Opinion: Saskatchewan should view education spending as investment

A Saskatchewan-based writer with extensive experience researching health policy says statistics show the importance of education funding.

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Properly funding education is an investment, not an expense. When our professional educators inform us that we need to address classroom size, and complex student needs, we need to listen to our experts.

Recently, Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill defended a 12 per cent wage increase for MLAs, in comparison to a proposed seven per cent increase for teachers, because “they’re two different jobs” (Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Feb. 6, 2024).

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The scientific evidence agrees as well — but perhaps not in the way envisioned by the honourable minister.

Statistics Canada linked survey data of 2.7 million adults over the age of 25 with mortality data of 426,979 deaths. The researchers wanted to know the statistical impact of education on age-standardized mortality rates by comparing those who lived and those who died over a 16-year period.

Comparing those who did not graduate from high school, to those with higher education, education status predicted 26.5 per cent and 22 per cent of all premature mortality, or excess deaths, in men and women.

The researchers looked at 31 causes of death and only Alzheimer’s did not have an association with education. For example, education predicted 34.7 per cent and 52.5 per cent of premature mortality in men and women with diabetes.

Statistics Canada wanted to understand the data so they broke the numbers down by various risk behaviours. There are a lot of numbers, so only data on men is presented.

Education predicted 52.5 per cent of smoking related, 53 per cent of alcohol related, 36.7 per cent of drug related and 35.3 per cent of road traffic premature mortality in males. In plain language, education not only predicts risk behaviours like smoking, but excess deaths from risk behaviours like lung cancer.

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Regrettably, education status even influences tragic outcomes like suicides (38.7 per cent of excess deaths in men). Overall, education is the most important determinant of health.

So, what do teachers want? They want a modest increase in compensation for their hard work in an ever more demanding workplace. We should, at the very least, support teachers with the same percentage increase as MLAs (12 per cent over four years).

However, the main sticking points are classroom size and addressing complex needs of children. It seems odd that these issues are debatable. If education is an investment in our children, and the health or our society, we should listen to educational professionals.

It must be so hard for a teacher to explain to a parent, and a child, that there are not enough educational and health-care professionals to properly support the student. It must be similar to how a doctor or nurse feels treating patients in the hallway of a hospital.

This discussion should not be limited to education. If doctors and nurses have ideas on how to improve our emergency rooms, hospitals and health care system, we should listen to them, too.

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If farmers, or small businesses, have ideas on how to improve our economy, which will increase tax revenue to pay for investments like education and health care, let’s listen to them as well.

A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein observes that “in the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.” You don’t have to be a genius to know that during this difficulty, we have the opportunity to properly support teachers and students.

Investment aside, it is not fair to keep increasing classroom size and to not adequately support children with complex needs.

Mark Lemstra has nine university degrees including a PhD in epidemiology and a PhD in psychiatry. Lemstra’s primary expertise is researching and understanding the determinants of health (like education) and then suggesting evidence based policy options to decision makers.

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