It’s Not About the Class Size in Calgary Schools

Commentary, Education, Kathleen Canjar, Rodney Clifton

Calgary’s municipal election on Monday saw at least two new trustees elected to Calgary Board of Education (CBE). Waiting for them is a slew of concerns ranging from how money is spent to transparency to the apparent ‘big issue’ of class sizes.

But, the recent debate in newspapers is not really about the class size. It’s about how money is spent.

All the problems at the Calgary board and all across Alberta are a consequence of a cost-disease.

William Baumol, professor emeritus of economics at Princeton University and the author of The Cost Disease, argues that the cost of social services, health care and education specifically,  is “condemned” to increase faster than inflation because the number of people providing and using the services cannot be reduced easily.  Unfortunately, they can be expanded easily.

In Calgary, the cost disease has seen increasingly more resources flow into half-empty schools, expanded bureaucracies, and higher salaries for administrators and teachers. Schools with decreasing student populations are given resources at the expense of schools with more students in classrooms.

So the when the new board holds it’s first meeting it need to be about how to spend money not how to limit class sizes.

The table presents evidence for Alberta public schools from 1999 to 2010.  Over this 11 year period, public school enrolment in Alberta’s public schools increased by 10% from 528,099 to 584,984 students, and the number of educators increased by 17.3% from 30,797 to 36,143. Student-educator ratios have fluctuated, but in 2010-2011the average ratio was 16.19.

The cost of educating students in these schools increased by a whopping 96.9% from $3.67 billion to $7.24 billion when the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased by a modest 56.9%.  The increase in cost per student is comparable, increasing by almost 77.7% from $6958.73 to $12,368.71.

Rethinking the way education is funded in Calgary and in the whole of Alberta is overdue.

For starters, CBE should ask the Alberta government to tie spending directly to demand by using vouchers so parents could send their children to any public, Charter, or independent school.  Higher enrolments would automatically mean larger budgets for schools, and lower enrolments would mean lower budgets. 

These two policies would constrain spending in the face of declining enrolments in some schools. They would also eliminate the unfair double burden placed on the increasing number of parents who are sending their children to alternative schools.  At present, these parents effectively pay twice—first, when they pay private school fees and then when they pay property taxes supporting public schools that do not meet their children’s needs.

The policies would also ease the burden on schools with high enrolment rates because they could hire educators and access the resources they need to benefit their larger student populations.

Consumer-controlled funding would allow schools to hire the teachers they need to educate their students. It would also eliminate a large swath of public school bureaucracy that has absorbed considerable resources.  The policies would also turn schools away from maximizing spending on peripherals and force them to focus on objective, measurable, outputs, those that are essential for creating informed, enlightened, and employable citizens.

As a result, we would get much slimmer provincial department and school boards with more cost-efficient schools that focused on teaching and learning. 

So at the new board takes the reigns it needs to start looking at these policies to stop the cost disease from spreading. And, the same policy development needs to happen across the province.