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How Much Funding Should Schools Expect?

How Much Funding Should Schools Expect?

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Defenders of public education like to propose that the solution to improved schooling is simple: it is just a matter of governments “realigning their priorities” to provide more money for education. These folks are sometimes fond of quoting Robert Fulghum who said, “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake-sale to buy a bomber.” Although I agree that part of the solution must include a renewed commitment to public education on the part of governments, I don’t think that this is going to be the complete answer.  

Educational funding in Canada and the USA is usually the second highest expenditure in most jurisdictions, exceeded only by health care and\or public welfare. While government budgets typically amount to billions of dollars, they are nonetheless not infinite. When advocates talk of shifting priorities, what other services do they imagine being cut? If we imagine that the solution will be for “the government” to significantly increase taxes, we need to remember who foots the bill for that. Going forward, I think that -- with some notable exceptions regarding teacher salaries -- we should assume and expect incrementally increased public funding for grade school education, but no large leaps.

On the other hand, I think it is foolish to imagine that we can create remarkable schools with any less money than current public expenditures. Advocates of charter schools sometimes try to make this case by claiming that their schools can deliver “bigger bang for the educational buck” by eliminating “layers of expensive (and meddlesome) bureaucracy” and providing “real accountability for results(1). This is simplistic, and it takes us in precisely the wrong direction when it comes to the issue of educational funding. 

Similarly, proponents of alternative education schemes sometimes like to imply that teacher salaries can be reduced by, for example, shifting more educational delivery to software platforms. I think this is a false assumption that is going to impede widespread adoption of new initiatives within the public system as a whole. 

Canada currently spends about $12,000 (CND) per student on public education, when capital and operating costs are taken together.(2) America spends about $8,375 (US), when you take into account that only 70% of total education expenditures in the USA come from public funding. The rest comes from private sources.(3) The essential challenge for public education, therefore, is to create schools in Canada and the USA for at least $12,000 (CND) and $8,375 - $11,298(4) (US), respectively. 

This will be difficult, but not impossible. There are already schools out there that offer robust programs and a compelling vision of education within these financial parameters. We need to seek them out -- not only to learn what educational strategies they employ, but also what financial formulas they use to make good on their purposes. Education is a public good; we owe it to ourselves to find the right financial mechanism to unleash its full potential. 


1. Joe Freedman, Charter Schools in Atlantic Canada: An Idea Whose Time Has Come, Atlantic Institute for Market Studies,

2. Jason Clemens, Joel Emes, and Deani Neven Van Pelt, Education and Public School Enrolment in Canada, 2016 Edition. The Fraser Institute, September, 2016; Statistics Canada, Back to School … by the numbers. 2017

Statistics Canada, Census Profile, 2016 Census, British Columbia and Canada

British Columbia, Ministry of Finance,  Budget and Fiscal Plan - 2016/17 to 2018/19 ; British Columbia, Ministry of Education, Provincial Report, Students Statistics - 2016/17, 

3. CBS News, U.S. education spending tops global list, study shows. June 25, 2013 . ; Invest0pedia, What country spends the most on education? 

4. In, The Case Against Education, Bryan Caplan argues that the actual cost of public education in America averages to about $11,298 (US) in 2011 dollars. (Princeton University Press, 2018, p. 173)

Dr. Ted Spear is the founding Principal of two independent schools in British Columbia, Canada. Using research on contemporary educational innovation, and drawing on 25 years of teaching and administrative experience in public and independent schools, he is currently writing a book on the future of grade school education.