1990s-level tax rates could pay for improved public education

Krishna Pendakur, professor of economics at Simon Fraser University; Vancouver Sun

The province says we are broke. We cannot afford to spend more money on K-12 education, we cannot afford to increase teachers’ wages or hire more teachers to make classes smaller. Over the past decade, teachers’ wages in British Columbia have fallen farther and farther behind those of their colleagues in other provinces, and classes in B.C. have become larger. I know — I’m married to a teacher who has worked in B.C. for nearly two decades. And I work at a university, where you see the same trends.

It is hard to look at B.C. schools nowadays and come to the conclusion that we are overspending on either too much quality or quantity; rather, we see big classes, poor infrastructure and teachers who feel vilified and underappreciated. Private schools advertise their small classes, computerized classrooms and effective teachers. … But, rich parents who can afford private schooling are not the only ones who value these attributes in schools — everyone does.

However, the claim that we cannot afford to offer good K-12 education in our public schools is misleading. What we really mean is that we don’t value our children enough to spend what it takes to have a really good public education system. The fact is, governments choose how much revenue to raise on the basis of how much publicly provided goods and services we want to have. The two choices — tax rates and public spending — are one and the same. When we choose low taxes, this is the same as choosing less, or lower-quality, public goods and services.

For the past 15 years, the trend in provincial and federal tax rates has been downward. In 1995, the highest tax rate in B.C. on personal income was about 56 per cent; now, it is about 46 per cent. In the mid 1990s, income from investments was taxed at three-quarters the rate of income from work; now investment income is taxed at half the rate of labour income. These changes have dramatically reduced the tax burden on upper income people (who get more of their income from investments) relative to middle-income people. These changes have also reduced the revenue coming to government coffers, and consequently reduced the quality and quantity of health care, education and other public services.

Not only have tax rates fallen, driving down total government revenue so that it seems harder to fund education, but among the things governments spend money on, health care has crowded out education. For three decades provincial governments have prioritized publicly funded health care over publicly funded education. Whereas 25 years ago, health and education absorbed about the same fraction of provincial budgets, nowadays we spend nearly twice as much on health as we do on education. This has caused intergenerational inequity as we spend madly on the elderly and are miserly with the young.

Schooling is the best investment that we can make as a society. Most rich countries have ramped up spending on education over the past three decades. Investments in a skilled and learning-engaged workforce pay off for many decades into the future. Of the $40 billion the government of B.C. spends every year, less than one-fifth is spent on K-12 and post-secondary education. In the mid-1990s, the government allocated nearly one-third of its total spending on education.

The fact is that we choose how much to tax ourselves and therefore we choose what kind of public schooling we can offer. If we want good schooling, we have to pay for it. If we want small classes with well-paid professional teachers and up-to-date infrastructure, all we have to is pony up the cash. … Simply switching back to the tax rates we all paid in the late 1990s would be more than sufficient to improve public schools.

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