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Are we undermining our schools by not investing enough in education?

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Photo: Geoffery Kehrig/flickr

This year's back-to-school media coverage featured surprisingly little analysis on how our schools are doing. Not to say that articles about innovative approaches to help students stay alert, back-to-school parenting advice and school lunch ideas aren't useful, but surely those could have been combined with more in-depth analysis of the challenges and opportunities facing our schools.

Maybe it's because our students consistently perform well in international student assessments that British Columbians don't think they need to spend much time worrying about school quality. But are we undermining our schools by becoming complacent?

A thoughtful article I came across earlier this year argues that this is exactly what's happening, that chronic underfunding of our schools is threatening the high quality of education B.C. has been so proud of in the past. "The Observant Citizen's Guide to School Funding in BC" by John Malcolmson and Bill Bruneau is worth revisiting as we mark the start of a new school year.

Malcolmson and Bruneau sum up the B.C. school reality in one line: "our schools operate with inadequate supplies and support."

How did we get here? Years of funding increases that didn't cover costs, and most recently, flatly frozen funding despite escalating costs. Malcolmson and Bruneau explain:

When B.C. forests go up in flames, we spend what's necessary to save trees and take care of our communities. When communicable disease endangers public health, we don't count the cost: we send in our doctors and nurses, we make tough decisions and act on them.

So when kids work in overcrowded classrooms, and schools deal with pressures hardly anyone imagined twenty years ago, you'd think we would rise to the occasion. You'd think we would deal with basic changes in our neighbourhoods and the wider society.  You might imagine that the stewards of our school system would remember to take inflation into account when they set the budget. After all, good public education comes at a reasonable cost.

But there's no sense of urgency. … The 2013 budget announces "flat funding" until 2016 for public schools.

Members of the BC Association of School Business Officials estimate the system is hundreds of million of dollars behind where it was a decade ago. Funding has not kept pace with cost pressures, new and old. We spend almost $1,000 less per child for public education in B.C. than the national average.

And it's not just operating funding that is not keeping up pace with costs. Capital improvement grants, which were cut in 2009, have not kept up with school maintenance needs.

Deferring regular building maintenance is a false economy. Minor issues that are straightforward to fix today will only get worse and more expensive to deal with if neglected. It's only a matter of time before news of crumbling schools hit the papers, like this recent Crumbling Campus piece on SFU (suffering from very similar underfunding problems).

Malcolmson and Bruneau are right to be concerned that the chronic underfunding only worsens existing inequalities in our society, and hurts already disadvantaged kids the most:

In well-off neighbourhoods, parents may be able to raise funds for the essential tools of 21st-century education -- but elsewhere in urban and rural B.C., fundraising for classrooms and needy children is usually Wishful Thinking.

At the end of the day, you get what you pay for and education is no exception. As a society, we have been short-changing our schools for a while now, and it's time to reinvest in the quality of all our children's education in this province. Our children are worth it.

Photo: Geoffery Kehrig/flickr

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