Sometimes the numbers just don’t add up

March 27, 2019
By Ian Hanna, Director of Government and Stakeholder Relations

Politicians have always had a tenuous grasp of statistics. Bill Clinton was once quoted as saying, “Every American should have an above-average income, and my Administration is going to see they get it.” Although once they have it, the new number becomes the new average and well, you get the point.

In the 1963 Canadian federal election, John Diefenbaker said, “Everyone is against me–except the people!” which is an interesting statistical anomaly. Diefenbaker is also famous for the contempt he felt for the statistical analysis found in polling. “I’ve always been fond of dogs, and they are the one animal that knows the proper treatment to give to poles,” he said.

All of which leads me to the recent musings on education financing from two groups: the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Fraser Institute. Among many other claims, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation states Saskatchewan is spending more than other provinces on education for inferior results. The Fraser Institute says anyone who thinks education funding is decreasing in Canada is dead wrong.

In actual fact, both studies really prove only one thing–a fundamental principle in the dark arts of political propaganda: pick the starting point that best proves your claim and count the things that support your argument. Hold true to these two principles and you can make the numbers prove almost anything.

In his January 23, 2019 article, Todd MacKay, prairie director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, states Saskatchewan had the highest per-student funding in Canada. That’s accurate, and when considering the experience of children in classrooms, also completely irrelevant.

Compared to places such as Ontario and Quebec, Saskatchewan has a much smaller number of students flung over a much larger area. A better measure might be to subtract the amount of money burned in the form of fuel for school buses. That lets you focus on what’s meaningful–money for what happens once children are in the classroom.

Using those numbers, you can see why teachers are complaining about larger, more intensive classes. Enrolment has gone up steadily–just under 10,500 students since 2014-15. What isn’t going up, particularly since the March 2017 provincial budget, are school operating funds. The less-than-magical product of more students and less money for classrooms? Per-student operating funding is lower than it was four years ago.

The Fraser Institute, meanwhile, goes all the way back to 2006 for a report it released in February on education spending in Canada. They count all funding for education including capital. Don’t get me wrong; new schools are great. They get lots of votes for the party that builds them; however, they’re like a lottery. Fantastic if you win, but the lottery ticket is useless if you don’t win.

According to the Fraser Institute, using its numbers and time frames, spending is up and people who say otherwise are dead wrong.

However, once again, if you look at school operating funding, arguably the most accurate measure when it comes to tracking what’s going on in classrooms, you get a different result.

School operating funding in Saskatchewan declined $26 million in real dollars between 2011-12 and 2016-17. In percentage terms, that’s a real budget cut of 2.5 percent.

And if you don’t believe me, look no further than page 11 of last year’s budget document, Saskatchewan Provincial Budget 18-19: On Track, which is still on the Ministry of Finance website. It shows a bar graph for “spending by theme” in billions of dollars. Think of the bar on this graph as a simile for a stack of money. The education stack of money hits a peak in the 2015-16 budget year, but the stack of money for education has been shorter every year since. Don’t believe me? Go look.

Funny, I didn’t see that graph in the Fraser Institute report.

And finally, some numbers provided by the Ministry of Education show why most teachers have bags under their eyes and are complaining they can’t do their jobs as effectively as they used to.

Each year, the Ministry produces the Education Sector Staffing Profile. The 2018-19 report is out.

Number of students? Up about one percent. Number of teacher-counsellors? Down. Number of teacher-librarians? Down. Total number of education/teacher assistants? Up year-over-year but down 218 over the past five years.

The Fraser Institute may think we’re better off. 

I don’t agree.