A focus on efficiency in the budget would allow Saskatchewan’s new education minister to build a constructive relationship with the province’s teachers.

So Saskatchewan has a new premier, and with him a new minister of education, Gord Wyant.

Only last fall, Wyant was the new premier’s competitor in a campaign to become leader of the governing Saskatchewan Party. During the campaign, Wyant proved particularly popular with teachers by declaring his desire “to restore the funding that was cut last year for public education and…look for ways to enhance that funding.” Following a budget that reduced funding for schools by 6.7 percent, in a year when schools had to cut teaching positions to save money, Wyant’s words were a healing balm. The victorious Premier Scott Moe later pledged to add $30 million to Saskatchewan’s budget for education.

Coming out of the campaign, and with a new appointment as education minister, Wyant has a unique opportunity to start a fresh relationship with the education community. So what might a renewed, more friendly relationship between the Saskatchewan Party government and the province’s teachers look like?

To be sure, as long as oil prices remain down, schools are unlikely to enjoy any additional splurge in spending. But the new minister of education could shift the focus of the education budget away from cost-cutting and toward efficiency.

Education research and analysis tends to focus on the effectiveness of programs, studying what sorts of spending programs are more likely to result in student success. Policy-makers can choose from a wide variety of inputs to make schools more effective. Academic studies have demonstrated that students can achieve better results when there is careful attention to curriculum development, when investments  are made in electronic teaching tools like computers and when students get a healthy breakfast. Socio-economic indicators like poverty and parent engagement have an especially strong link to student performance. Accordingly, many in the education community suggest that a broader agenda of social redistribution is the best way to improve outcomes for students. There is plenty of fodder for advocacy groups at budget-making time.

The cost of education is a less popular subject. Nobody wants to suggest that it is not worthwhile to spend another dollar on children’s education. But the simple fact is that resources are limited, and, whether they want to or not, governments are forced to make tough choices between inputs, especially when revenue is tight.

Education budgets tend to be path dependent, with each budget following the previous one, and with teacher salaries tied to inflation through collective bargaining. When government revenues run short, budget makers search for administrative slack and then pass frozen budgets onto schools. Often the result is cuts to teaching positions, since adjustments to compensation are nigh on impossible, and teacher compensation packages make up the lion’s share of the budget. This is more or less what occurred in Saskatchewan over the last budget cycle.

As one side focuses on costs, the other focuses on creating effective schools. Voters often pick one side or the other, and the media debate oscillates between the demonization of “entitled teachers” on one hand and of “heartless government” on the other. However, neither cost-cutting nor the pursuit of effective school programs makes for an efficient school system.

Efficiency is a compromise between costs and benefits. Efficiency is not about reducing costs as much as possible; instead, it is about determining the best mix of expenses to achieve a desired outcome. Efficiency does not mean spending on every new opportunity to make schools better; it means finding the right mix of programming to meet a given priority.

What is necessary to create an environment where school efficiency is the name of the game? First, the Minister could work to define clear priorities for what well-functioning schools are expected to achieve. Is the goal to increase graduation rates for Indigenous students, or the enrolment of women in STEM programs, or the average level of reading skills across the province? A clear set of priorities could determine which of these goals is the most important. Priorities can be determined as part of a political process that includes stakeholder engagement, especially with teachers, but also with academics, parents, students and other important groups. And a clear set of priorities stands a good chance of producing outcomes that teachers want to achieve. Cost-cutting is not a priority in and of itself, but it too can be conducted within a discussion about priorities.

Next, it would be valuable to ensure that key stakeholders are well equipped to evaluate progress. Independent budget watchdogs like provincial auditors often have broad powers to inquire into program effectiveness. If priorities in education spending are established at the outset, auditors and school administrators can determine which mixes of programming and spending have been most efficient in meeting the stated objectives. Using tools like audit reports and media engagement, these key players can draw voters and policy-makers’ attention to what is working and what is not, attracting funds to where they can be applied efficiently and pulling budgets away from the status quo.

Of course, measurement requires enough stability in education objectives to evaluate results over several years — something easier said than done. But if priorities are chosen in a broad-based coalition with the province’s teachers, it is not impossible that the outcomes in question would remain stable, even if spending goes up and down as governments change.

Saskatchewan’s new minister of education has a unique opportunity to build a constructive relationship with the province’s teachers. Taking an efficiency approach to building the education budget could be a productive way to identify which programming is most important and which cuts teachers might be most willing to bear. Building this coalition starts with identifying priorities in a broad-based coalition with teachers and other key stakeholders. The provincial auditor and school administrators would then be able to evaluate progress through audits and analyses that can be verified and debated publicly, drawing budgeters’ attention to where funds need to go.

Focusing either on cuts or on spending means seeing only half the picture at any given time. The pursuit of efficiency might finally allow teachers and government to see eye to eye.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Cherries.

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