Re-inventing Public Education In Manitoba

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

It’s election time in Manitoba and the Filmon Tories have made vague promises to increase spending on education. Public education, thus, maintains its sacred cow status even with the tax-cutting Conservatives. But someday even the Tories will discover that sacred cows make good burgers. Not that long ago, a best-selling book titled Boom, Bust and Echo enlivened the dry topic of demography, the study of human populations. The author, University of Toronto economist David Foot, delved into the relationships between the size and age of different segments of Canada’s population, the economy and public policy. The book describes why Canada has among the world’s most expensive public schools. Governments ignored demographic change by failing to reduce funding as enrolments declined after the baby boomers had graduated.

Why? Politicians have accommodated the public school monopoly natural tendency to increase spending levels regardless of demand. So the per student cost of education has zoomed even as student numbers have declined. This failure to adjust spending to match demand, has seen extra resources flow into half-empty schools, expanded bureaucracy and administration and higher wages in all aspects of operations.

The numbers below illustrate Manitoba’s participation in this national trend. Between 1960 and 1994, public school enrolment fell as the number of teachers rose, particularly during the 1970s. When we strip out the effects of inflation, real spending per student increased almost four times. Stated otherwise, had public funding per student increased only by the inflation rate, Manitoba would have spent $1.2 billion less on public education in 1994 than it actually did.

Public school supporters will argue that students have benefited over the years from higher quality facilities and better educated teachers. But the four-fold real increase in per student funding over this period, paradoxically, has resulted in a system with declining test results and achievement levels. Mark Holmes, author of "The Reformation of Canada’s Schools", recently showed that student performance as measured by the Canadian Test of Basic Skills in Canada, including Manitoba, has slipped by at least one grade level over the last 25 years. International comparisons also show slipping student performance in Canada relative to other countries particularly to those that dramatically spend less on education relative to Canada. In short, "underfunding" is a myth – we have been spending more and more on "inputs" and achieving less and less in "outputs."

A wholesale rethinking of the province’s public education system is overdue for two reasons. First, Manitoba policy-makers face growing pressure to shift resources into health care as our population ages. Second, there is a pressing need to improve the efficiency of existing spending in all public budgets in order to make lower taxes possible and stem our brain drain and compete economically with lower-tax regimes elsewhere.

The province will provide about $700 million in direct support for primary and secondary education this year. The school board levy, or the education portion of property tax, generates about another $400 million. Sharp rises in the latter over the years have depressed Winnipeg property values and fueled urban sprawl in the so-called Capital Region.

So how can we rethink the public school system to use resources more effectively?

Why not tie spending levels directly to consumer demand through either a voucher or tax-credit program for parents? Smaller enrollments would automatically mean smaller budgets. This would dramatically simplify life for our politicians by eliminating the present system’s capacity to maintain spending in the face of declining demand. More important, it would also effectively do away with the monopoly problem that lies at the source of the declining student performance and rising spending. Finally, it would abolish the unfair double burden placed on parents who prefer alternative schools. They now effectively pay twice — first, their private fees, and then the taxes that support a state school system that does not meet the needs of their children.

A consumer-controlled system would also eliminate large swaths of administration and bureaucracy, which can absorb up to 40% of spending in traditional "one-size-fits-all" public school systems. This would protect important spending on basic services, i.e. direct spending on teachers and classroom activities. It would turn the entire system away from its penchant for maximizing spending on peripherals; re-orient itself towards objective measurable outputs of quality, such as standardized test scores, that are essential to the core mission of creating informed and enlightened student-citizens.

We would see a much slimmer, more focussed provincial education department. Its function would be to design the universal parent-controlled funding system and, more critically, manage a quality-control system that tested schools and publicized their results. This information would grease the wheels of a competitive education marketplace. Schools with exceptional results would flourish and expand as customers flowed into them. Low-performing schools would close. The wishes of parents would determine curriculum. Presumably there would be a strong bias towards returning to the basics of building literacy and math skills, but schools would be free to innovate and experiment.

Another advantage of a consumer-controlled system would be its complete neutrality on process – on how the system operates. School boards, an anachronistic attempt at democracy, would become superfluous. Representing another level of government with little public involvement and support (only 7% of those eligible voted in Winnipeg School Division Number One in 1998), they could be eliminated at substantial cost savings to the community. This, combined with other efficiencies, would allow the province to lower income taxes and phase out the school portion of property tax.

Given both its inordinate expense and its vital contribution to the general good, we need to remake our education system not pour more money into it. The future of our children and our province depends on it.

Supporting information:

Manitoba Public School Expenditures
Year Students Teachers Student/Teacher All Expenditures


      Ratio (000s) Nominal Real spending (removing effects of inflation)
1960 205,584 8,101 25.4 $ 63,859 $ 310.62 $ 310.62
1970 261,144 11,934 21.9 $ 194,706 $ 745.59 $ 534.63
1980 220,690 12,150 18.2 $ 595,599 $ 2,698.80 $ 921.18
1985 219,125 12,210 17.9 $ 953,907 $ 4,353.25 $ 1,068.11
1990 218,200 12,640 17.3 $ 1,331,444 $ 6,101.94 $ 1,204.76
1994 221,747 12,715 17.4 $ 1,467,811 $ 6,619.30 $ 1,176.34
Source: Statistics Canada 81-229 Advanced Statistics of Education, includes property tax, all provincial grants