Parties agree education needs more money

March 27, 2012
Shelley Svidal, ATA News Staff

One, two and two per cent funding increases not enough—Lukaszuk

Increasing education funding by one, two and two per cent over the next three years is not enough. That’s what Minister of Education Thomas Lukaszuk told the 100 delegates assembled for an all-party education panel at the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s (ATA’s) Political Engagement Seminar March 17.

Responding to a question on education funding, Vitor Marciano, a Senate candidate for the Wildrose Alliance Party, told delegates that the Progressive Conservative government has mismanaged significant amounts of money. Funding increases of one, two and two per cent are not appropriate, he said, and a ­Wildrose Alliance ­government would ensure that funding increases matched population growth plus inflation for core services such as education. The Wildrose Alliance’s alternative budget provides an additional $114 million for education in 2012/13, allowing for 2.5, 2.5 and 2.5 per cent increases and the hiring of 1,425 additional teachers, educational assistants and support staff for students with special needs, he said.

Acknowledging the inadequacy of one, two and two per cent increases, Liberal Leader Raj Sherman pointed out that the education system, already down 450 teaching positions from 2010/11, is slated to lose another 400 positions in 2012/13 under the provincial education budget. He vowed that a Liberal government would eliminate the full $192 million allocated to private schools. "Public tax dollars have got to be for public education," he said.

Rachel Notley, New Democrat MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona, concurred. "They [the government] haven’t anticipated reasonable bargaining outcomes with the ATA, and that’s frankly disrespectful to the fundamental players within our education system," she said. She decried the lack of funding for students with special needs, pointing out that the $68 million increase in the provincial education budget simply undoes the damage of the three-year freeze. She added that a New Democrat government would dedicate every dollar to publicly funded, publicly delivered education.

While agreeing that increases of one, two and two per cent are not enough, Lukaszuk pointed out that education funding is scheduled to increase 3.5 per cent per year over the next three years, boosting the provincial education budget from $6.8 billion to $7.1 billion. He noted that the one, two and two per cent figure simply refers to "an allocation for operations." Countering Notley’s suggestion that one, two and two per cent does not anticipate reasonable bargaining outcomes, he expressed optimism that government, the ATA and the Alberta School Boards Association would conclude a tripartite deal, resulting in "happy teachers [and] happy kids."

"Well, it seems we all agree . . . education deserves more money," quipped Sue Huff, Alberta Party candidate for Edmonton-Glenora, causing delegates to erupt in laughter. She told delegates that an Alberta Party government would provide increased, sustainable and predictable funding for education; reduce private school funding; and provide more support for students with special needs. An Alberta Party government would also open up the entire budgeting process by engaging in a constructive conversation with all, including teachers, well in advance of budget day, she said.

Responding to a question on standardized tests, Huff suggested that the provincial achievement testing program should be reduced to a sampling program until such time as a better tool is developed. She also suggested that diploma examinations should account for 30 per cent, not 50 per cent, of students’ final grade, bringing Alberta into line with other provinces. An Alberta Party government would move toward a wider variety of ­assessment tools that recognize the dynamic and different ways in which students learn and demonstrate their learning, she said. It would also develop a research-based literacy and numeracy assessment tool for Grades 1 to 9.

Lukaszuk told his audience that the provincial achievement testing program is not doing what it was supposed to do, namely, measure curriculum. Instead, it is being used to compare teachers, school administrators, schools and school boards, he said. He indicated that government is committed to moving toward competency-based curriculum and, to that end, is working with the ATA on assessment for learning with an eye to developing a made-in-Alberta model. He also indicated that he has heard that the 50–50 weighting of diploma examinations is inappropriate and that he is open to rethinking the split.

Notley commented that she might be willing to reconsider the notion of standardized tests once a properly funded, high-quality child care system; full-day kindergarten; and school lunch programs for students who need them have been in place for 12 years. Meanwhile, a New ­Democrat government would eliminate provincial achievement tests and accord more weight to teacher assessment than to ­diploma examinations, she said.

Sherman agreed. "The current [student assessment] system doesn’t work for the inequities we have in our society today," he said. A Liberal government would make teachers a part of "fixing the education system," and it would change the weighting of diploma examinations.

Marciano was the lone panelist out on the issue of standardized tests. "Some level of testing serves parents, students and the general community well," he said, and a Wildrose Alliance government would maintain the 50–50 split between diploma examinations and teacher assessment. While the provincial achievement testing program has its limitations and problems, it "create[s] a little bit of creative and dynamic tension in the classroom," he said. "In the long run, it gives parents one element of comparison between different schools, between different teachers, and one way to impartially assess the performance of their children." Diploma examinations are not a complete assessment method, but they create "an environment where there is some standardized approach to assessing between variation," he said. "There is some significant educational research to suggest that there are students who underperform in terms of classroom assessments and actually demonstrate tremendous skills at writing diploma exams, and I have to tell you I was one of those students."

View the video of the all-party education panel at the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s (ATA’s) Political Engagement Seminar March 17 here.