Education funding — how to kill reform

Many assume the Dexter Government made a mistake when it asked school boards to consider—and report back on—the consequences of a hypothetical 22 percent cut in their budgets. They say this gave the boards and the NSTU a license to frighten voters, and thus rally support for their comfortable status quo. Contrarian reader (and retired Education Dept. bureaucrat) Wayne Fiander puts the case vividly:

Having served two premiers in this province, I can say with some confidence that a real education “right sizing exercise” is necessary to preserve public education. No government has yet tackled this issue correctly. They start with the end, and the current mess, a 22% cut—and the school boards and teachers union rub their hands together: They know this play for one more year of funding in their sleep.

Party functionaries and government flaks are in high gear trying to undo the perceived damage. Some assume the plan was a crude bait-and-switch strategy: threaten a huge cut and hope for a sigh of relief when you “only” cut 10 or 12 percent.

Maybe. But I’m not convinced there has been that much damage. In most communities, teachers are regarded as having generous terms of employment, and many Nova Scotians will recognize the union/board caterwaul of the last month as self-serving. In this, as in so many areas requiring tough choices by government, the public is more ready to be treated like grownups than politicians, flaks, and media suppose.

A decade of annual five and six percent budget increases in the face of a 30,000-student drop in enrolment is not sustainable. That’s not a hard concept for taxpayers to grasp.  Fiander thinks government should have started, not with a prescriptive cut, but with a vision of a changed education system. (I have done some light editing here for clarity.)

Government strategy should have been to lay out the vision of what the education system would look like, and then asked the school boards to respond. Part of the vision should have been to reduce school boards or downsize the Department of Education, as taxpayers can’t afford both. If that vision were laid out first, the sacred cows would not be put up for sacrifice, as parents would know they were not being touched. The sacred cows that would be on the table would be classroom sizes of 15 going to 20 (with correspondingly fewer teachers), closing small schools so students could  get better access to other needs, and putting more operations in private hands.

Reader Denis Falvy likewise urges taxpayers to follow the money:

About 80 to 85 percent of the $1.1 billion spent by the Department of Education goes to the line item, “Formula Grants to School Boards.” Using the Halifax District School Board as an example, approximately 75 percent of its $400-million budget goes to school administration, 59 percent of which is spent on the line item, “Salaries – Teachers.”

No doubt cuts can and should be made to the 25 percent of the education budget not allocated to school boards, and no doubt cuts can be made to the 40 percent of the school board budget not allocated to teachers—after all, teaching is what the department should be all about, not 60 or 75 percent about. But a successful long term approach toward education expenses logically has to come from the line item, “Salaries – Teachers.”

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