||Volume 22, Number 4, January/February 2010
Death by a thousand downloads
By John Malcolmson
The financial strangulation of BC public schooling
A spectre of financial crisis currently stalks BC public schools. The signs of it are everywhere. Parents are increasingly roiled with the ongoing assault on what public schools are able to offer their children. School trustees are starting to move to a more assertive political stance after years of hand-wringing despair over the program cuts they find themselves forced to make. Even senior district administrators are starting to question the role foisted on them as they stare at worsening cutback scenarios increasingly unable to stave off rising revenue shortfalls.
How can we make sense of a system under perpetual duress to ratchet down what it is able to offer its students? And how is a steady stream of cutback news to be squared with the increased expectations that our provincial government places on the doorstep of our public schools?
The Ministry of Education’s role in all of this has been one of fast-freezing annual budgetary allocation, while disclaiming responsibility for program impacts. Fingers are routinely pointed at boards and administrators, supposed culprits whose standards of financial management must somehow be deficient.
This policy response is succinctly reflected in the perpetual MOE mantra of “the most funding ever... hundreds of millions in new spending,” a site-licensed mantra chanted with monotonous regularity by virtually every government MLA when asked questions linked to the sorry state of public school finance.
It is useful to take a step back and look more systematically at the yawning gap separating dead-tracked funding levels on the one side, and the relentless march of school cost obligations on the other. Doing this yields an interesting picture. Consider the following:
- Our schools are highly dependent on the province for grant money—95% of all revenue comes in the form of provincial grants, a figure up sharply since school districts lost the right to control property taxes two decades ago. If Victoria fails to provide the necessary cash, it makes for big problems at the school district level.
- Those districts best able to loosen the fiscal noose are the ones most adept at navigating the unsure path to increased entrepreneurialism with the push to market BC school services internationally. Last year foreign students brought in almost $130 million in fee revenue. A few boards successfully cornered the market on offshore earnings; the bottom half of districts got less than 2% of this revenue. This shows that international education is not the financial panacea some make it out to be.
- Cross-district migration of students was officially sanctioned by Victoria earlier this decade, ostensibly to offer parents and students more choice in program offerings. Increasingly, however, migration offers interested parents a desperate chance to stay just one step ahead of cuts following close on their heels.
- Falling enrolment is supposed to ease matters—fewer students to educate should ease the financial pressure. But, when a district currently loses a student, more than $5,800 in revenue dries up while cost “savings” total an estimated $2,800. That leaves a $3,000 per capita crater in district budgets that has to be made up in “greater efficiencies.” The latter is a code phrase for school closures, program and staff cuts, and more fees for parents in areas like student busing.
How then are we to make sense of schools’ current financial difficulties? Mounting evidence from different boards around the province points to an emerging “structural funding shortfall” in provincial funding support. This shortfall is the product of at least three interdependent processes:
- The downloading of new unfunded or underfunded cost obligations by the province (such as the HST, full-day Kindergarten, carbon compliance, etc.)
- The failure of the current Funding Allocation System model used in K–12 to keep pace with cost increases in areas that are notionally funded (such as rising transportation and benefit costs, teacher pension cost increases, a teacher 2% salary increase due in 2010, and the financial impact of falling enrolment).
- The imposition of ad hoc cuts to discretionary programs in efforts to contain the size of the provincial deficit (such as the $110 million cut in this year’s Annual Facilities Grant, or the last minute clawback in district “hold-back” funds).
The shortfall crisis has left virtually every district scrambling to lever down spending by eliminating programs, staff and services. Information compiled by school administrators puts the size of the current structural shortfall at several hundred million dollars province-wide as we approach 2010–11. While the jobs of teachers and support staff are already coming under pressure as a result, BC’s school-aged children will be the chief victims of this crisis.
Unfortunately, students, parents, staff, and community members anxious to oppose this looming disaster are sometimes held back in their ability to understand the mounting crisis. Use of the term “cutback” is a case in point. For the MOE, cutbacks are a myth because in gross terms funding is up not down. In addition, it is boards—victims of the structural shortfall—that make actual decisions to cut staff and program. “Needs budgets” are also problematic, simply because the concept is easily misrepresented as an effort to map new cost obligations without regard for underlying economic realities.
Ending the “highest funding ever” charade requires a more concerted effort to document, research, quantify, and popularize the actual extent of the current imposed shortfall in terms an average parent or community member can readily understand. Doing this shows “highest funding ever” to be an out-and-out myth.
We also need to point the finger clearly and unambiguously at those bearing responsibility for the current financial strangulation. Specifically:
- The Ministry of Education and its finance counterpart have frozen levels of funding while downloading—often by stealth—new cost centres and obligations to boards.
- Treasury Board refuses to properly index revenue resources to reflect underlying changes in real prices faced by school district decision-makers.
- The Premier’s Office bears ultimate responsibility for visiting ad hoc and irrational jump shifts in funding rules, like this fall’s cut to the Annual Facilities Grant that tightens the financial noose while undercutting board efforts to meet newly imposed carbon compliance obligations.
We have a task ahead in fully and irrevocably puncturing the myth of “highest funding ever.” The BCTF and CUPE are committed to taking up this challenge and to bringing a new message debunking government funding claims to a board of education near you. Stay tuned.
John Malcolmson is CUPE research representative with occasional luck in ferreting out useful information.