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Canada’s education spending: Going up, but is it going to the right places?

Two girls in a classroom.

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"Where is the money going?" That's the perpetual question we have when it comes to educational spending in Canada. We all have some vague idea that a lot of money is getting funnelled to education, and inevitably there are questions as to how well it is being spent. That the money could be spent more effectively is a frequent theme, especially whenever assessments on Canadian student achievement are released.

Statistics Canada has just released a comprehensive set of tables showing expenditures and revenues for school boards in Canada. Not a report mind you, but just a massive amount of data that shows where the money is going. I figured it was worth digging through it.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the money spent in Canada by school boards goes to salaries and wages. That category (which includes teachers as well as other workers) accounted for 70.6 per cent of all spending in Canada in 2011 (the last year for which data are available). The figure varies from 63.7 per cent in Quebec to 79.9 per cent in Prince Edward Island. The Quebec figure, by the way, was enough of an outlier that I took a look at where the province was spending the rest of their money. It turns out Quebec spends disproportionately high amounts on adult education and on food services.

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Boards have increased their spending quite sharply over the past decade. In Canada as a whole, expenditures have increased 53 per cent – or 5.3 per cent a year, a rate much higher than inflation. Is this because of more students? I could not find precise figures on enrolments, but I was able to look in the census data at the population aged 5 through 19 (basically, school age). What I found was that this cohort had actually declined by 4 per cent over the period (and the only growth was in older teens who might not have been in school anyway). So the spending increase was not about having more kids to serve.

Teachers and administrators got some of the increase, but not all of it. Over the 10-year period, compensation for the group was up by 50 per cent, a little less than the total expenditure growth (although again, this is a bit of mystery if school-aged population was down). The area that actually grew the most was capital outlays, which were up by 271 per cent over 10 years (although they still only ended up at 7 per cent of total spending).

One thing that is clear is that a lot of money is being spent. School boards in Canada spent a whopping $53-billion in 2011, for a school-aged population of about six million. That comes out to nearly $9,000 a child.

Was that enough? Well, it depends what you are looking for in terms of success. Perhaps we cannot judge that for a while longer, at a time when we can look at Canada's economy and say that it was worth it – or not. We are throwing money at the problem, though – and hopefully we will see a return on the money.

Linda Nazareth is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Her new book Economorphics: The Trends Changing Today into Tomorrow is now available through Amazon and www.economorphics.com.

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About the Author

Linda Nazareth is the principal of Relentless Economics and senior fellow for economics and population change at the Macdonald Laurier Institute. More

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