ATA News

Alberta ranks last in education spending

If you were under the impression that Alberta is one of the country’s biggest spenders when it comes to per-student education funding, you are not alone. The problem is, it’s just not true. 

A recent analysis of Statistics Canada data by ATA economist Neil Hepburn shows that Alberta actually ranks last in per-student spending when compared to other provinces.

Using the most recent data collected (2019/20), Statistics Canada looked at actual school board operating expenditures from the audited financial statements of every school board in the country. This showed that Alberta school boards’ operating expenditures are $10,896 per student. The lowest in Canada, this figure is $1,200 less than the national average and $3,136 less than Newfoundland, which sits at the top of the list. 

These findings are in line with the findings of other researchers, such as the Fraser Institute, but are a contrast to the “big spending” message commonly disseminated by the Alberta government.

For example, the MacKinnon Report commissioned by the UCP government shortly after its 2019 win put Alberta near the top of the list when it compared the province’s per student funding to other provinces. 

The problem with a straight comparison is that the structures used to fund public education can differ greatly from province to province, which can skew the numbers, Hepburn said. For example, Alberta Education’s student funding may appear higher than other provinces’ because the government includes the school tax dollars that were collected at the municipal level. Since our government includes these locally collected tax funds as part of their provincial education budget, it’s difficult to determine how much of their announced funding actually comes from the provincial coffers. Other provinces may have an entirely different funding structure that does not include other sources.

Statistics Canada provides a more accurate breakdown of public education funding, Hepburn said.

Board issue

The latest figures highlight a shift that’s taken place over the last two decades. Alberta was fourth in the country in 2000/01 and reached number two in 2010/11 before starting to decline — falling to tenth in 2019/20.

This drop in public education spending is exacerbated by the underspending of some school boards when it comes to budgeting. 

While some school boards are forced to operate with a chronic deficit, many are able to strike an even balance between surpluses and deficits. There are those, however, who repeatedly run surpluses and bank the excess funds. The Alberta government has identified this as a habitual process for several school boards and has taken steps to remedy it. Starting in the fall of 2023, the government will begin clawing back some of the excess reserves being held by the boards. 

Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling says the school boards and the government need to address the problems that continually plague our classrooms. 

“I find it extremely disappointing — and quite frustrating — to look at this data and know that there are so many areas when that money could make a difference in our schools,” Schilling said. “Class size has been a persistent problem for public education. To see money going into the bank rather than making a difference in our student’s lives is unacceptable.” ❚

A graph of per student operating expenditures 2019/20
Per student operating expenditures 2019/20  

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