While the provincial education budget may be a shell game in most respects, it signals the development of a more inclusive education system.
The budget thaws the four-year freeze on special needs funding, which was implemented to allow for Setting the Direction for Special Education in Alberta, government’s review of special education. Nearly $375 million has been earmarked in 2012/13 to support inclusive education and assist children who require additional learning supports and services—a 22 per cent increase. Included in the allocation is a new $68 million school year grant to help ensure schools can meet the needs of a diverse student population.
Jacqueline Skytt, assistant executive secretary of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, describes the funding as a good-news budget story. While the old model of special needs funding focused on coding, the new model of inclusive education funding dispenses with codes and recognizes that all students may require additional learning supports and services at some point in their education. With the additional funding, school jurisdictions will be able to offer a suite of supports and services at the school, school cluster and school system levels.
Under the new model, school jurisdictions will receive an inclusive education grant calculated on the basis of their total enrolment, not just the number of students identified as having special needs. That grant includes allocations for such supports and services as learning coaches, literacy/numeracy supports and services, and speech language support services. It may also include allocations for community contextual factors such as average annual income, the number of refugees and the number of children in care. Those factors, which are jurisdiction-specific, are determined on the basis of statistical data, such as census data, and are allocated only to jurisdictions outside the norm. For example, jurisdictions with a higher-than-average number of children in care will receive an allocation for that factor.
As the new model is implemented, funding will be transitioned in the first year to ensure that no school jurisdiction is disadvantaged. If the difference between a jurisdiction’s 2011/12 and 2012/13 inclusive education funding is negative, no additional funding will be provided and no funding will be reduced. In 2013/14, jurisdictions will receive inclusive education funding based on the new model. (Additional information on jurisdiction funding allocations is available at www.education.alberta.ca/admin/funding/2012jurisdictionfunding.aspx.)
The new model of inclusive education funding is consistent with the definition of an inclusive education system developed by the Setting the Direction Steering Committee. The committee defined such a system as “a way of thinking and acting that demonstrates universal acceptance of, and belonging for, all students. Inclusive education in Alberta means a value-based approach to accepting responsibility for all students. It also means that all students will have equitable opportunity to be included in the typical learning environment or program of choice.”
During the three phases of public consultation that marked Setting the Direction, parents and teachers expressed their frustration with coding, which had led in some cases to the labeling of students with special needs and had spawned a “coding” industry. While the new model of inclusive education funding may not eliminate coding for good (school jurisdictions will still have to record special needs information on student profiles), the lack of a code will no longer mean that the student does not receive services. In other words, coding will be used for programming rather than funding purposes.
Setting the Direction was launched in July 2008. In June 2010, government accepted all 12 recommendations identified in the Setting the Direction Framework. One of those recommendations urged government to “consider the funding model presented in the draft framework that supports inclusion of all students.”
In responding to that recommendation, government wrote, “Education will develop a funding model that takes into consideration relevant cost drivers such as geography, accessibility of specialists, school authority size and population, and situations where students with extraordinary high-cost needs may exist. Education will review current grants to school authorities related to the provision of specialized services (e.g., Children and Youth with Complex Needs, Student Health, Regional Educational Consulting Services) to determine the most efficient and effective method of maximizing available resources to assist school authorities in best meeting the needs of all students without funding being driven by student identification. The funding formula will recognize the varying system needs within school authorities and be flexible to these needs.”
In the fall of 2010, inclusion was identified as part of government’s Inspiring Action on Education initiative, and Setting the Direction was renamed Action on Inclusion to signal implementation of an inclusive education system. While Action on Inclusion no longer exists as a separate project or initiative, work continues on the development of a truly inclusive education system.