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Debunking education budget myths


January 14, 2020 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

In 2005, satirical television columnist Stephen Colbert launched his show The Colbert Report by coining the term truthiness. Truthiness refers to the quality of something seeming to be true, whether or not it actually is true according to known facts.

Often, in today’s Alberta, certain phrases and bits of data are bandied about to create truthiness around them, so once in a while, we need to fact-check these things. 

A favourite trope of Premier Jason Kenney is the notion that Alberta spends more than other jurisdictions in Canada, and that our outcomes are in many cases worse. When it comes to education, this statement is simply false. 

Swiss accounting firm KPMG was hired by the province’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta Finances to collect and analyse expense data, and it calculated that Alberta was spending $11,121 on K–12 education per student. This was less than Quebec ($12,325) and significantly less than Ontario ($17,077). Of the comparators, only British Columbia ($9,681) was spending less than Alberta on K–12 education. 

But Alberta is a top performer in educational outcomes. The recent 2018 PISA results showed that Alberta was first in the country in reading and science and second only to Quebec in mathematics. If you look at high school completion rates — which Kenney cited in a recent video as the measure Alberta was faltering in — Alberta’s 2016 completion rate of 80.4 per cent of students 15 years of age and over was behind only B.C. at 82.0 per cent, and essentially tied with Ontario at 80.5 per cent. Every other province had a lower completion rate.

In education, the facts refute Kenney’s narrative: Alberta achieves better outcomes than other provinces at lower costs. 

Another myth that needs checking is the notion that the government is maintaining spending in education. 

The government points to its Budget 2019 fiscal plan, which freezes total operational spending at $8.2 billion to 2022–23. The $8.2 billion figure is the actual operating expense for 2018/19. But school boards claim that their provincial funding has been cut. So which is it? Has education funding been maintained or cut?

Well, the answer is a little more complicated, and both sides have legitimate claims to the truth on this.

When the government froze expenses at the 2018/19 level, the freeze applied to its fiscal year — April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019. That fiscal year includes five months of the 2017/18 school fiscal year (September to August) and seven months of the 2018/19 school fiscal year. But school boards received more funding in the latter school year than in the former, primarily as a result of higher enrolments.

Think of it this way. Let’s say you give your child an allowance of $10 per month for the first six months of the year and then increase it to $12 per month for the next six months. You would have given $132 over the course of the year. Now let’s say you told your child that you would maintain their allowance at last year’s level. How much should they expect to get per month?

Your child would likely say $12 per month. But $11 per month would maintain the $132 total that they received last year. From your perspective, the allowance has been maintained at $132 per year, but from your child’s perspective, their allowance was cut from $12 per month to $11 per month.

This is similar to what school boards experienced. Measured across fiscal years, the budget is the same, but compared school year to school year, total funding was cut. 

Along these lines, another myth comes from the budget document itself. It says that the budget is “keeping government’s commitment to fund enrolment growth while re-allocating the Class Size Funding, Classroom Improvement and School Fee Reduction grants, and introducing a one-time per student transition grant to school authorities.” 

However, the “re-allocated” grants have a total value of $428 million, while the replacement grants have a value of only $153 million. It is not a full reallocation, no matter how you slice it. 

This is why we have referred to Budget 2019 as a shell-game budget. Enough of the numbers are obscured by slick mathematics that it is difficult to parse out exactly what the impacts are. I am bracing for more obscurity when Budget 2020 is released in February along with a whole new funding model for schools.

And that is the truth of the matter.     

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