Rising education costs could break Quebec’s bank

From 2006 to 2016, while the number of students in Quebec public schools fell by 3.6 per cent, total real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) spending on education grew 14.1 per cent. In other words, real spending per student increased by 18.4 per cent in 10 years. And people say children won’t do better than their parents! If Quebec’s Department of Education was already struggling to control costs while student numbers were falling, imagine what will happen when they start rising again. And rising they have been – since 2016 – with government demographers forecasting another sevenper-cent increase over the next five years.

The arrival of new students implies increased spending on infrastructure, staff, and adapted resources, among other things. The government is expecting to have to add $1.7 billion to increases already budgeted for preschool, primary and secondary education over the next five years, mainly in direct student services, such as adding kindergarten for four-year-olds, offering an additional hour of extracurricular activity per day, introducing programs to support success and perseverance, and adding specialized classes. That’s not counting additional infrastructure spending, which is extra.

Given the fiscal pressure that rising student numbers are bound to produce, it makes sense to ask ourselves if we can come up with solutions that are more effective and less expensive. Thankfully, there are some good examples from elsewhere in the world to guide us. Other countries have addressed the problems that concern us by implementing bold reforms to control spending while improving student outcomes. Quebec and the rest of Canada could and should learn from these experiences.

A number of European countries allow a large amount of freedom in parents’choice of schools by funding different kinds of establishments, both public and private. During the 1980s and 1990s, Chile and Sweden also went down this path, adopting pragmatic reforms favouring competition among schools that has benefited students and allocated resources more effectively.

For example, Sweden has had a school voucher system since 1992. Schools receive a certain amount for each student they succeed in attracting. This freedom of choice means even public schools are in direct competition with one another.

Administrators therefore have a strong interest in improving their schools by finding new ways to satisfy the needs of students and their parents, who are free to go elsewhere if a school’s performance lags.

Sweden has also encouraged the creation of independent schools managed by the private sector as another way of stimulating competition. Between 1993 and 2009, the number of independent schools exploded, going from 38 to 398. Education is still funded by government, while independent schools must generally follow the national curriculum. But the stronger incentives faced by private-sector administrators have encouraged a better allocation of resources. (Sweden has taken much the same approach to government-funded but privately managed hospitals, but that’s a story for another day.)

Sweden’s reform of its education sector led to a general improvement in the academic performance of students, as well as rises in both university registrations and the average number of years of study. In the decade following the reform, students who attended an independent school generally performed better than their public-school counterparts. Finally, the government also succeeded in better controlling education spending.

In many regions of Quebec, public schools, exclusively managed by the government, are quasi-monopolies and become parents’default option. Even when there are several public schools close together, students are assigned to their neighbourhood school unless an exemption is requested and obtained and there is no guarantee it will be granted or, if it is granted, renewed.

This very limited freedom of choice prevents competition from being the engine of innovation that it is almost everywhere else in society. Because parents cannot freely choose which school their children attend and because education money only partly follows the student, school administrators and school boards have fewer incentives to find ways to reduce costs and improve the quality of schooling.

Encouraging competition between schools by adopting a voucher system and by entrusting the administration of some public schools to the private sector would help improve the quality of education and also promote better cost control. If the Quebec government really wants to make education a priority, this kind of reform would improve young people’s prospects while providing greater freedom of choice.

Miguel Ouellette is Associate Researcher at the MEI, Luc Vallée is Chief Operating Officer & Chief Economist at the MEI. They are the authors of “Education: Controlling Spending While Improving Quality” and the views reflected in this op-ed are their own.

Back to top