Today most major Canadian education policy pronouncements come packaged as the latest “investments” in our K-12 schools. Investing more in introducing new programs, building new schools, and hiring more staff rarely, if ever, attracts close scrutiny. After all, who would ever question spending more on ensuring “the future success of our children.” Some 22 months into the Pandemic, provincial governments are spending like never before to reduce class cohort sizes, hire substitute teachers, health-proof schools, and provide staff with masks and personal protective equipment.
The growth and expansion of “Big Education” (aka “Big Ed”) escapes notice because everyone is totally absorbed in the Moral Panic fed by a persistent infectious disease. Today, and long before the Pandemic, the K-12 school system remains largely invisible and is rarely ever analyzed in terms of its role in sustaining regional economies, providing employment, or seeing the region through the COVID-19 economic downturn. Looking at K-12 education in Atlantic Canada through that lens can be full of surprises. What follows is an expanded version of my recent Insights Podcast with Don Mills produced for Huddle, based in Saint John, NB.
The former Nova Scotia Liberal government of Stephen McNeil and Andrew Rankin, widely regarded for being ‘tight-fisted,’ went to the polls in July 2021 taking pride in “increasing education spending by 30 per cent” to $1.7-billion from 2013 to 2020. While student enrolments languished, they sought a fresh mandate claiming that they were responsible for hiring “more than 900 new teaching positions and approximately 400 non-teaching positions.” Neither of the opposition parties questioned the figures or asked for evidence that it was improving the quality of education for students.
What upset the provincial PCs and NDP, back in December 2020, was underspending by Education Minister Zach Churchill and his department. With COVID-19 disrupting in-person schooling and interrupting special needs programs, they expressed considerable outrage over the province only spending $11.5-million of the forecasted $15-million earmarked for inclusive education during 2020-21. Even though a thoroughly researched September 2020 academic article, written by University of Ottawa researchers, Jess Whitley and Trista Holloweck, had identified inclusive education implementation confusion and obstacles, no one, again, questioned the cost-effectiveness of the $35-million spent, to date, on the initiative.
Newly-arrived Nova Scotia Auditor General, Kim Adair-MacPherson, learned her first lesson in N.S. education spending practices while investigating the planning and implementation (from April 2017 onward) of the Pre-Primary Program estimated to cost $50-million at the outset. She found the Pre-Primary planning “inadequate” and the roll-out “rushed” to meet an election promise. What was more surprising, to her, was the total lack of financial controls and the department’s inability to provide total costs for the program, estimated to exceed the initial estimates.
Provincial K-12 education is now big business in Canada and especially so in all of the Atlantic provinces. That becomes abundantly clear when you take the time to assess more carefully the total financial impact of education spending, province-to-province, the proportion of the workforce employed in the sector, and its de-facto role in regional economic development.
Total spending on K-12 education in Atlantic Canada has now reached more than $4.3-billion each year, significantly higher than a decade ago. It represents about 64 per cent of all expenditures overall on education (Statistics Canada, 2019) The provincial education budgets, as of 2017-18, were $1.7-billion in Nova Scotia, $1.5-billion in New Brunswick, $878-million in Newfoundland/Labrador, and $278-million in Prince Edward Island.
Spending per student has risen everywhere in the region, except for Newfoundland/Labrador. Biggest spender is New Brunswick at $15,486 per pupil (2018-19), up 16.4 per cent since 2013. Two years ago, Nova Scotia’s per pupil spending stood at $14,910, a five-year increase of 22.5 per cent. The corresponding figures for P.E.I. stood at $14,008, up 14.5 per cent since 2013. Newfoundland and Labrador comes in at $12,878, down 2.7 per cent over the period.
Student enrolment in the Maritimes has risen since 2010-11, totaling 240,371, up some 5.4 per cent. Over that same period, the number of educators has grown faster, up from 19,285 to 21,462 (2019) or 11.3 per cent. It’s quite clear that the totals for “educators” does not include all employees employed in the K-12 education sector. Calculating accurate grand totals for the K-12 sector, in the case of N.S., would involve counting the number of employees represented by five different unions: the NSTU, CUPE, NSGEU, NSUPE, and PEG.
The Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRSB up until 2018) with a budget of $617-million is a case in point. Back in 2016, the school district employed 9,600 personnel, of which 4,255 (or 44.3 per cent) were deployed in schools as teachers, administrators, and support staff. Today that district employs 11,500 personnel, the majority of whom are not counted as educators.
Education also operates on a large scale, judging from the relative size of the workforce employed in the K-12 sector in each of the Atlantic provinces. Nova Scotia’s largest employer is the Nova Scotia Health Authority with 23,400 employees in 2021. Second in size is the Department of Education, employing an estimated 17,000, of whom roughly 9,674 are educators. Next in number of employees are Jazz Aviation (4,700), Dalhousie University (3,700), and Emera (2,300).
Education rivals or exceeds health care in New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Newfoundland/Labrador. In N.B., the Education Department employs some 7,788 educators, second only to Horizon Health and more than the francophone equivalent, Vitalite. The school system is king on the Island, where the Public Schools employ an estimated 4,000, more than Health PEI. On the Rock, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District employs over 11,000 staff, second only to the Health and Community Services department.
Big education is here to stay and it’s now a major factor influencing public policy decisions well beyond the sector. The sheer size of the educational workforce goes largely unrecognized, even by provincial auditor-generals, and is rarely factored into regional economic development conversations. Provincial governments in Atlantic Canada, it is now clear, see K-12 education as an integral piece in job creation and protection, especially in COVID-19 times.
Why might public education be considered “big business,” particularly in Atlantic Canada How dominant is the K-12 system in terms of capital investment, employment, and regional economic development? Does the system escape public scrutiny because of its largely unacknowledged role in job creation and protection, particularly in challenging economic times?