November 17, 2018

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Doing the math

How does $2.25 billion annually add up to poor test results?

The NDP government has literally poured tens of billions of dollars into Manitoba’s public education since it took office in the fall of 1999.

The province now has a public school system with operating costs of $2.25 billion each year, with about 60 per cent or so of that amount covered by provincial revenue.

In virtually every comparable category on school spending, per-student funding and student-teacher ratios, the New Democrats under Gary Doer and Greg Selinger have been far bigger spenders on public education than was the last Conservative government of Gary Filmon, elected in 1988.

But what quality of education are Manitobans getting for their money?

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The NDP government has literally poured tens of billions of dollars into Manitoba’s public education since it took office in the fall of 1999.

The province now has a public school system with operating costs of $2.25 billion each year, with about 60 per cent or so of that amount covered by provincial revenue.

In virtually every comparable category on school spending, per-student funding and student-teacher ratios, the New Democrats under Gary Doer and Greg Selinger have been far bigger spenders on public education than was the last Conservative government of Gary Filmon, elected in 1988.

But what quality of education are Manitobans getting for their money?

That’s far harder to pin down — or, it is exceedingly difficult to analyse and identify positive learning outcomes both quantitatively and qualitatively, to put it in education jargon people within the system would understand.

Enrolment is steadily declining, and the public schools’ share of the province’s children is also declining as families look to private schools and, in the last few years far more dramatically, to home-schooling.

There are fewer students but more teachers each year — and not just because the NDP has committed to capping kindergarten to Grade 3 class sizes at 20 children by 2017.

"Is there value for the money?" University of Manitoba education professor Jon Young said. "The indicators are so ambiguous and so complex."

Manitoba does not have widespread testing and tracking of student performance; instead, elementary school teachers perform individual diagnostic assessments of the children with whom they spend 51/2 hours in the classroom each day.

Manitoba has a poor track record compared with every other Canadian province in the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Canadian ministers of education tests — each conducted among randomly-selected schools every three years in math, science, and language arts.

Manitoba is at or near the bottom in almost every category in every set of tests, and no one is taking solace that the province’s young students perform better than children in many major industrialized countries.

On the other hand, high school graduation rates have climbed steadily under the NDP. The province said 71.1 per cent of high school students graduated in 2002; by June 2014, the rate was 87 per cent.

"Under the NDP government, education has been well-funded. The government committed to match funding with the growth in the economy, and they have done that. They’ve made K-to-12 schools a priority," Young said.

"The most important observation is that we continue to fund the public schools well. The other side is harder to get at."

Not surprisingly, Education Minister James Allum thinks Manitoba has a pretty darn good education system — a system from preschool to adulthood, he emphasized, not just kindergarten to Grade 12.

"We’re kindergarten-to-career," Allum declared.

"We remain focused on prioritizing kids’ quality education... positioning them to go on and get a good career, and stay right here in Manitoba.

"Manitoba has been prospering; we’ve been putting a priority on education. Postsecondary enrolment has increased dramatically in our time in government," Allum said, citing graduation rates.

TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

It’s a system that is boosting early childhood education, capping class sizes at 20 in kindergarten to Grade 3, and working with students through high school to prepare for university and college, which, it is hoped, will put them in good jobs.

But, Allum said, national and international testing can undermine public confidence.

"We acknowledge there’s a learning gap," Allum said, pointed out, "86 per cent of our kids are meeting or exceeding expectations."

But that’s not good enough.

He called everyone on the carpet last year, when the OECD numbers came out, and demanded Manitoba do better.

"A full range of activities was undertaken" to work with schools to prepare better for the next round of three-year testing, Allum said.

Manitoba has been revising the math curriculum to get back to the basics in early years, and future teachers are now required to have at least six credit hours in university math before they can get into a faculty of education.

"We’ve put resources online so parents can see what’s being taught in the classroom," said the minister.

The provincial Conservatives, and leader Brian Pallister, are less enthusiastic about the NDP’s record.

The teachers are working hard and they’re good teachers, said Conservative education critic Wayne Ewasko (Lac du Bonnet), who was a high school guidance teacher before being elected to office in 2011. "(But) we’re not getting results. I don’t have faith in the leadership."

When children educated under the Filmon government wrote the national and international tests in math and reading — science was added later — they were consistently near the top in Canada, in the top three regularly, Ewasko said.

Those tests are only a tool, he said. "(But) all the kids coming dead last now are educated under the NDP. It doesn’t have to be standards tests — we need ‘made in Manitoba’ " to evaluate students’ performance and figure out how to make it better.

Money isn’t a solution, Ewasko said: "The minister is going around the province now on a promise-and-spending spree."

The Manitoba Liberal party did not respond to requests for its perspective.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society has long and frequently complained the Filmon Tories cut 700 full-time teaching jobs in Manitoba during the 1990s. ("There were wage freezes and losses in purchasing power," said MTS president Norm Gould.)

More teachers and smaller class sizes sit well with MTS, which is nervous about the possibility of the election of a Tory government in April.

While the Conservatives have been reluctant to be specific about education issues, other than criticizing the NDP for allegedly failing the province’s children, Pallister has told the union he will not cut front-line teachers, Gould said.

"He’s used the term ‘front line.’ If you can find the definition of ‘front line,’ that would be important. Does that include resource teachers, guidance counsellors, special education?"

TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

While MTS is among the NDP’s biggest fans, the teachers’ union still has concerns over equity within the funding formula.

"Certainly, funding is a key issue," Gould said. "Equity is a big thing within the funding formula, with equalization. Funding drives the whole bus. You have rural divisions trying to deliver robust programming for kids" despite low assessment bases.

And the situation is no better within Winnipeg, said Gould. "Mill rates are deceiving — 13 mills in St. James is very different from 13 mills in Pembina Trails, based on the value of homes... the amount of revenue you generate."

Nor is MTS satisfied with the way Manitoba educates its special-needs children.

"The premier has a special-needs task force. You have to put children in a very negative light to justify the funds. Divisions have to top up the money," Gould said.

U of M education professor emeritus and frequent government critic Rod Clifton said there is no evidence spending more money improves the quality of education.

"It’s very difficult to know here," because there is little hard data on student performance, he said.

"There are no uncontested ways of getting at it," because any means of testing or other methodology to measure student performance is invariably rejected as ideological or political, Clifton said.

A C.D. Howe Institute report on teacher compensation and student performance (released Sept. 3) concluded paying teachers above-average salaries (such as in Manitoba) does not lead to better student performance, and below-average salaries (such as in British Columbia) do not lead to lower student performance.

Manitoba does poorly compared with other provinces in random national and international testing, said Clifton, but there is no indication such testing in any way measures the curriculum compared with other jurisdictions’ curricula.

He dismissed Grade 12 language arts testing (process tests, in which students receive unfamiliar written material and then are judged on their ability to understand and interpret that material) as a way to measure performance.

"Generally, all the kids pass, and the top kids and bottom kids aren’t spread out," Clifton said.

Graduation rates are up, he conceded, but: "It’s easy to get the kids out — it’s difficult to know if they have the proficiencies necessary" for postsecondary education and good careers.

It costs a lot of money to get 23-student classes down to a cap of 20, Clifton said, but that "may not have much of an effect. No one knows."

And Clifton said provincial support for special-needs children varies greatly: "Some school divisions are able to play the game better than other school divisions. The ideology of mainstreaming is so powerful that it’s difficult to get into the debate."

TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

How the two education eras stack up

Enrolment

Student numbers have been inexorably declining, with only minor blips of growth, to 200,087 as of Sept. 30, 2014, from 209,352 in 1987.

What’s striking is that public-school students as a percentage of overall enrolment have dropped to 90.1 per cent from 95.2 per cent.

The increase in home-schooled children has been nothing short of extraordinary: to 2,970 during the last school year from 186 when NDP premier Howard Pawley left office in 1988. (However, changes in how government oversees home-schoolers suggest there may well have been more than 186 at that time.)

Private school numbers made a big jump during the Filmon years (1988-99) — no surprise, given the Tories introduced per-student operating grants in response to a court challenge. Private schools receive 50 per cent of the per-student money spent by the public school division in which they are located — far short of the 80 per cent the private schools wanted, but still more than $50 million a year.

 

Education spending

Manitoba now has a $2.25-billion public education system, more than double what it was when Conservative premier Gary Filmon took office in 1988.

The money spent on operating the public education system annually grew 23.3 per cent during the Filmon years, and 80.5 per cent under the New Democrats.

Teachers’ salaries and benefits have always been by far the highest portion of education costs regardless which party is in power.

During the Filmon years, the costs of classroom teachers as a percentage of overall spending dropped to 51 per cent from 56.7 per cent, as the Manitoba Teachers’ Society claimed 700 full-time equivalent teaching jobs disappeared. But the percentage has dropped even further under the NDP, to 47.3 per cent, as hiring of certified teachers in non-classroom roles such as resource teachers, reading specialists, math consultants, guidance counsellors and special-needs teachers has increased dramatically.

 

Student funding

The Tories had a low increase in spending per student, to $6,612 from $5,418 per child, during their time in office, an increase of 22.9 per cent.

The NDP has since almost doubled 2000-01 spending per student to $12,248, a jump of 91.9 per cent.

There has also been a dramatic change in the student-teacher ratios.

Under the Tories, classroom sizes got bigger by 4.7 per cent, while the NDP has shrunk class sizes by 12.1 per cent.

An even more dramatic change is visible in educator-student ratio of all certified teachers in the school to all students. That ratio got 7.7 per cent larger under the Filmon Conservatives, to 15.4 students for every certified teacher; under the NDP, there are 13.1 children for every certified teacher in the school, a drop of 14.9 per cent.

 

Paying for public education

The Filmon Tories increased operating grants for public schools by 7.5 per cent, while the NDP has pumped 85.1 per cent more in operating grants into the system.

Statistics Canada figures show the cost of living rose in Manitoba 28.7 per cent during the Filmon years, and by 33.7 during the NDP years (up to Dec. 31, 2014).

Meanwhile, the amount of money school divisions collected under the special levy went up 72.4 per cent in the Filmon years and 121.4 per cent so far under the New Democrats.

However, such figures are not so easily compared, especially given what the NDP has done in its 15 years.

There have been changes in taxation on farmland, and a farmland tax rebate. The NDP phased out property taxes paid by universities. The property tax credit became an education property tax credit close to a decade ago, even though it is now and always has been a reduction on property tax bills and isn’t available to school divisions to spend. For four years, the NDP offered a tax incentive grant (TIG), which was extra cash under a complex formula for school divisions whose boards chose to freeze taxes — TIG became part of the province’s base grants to that division the following year, regardless whether trustees froze taxes again. TIG is no longer offered.

When the NDP took office, the education support levy was paid by every residential property taxpayer at a uniform mill rate across Manitoba. Even though it was collected through the property tax bill, the ESL was considered provincial funding, not municipal taxation. The NDP phased out the ESL on residential properties, but continues to collect it on commercial properties.

 

Teacher salaries

Again, they’re difficult to compare, because the average teacher has changed a lot over the years.

Teachers’ qualifications are defined in seven classes, but for more than a decade, pretty much every new teacher hired has been at least a Class 5. In 2003, the province introduced the five-year after-degree program, in which future Class 5 teachers first get an undergraduate degree, then a degree from a faculty of education.

A typical teacher these days is considered a Class 5 teacher who has maxed out on incremental increases after 10 years. A Class 5 teacher can become Class 6 with a master’s degree, or a Class 7 with a PhD or two master’s degrees.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society says an average teacher in 2000 made a mid-$50,000 salary.

The MTS website says the median salary for a Class 5 teacher with 10 years’ experience is now $84,162, an increase of 53 per cent — well above inflation but well below the overall cost increase in operating the public education system. (Remember, however, teachers from each of those eras’ have vastly different qualifications.)

Teachers have settled in 23 of the 37 bargaining units in Manitoba. While each division’s teachers bargain for specific changes in working conditions, money has been the same in each deal: a 2.0 per cent raise in September of 2015, 2016 and 2017, with almost all of them also agreeing on two 1.5 per cent raises six months apart in 2018. That’s 9.03 per cent compounded over four years.

Last year, seven Class 7 teachers in Thompson became the first regular classroom teachers to crack the $100,000 barrier. By the time the new deals expire June 30, 2018, most Class 6 and 7 veteran teachers will be in six figures, and that typical Class 5 teacher with 10 years’ experience will be in the very high $90s.

— sources: calculations made by the Winnipeg Free Press based on the provincial enrolment reports and the provincial FRAME (Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education), which can be found here, and from information from the Manitoba School Boards Association and the Manitoba Teachers’ Society

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Sunday, December 27, 2015 at 6:46 PM CST: Corrects typo.

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