Facts and clarity hard to find in education discussion

Education continues to be a burning issue in Nova Scotia.

The issue is vast, engaging people from the parents wait for the snow delayed “cut summit” between NDP Minister of Education Ramona Jennex no scheduled for Tuesday, to the 2,000 plus post secondary students demanding a tuition freeze during Wednesday’s blizzard.

The snow is not the only blizzard affecting all sides of the education debate. A veritable white-out of confusion, misinformation and conflicting facts has obscured the debate.

My favorite example is the graphic and text on the Education website. “We are losing about 3,000 students a year — 30,000 over the past 10 years — while spending to boards has increased by 42 per cent” it screams.

Fact check: P-12 cost 757 million in 2001.  It cost 930 million in 2010.  That is a 23% increase.  When you acknowledge that Statscan shows there was 15.5% inflation during that time, that puts the increase to a far more modest 6.5% over ten years.

This is just one example of the hyperbole both sides have been shooting at each other the last couple months.

When you think about the issues we are facing with literacy, with retention, with poor exam scores and the fact that the school boards have to maintain increasingly elderly buildings out of that 6.5% increase, it just doesn’t seem that much to me.

But what about the decline in enrolment?  Well let’s take that number.  I am just back of the napkin calculating here, but the graph seems to indicate there are around 127,000 students in Nova Scotia.  The website also says that there are 30,000 less students than 10 years ago.

So what the government is telling us is that in 2001 the per student funding in Nova Scotia was about $4850, and now is about $7300.   This is without contributions from the municipal level and the other small amounts of funding for programs like French Immersion that come from the Feds.

That is a heck of a jump, it sure is, but lets look at some outside benchmarks, shall we?  Ontario spends just north of $20 billion (with a B) a year on K-12 education, and that is delivered to around 1.9 million students.

That math on that is that the province of Ontario budgets to spend about $10,600 per student.

The math on THAT is that Ontario spends 31% more on education, give or take a percentage given the bootstrap nature of some of my statistics, than Nova Scotia.

So, I guess you can cut education if all you are worried about is the numbers.  And maybe the Province is so broke all we can do is worry about the numbers.

The short term goal of balancing the budget is laudable, but not if we have to cut P-12 funding.  If we do this by the numbers we are killing the goose that lays the gold(ish) eggs.

7 comment on “Facts and clarity hard to find in education discussion

  1. Paul W. Bennett

    Educational finance is next to impossible to fathom and it produces all sorts of confused and confusing debate. Having said that, the facts are rather straigtforward when it comes to the actual figures. That is why your most recent post simply cries out for comment. Politcical debates, after all, should be based upon sound evidence.

    The Nova Scotia Education spending figures posted by the Department of Education are accurate. Our P-12 system costs $1.238 Billion to operate and costs 42% more than it disd a decade ago. We have 127,000 students and the enrollment is dropping, on average 3,000 students a year. Back in 2008-09, the Department’s own forecasts were that we would be down 11.5% by 2014-15. We have 4 million square feet of excess classroom space and 1,800 classrooms with fewer than 10 students. We have 428 schools and the Department forecasts that 40 will close over the next 5 to 10 years. These are the brutal facts.

    You make no mention of the most startling statistic of all : the declining Student-Teacher Ratio. By the Department’s calculation, it is 13.6 province-wide. That figure has dropped from 17.5 STR -FTE in 1995-96 to 16.5 in 2000-01 to less than 14 to 1! In other words, Nova Scotia teachers now have significantly smaller classes than ever before! Furthermore, teacher costs represent over 80% of the total budget.

    Why is this missing from your analysis? Is it a blind spot? Are you simply accepting the existing Teacher Agreement as a fait accompli? Or are you accepting this as sacrosanct?

    Educational researach, as you know, has a bad name. Why? Because much of it is carried out by those in conflict of interest or with their own agendas. That’s what makes educational-policy making so problematic.

  2. Waye Mason

    Paul, you are wrong. You are using the total budget for the DOE, $1.289 billion, not the Public Education Funding line for 2009-2010, which is $930 million.

    I have attached a link to the screen cap of the budget document, you can also find this in section 6.2, page 58 of the budget estimates.


    As for the rest of your figures, well, where are your sources? Are you sure you have those right, or are you using gross FTE figures for the P-12 system?

    Nothing you say here (whether your facts are right or not) takes away from the fact that NS spends 35% less than Ontario on the same product, P-12 education.

    1. Paul W. Bennett

      You seem to be challenging the data posted by the Department of Education so I would say the burden of proof falls on you. I tend to put more stock in actual spending than in budget “estimates”, and so do most taxpayers. I am not only questioning your selection of the facts, but your tendency to beat the same old drum.

      You know where my figures come from, or you should before wading into deep water. Check out the Education Department figures and .http//stats-summary.ednet.ns.ca for the historic data.

      Get real on education spending: The Ontario K-12 education system is bloated and hardly a comparator. If Premier Dalton McGuinty can find $1.5 Billion to introduce full-day kindergarten than I do question its relevance to our policy discussion. We have covered this ground before and I still contend that our funding should be closer to the actual cost of living ( 66% of Ontario, closer to the urban rental rates). Again, I am not questioning spending levels as much as spending allocations.

      I make a clear distinction between education politics and sound policy-making. You seem to feel that the current system is “untouchable” and the NSTU’s Alexis Allen agrees with you. You probably also believe that “rightsizing” the P to 12 system threatens an “educational recession.” Is that why I am still waiting for your response the facts on Student-Teacher Ratio?

      Your post flies in the face of the Department’s data and the information cited in the Halifax Chronicle Herald’s fine editorial on the real costs of education.

      Politics turns on perceptions and “expressions of sentiment” rather than sound economic analysis. You may win in the court of public opinion because we are talking about “rightsizing a system” and tough choices do lie ahead.

      Now to the politics of education: Isn’t it odd that the Nova Scotia Conservatives presided over the spending spree and that it has been left to the NDP to try of bring the books into balance? Don’t you find it strange that the NS Liberals have disowned Premier John Savage’s legacy? Perhaps Nova Scotians do have memories that extend farther back than the last “sound bite” on TV. No wonder informed citizens are skeptical about the overblown rhetoric and orchestrated cries of outrage.

      1. Waye Mason

        Dr. Bennett – 1 Your budget figure is wrong. Please look go and read the estimates published by the Department of Finance. The correct number is 930 million for P-12 in 2009-10 and 945 million in 2010-11. You quoted the total DOE budget, which includes NSCC, university and other smaller initiatives. 2 – I am not commenting on your other points because they do not relate in a meaningful way to my post. My thesis is intact – Ontario as one jurisdiction spends 35.5 more than Nova Scotia on P-12. 3 – as a college teacher for four years, my gut feeling from the evidence facing me every day is that Ontario and Quebec students are better prepared as it is than students in Nova Scotia.

        I do think rationalizing the system, closing half full schools is required in rural Nova Scotia.

        I can’t agree with you, Dr Bennett, I don’t think cuts are the answer.

    2. Paul W. Bennett

      Your analysis of the figures leaves me astounded, since you reject the Department’s public figures, seem to limit the spending to the line narrowly defined as “Public Education Funding,” and refuse to recognize the balance of the broader public education system spending. You may be correct in lopping off “Community College Grants” ($47,379K) and Higher Education Grants ($116,984K) but the total spending still amounts to $1.125 Billion. (See http://halifaxpolitics.ca/educationbudget.jpg)

      The Nova Scotia Department of of Education website is what should concern you. It contradicts your post and contains that now infamous line graph showing spending rising and enrollment plummeting from 2001 to 2010. By the way, the figures in the graph line up very closely with my data, as you are no doubt aware. http://www.ednet.ns.ca/

      The much criticized “planning exercise” succeeded in injecting a little reality into a “grant-driven” educational funding process. Few people now accept the NSSBA/NSTU line that “no increase” is a cut. Everyone now knows that the school boards “crying poor” were sitting on $5 million in surpluses. Some with memories going back to September 2010 know that the HRSB occupies a new Administration HQ costing taxpayers $900,000 more a year. The hidden entitlements in education enshrined in the NSTU contract will soon become a public issue.

      Much of our discussion has narrowly focused on the education sector. Getting back to balance is a much bigger challenge and “protecting” education has costs elsewhere. If education is sacrosanct, I guess you want the cuts to come out of health care, currently consuming 48% of the total budget. Surely you are not implying that social services can take the hit. That leaves raising taxes — or running higher deficits. Aren’t you worried about mortgaging our children’s future? When they graduate ( likely with guaranteed pass B.A.’s), will we be leaving them in a sea of public debt?

      We may never agree on how spending can be measured and what should be included in the whole equation. It may be more helpful to analyze per student expenditures and to take a closer look at how money is actually being spent in the public education system. When we do, you may see the advantage of folding up the school boards and reducing the superstructure. ($38 million) You might even find find yourself agreeing that too much goes to teacher salaries, benefits, and pensions, and more needs to be directed to the classroom. If we are to close the “educational gap,” a reordering of priorities and a restructuring of the system are inevitable. Unless you are willing to accept debt servicing costs that surpass annual spending on education.

      1. Waye Mason

        I find it interesting that a gentlemen as educated as you continues to misunderstand these budget figures. The DOE figures are the same as the DOF figures.

        The exercise being discussed is public school funding by government to school boards, am I correct?

        The funding to school boards is the 945 million in Public Education Funding, correct?

        The 22% funding cut was proposed for school board funding, correct?

        That cuts were proposed for the 945 million. The money under discussion in my post and in the general public is the Public Education Funding line.

        So while you are not incorrect, the department is bigger that that, but so what?

        I am trying to create some apples to apple comparisons of funding for P-12 education. So I am looking in this article strictly at funding per head in transfers from the government to the boards.

        You are unnecessarily broadening the discussion to a number of important and related issues that do not directly address any fact of my central thesis, maybe your goal is to obscure my central point with extraneous data.

        Lets do another comparative, Dr Bennett. The last school you were headmaster at, Halifax Grammar School, charges as follows:

        Junior Primary $9,095
        Senior Primary – Middle Two $11,201
        Middle Three – Senior Three $12,635

        So is that what it costs to deliver the high quality education you have written so much about, or is HGS overcharging? And why wouldn’t less monied people in our society deserve as good an education, or something at least approaching what HGS gives?

        Or are you saying that the public system can do what HGS does for two thirds to half the money HGS charges?

        1. Paul W. Bennett

          Wading into public education spending is full of surprises and sometimes elicits bizarre responses. When the debate goes in uncomfortable directions, it is tempting to resort to personal attacks. I prefer to stick to the issues you are raising for public discussion.

          For the record, I attended public school, taught in public and private schools, served nine years on a Public School Board, and three years as the Budget Chair. Supporters of private schools pay both public school taxes and tuition fees here in Nova Scotia and none of the schools receive a nickel of public money.

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