is a little over 12% (!!!)

  • Sarah C

    Anyways, so the population’s getting greyer, health costs are skyrocketing, meanwhile we’re losing buckets of kids, I’m not surprised that they’re looking to education for cuts instead of health. How it will play out I’m not sure.

  • Giving HRSB another $75 mil or $1500 per student would just let them hire more consultants and administrators and do little to help fix a broken school system. Our system as currently structured does not work. If a large cut results in blowing up the existing system by force and coming up with a new model, I’m all for it.

    • Oh Keith, you are a broken record. How will large cuts fix anything? Do you have anything concrete to contribute here? How will a 20% cut to an organization with 5% overhead on admin fix this so called bloat? Go read the budget for the HRSB, tell me where the money is going to come from? It is going to come out of classrooms, libraries, guidance, supports for the disabled, and enrichment.

    • You don’t have to that far, Keith.

      The current “planning exercise” isn’t likely to work, simply because the “system partners” are in conflict of interest. Major restructuring will inevitably mean discussing the board governance structure and contract entitlements.

      It’s time for an independent financial review to produce some viable options that do not adversely affect students or the quality of classroom instruction. “Save Grade 2” and the “Classroom Cuts Horror Show” show that we desperately need fresh thinking and an adult conversation about the future of the P-12 system.

  • Dfinlayson

    Very interesting discussion. The one question that we all need to consider is this: How are we going to deliver education in 5-10 years time? Everything else should fall out of this. I am not opposed to cutting boards/people/programs/testing- if that is the right way to go. A great many of these people will merely be hired back by the province to do their same jobs (probably for more money knowing the bargaining units). But noone has defined what they want education to look like. This is the only thing that should matter. How are we getting students ready for life, university, community college, work, citizenship? Answer those and we can start moving forward. But to just cut without examining all the hows and whys is not the answer. To just pick some categories that individuals believe (not the province) and cut is not smart. Lets devise a strong plan that will put our province in a great position to be a global leader in education and take all the great things that happen around the world and find a way to build a comprehensive program. Then we can have discussions without scaring anyone into believing the sky is falling which is not a strategy I agree with.
    Continue having these great discussions and help bring some of everyone’s ideas to the public. These are not conversations we should be scared to have for the sake of our future.

    • What a refreshing approach, Dave. It’s encouraging to see an elected Trustee questioning NSSBA’s “Chicken Little” show and open to a complete review of the system, top to bottom. I’m also pleased to see you making a distinction between sound education policy and crass “edu-politics”

      Haligonian John Webster may have an idea of how we can escape the current morass. On my EduBlog, he responded to the topic “The Education Funding Crisis: How Can we Escape the Grant-Driven System? ‘, with this constructive proposal:

      “The more I think about it, the more I believe there may be value for the Minister of Education to host a Summit early in the new year. This would allow for parents, teachers, education experts, economists, and anyone interested to challenge the school boards and the departments’ own arguments.

      Such a public display would certainly frame the issue better and engage Nova Scotians in this too important issue.

      If I recall, the Minister of Finance held public consultation last year and did a great job framing up the fiscal challenge this province is facing. This resulted in the HST going back up and we saw no protest. Everyone was expecting changes.

      The same should be done with Education so Nova Scotians can learn about the facts and the challenges/opportunities you so well described in the past.”

      (John Webster – Educhatter’s Blog, 10 December 2010)

      It’s worth considering as a way of putting an end to the current nonsensical debate.

  • A column in the Herald business section – A weaker education system has big costs

    • It was a well-intended piece, but seemed to imply that “money” was the answer to what ails public education. Rachel Brighton sounds reasonable. I do wonder if she really understands how the system works.

      You probably saw the OECD report on the latest PISA results. The US spends over $10,500 per student in US dollars (primary, secondary and PSE), while we spend about $7,500 on average. (OECD) You would think that a Business columnist might at least make reference to this discrepancy.

      Here’s a question I’d like Rachel Brighton to tackle: Who’s afraid of administration cuts to focus more on the classroom? The NSSBA and possibly the NSTU. It’s time we asked why.

      • Paul, I don’t understand your thesis. HRSB has just under $12 million in administration. Even if you run the SB from DOE, and gut administration, probably half of that administration would still have to be spent. You can’t have thousands of employees and hundreds of buildings without supervisors, human resource management, employee support, etc. Administration and gutting to public input through elected governance would yield at most $5-6 million. This is a drop in the bucket on a $383 million budget, a budget that would still see our per-head funding be far below a competitive level when compared nationally. I am not convinced you could cut that much from administration without damaging education, though the value we get for the $3.5-4 mil on an elected school board is debatable.

        I feel the “bloated administration” argument is a Nova Scotia touchstone – “those people are paid too much, who do they think they are?”, that often fails to stand up when the figures are actually examined.

        • What I am proposing is to stop the nonsensical debate based upon a politically-motivated selection of the data! The NSSBA and friends simply have no credibility when it comes to reviewing their own system. There recent gambit has completely backfired with the public.

          We are totally hamstrung by the lack of public disclosure on the matter of school system finances. Take a look at Ontario’s “Sunshine on Schools” website for a detailed breakdown of per student expenses in 40 odd categories. With only eight boards, assembling that data for NS should be a piece of cake!

          Educational restructuring begins at the top, not the bottom. And until that has been fully explored, classroom cuts are verboten. Is there “fat” at the top of the HRSB? Just ask anyone form one of the other Nova Scotia boards (off-the record). I’ll bet that the Department knows it as well. A truly independent review would be revealing, possibly even to the Department.

  • At least I try and use some fact, unlike some I could mention. Keith, you obviously care, but you think a strongly worded rant is compelling and the rightness of your views is self evident, and it is tiresome.

  • I agree that cutting money from a program is not the way to go, however, we cannot spend money we don’t have. According to our provincial governments website: “The Province of Nova Scotia had CAD $13.01 billion in debenture debt…” When you have that much outstanding debt, it should be hard to throw money around carelessly. Of course, towards education is not careless. So, there has to be some reform for sure, I think most of us can agree on that. Cutting funding on education, not so much the way to go.

    Money lost is money lost. Money taken from administration or what have you is not going to leave more money for books and teachers. For example, if I’m buying a house that needs a roof repair and a siding repair and I didn’t have the money to pay for both, taking money from one repair isn’t going to financially make me able to make the other repair. So if we take X million away from administration or whatever, thats not going to help pay for books. I hope that example works at least somewhat well anecdotally. If not, my apologies.

    I think if you cut tuition cost, you would have a lot more enrollment. More enrollment means more money for the colleges/universities, and thats only a good thing. More enrollment, more money.

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