BC's new Education Minister will have a lot on his plate in the short lead-up to the 2004 provincial budget. Many are hoping that Mr. Christensen will repair government relations with teachers and school boards. If he is to be successful, there is some basic math that must be done first.
Parents and teachers -- and most of all, students -- know that schools have been closed, teaching and administrative positions have been cut, and class sizes have grown in the past couple of years.
Mr. Christensen's predecessor, Christy Clark, on the other hand, argued that per-pupil funding is rising and that the government is spending more money on education than ever before. The blame for cuts, in her view, lies with local school boards not the provincial government.
Technically speaking, Ms. Clark was correct. Funding from Victoria has grown, though very modestly. And because of declining student enrolment in recent years, total spending per student is also up.
But she loses marks by failing to take into account a very important element of education financing: the cost of providing education services. In the same way that consumer prices tend to rise over time (i.e. inflation), so does the cost of salaries for teachers, administrators and support staff, the cost of books and classroom materials, the cost of utilities such as heating, and costs related to transportation and other education-related supplies and services.
Since 1990/91, provincial funding for K-12 has grown by 43%. But the cost of providing the same level of education in 2003/04 is about 34% higher than it was in 1990/91. And even though student enrolment has declined in recent years, it is still 12% higher than in 1990/91.
When these three factors are combined, all of the "real world" pressures experienced by educators, parents and students become apparent. Over the 1990/91 to 2003/04 period, real funding per student was at its highest level in 1990/91, then declined through most of the 1990s, with the exception of a few years late in the decade.
Since 2000/01, real funding per student has dropped steeply. The past two years have had the lowest funding over the entire period, even though declining enrolment should make this an ideal time to recover lost ground.
The impact has been significant. Some 92 schools have been closed over the past two years, more than 14,000 students have been displaced from their schools, and 2,881 teaching positions have been cut. And this trend will continue for the next few years without additional contributions from the BC government.
As a result, the K-12 education system is at great risk in terms of its ability to deliver high quality services to BC's children. A first step would be to increase education funding by $300 million in the 2004 Budget, a move that would restore real per student funding back to 1990/91 levels.
The alternative is an education system struggling to keep up. Already, parents are increasingly required to pay for school materials, field trips, music fees, and so on, while feeling compelled to pay again to support local schools through bake sales and pizza day fundraisers.
Left unchecked, the result will be growing inequities, as schools in more affluent neighbourhoods have better access to extra funds from well-heeled parents. Schools in lower-income neighbourhoods are not so fortunate.
The new Minister of Education needs to do more than conjure up numbers to create the illusion of spending more on education. He needs to actually put the financial resources in place to ensure the reality of a high quality education system. BC's children deserve nothing less.
Marc Lee is an economist in the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.