Delegates endorse funding, transforming education

May 31, 2011

Three interconnected resolutions addressing education funding and educational transformation received the enthusiastic backing of ARA delegates.

Establishing stability in education funding

Greg Jeffery, district representative for Edmonton District, pitched the merits of Resolution 187 to attentive delegates. The resolution urges the government to “immediately restore education funding by a minimum of $100 million so that school boards can maintain class sizes, programs and staffing.”

Jeffery explained that ever since the provincial government took over full responsibility for the funding of public education, it has failed to provide the funds necessary to maintain, let alone improve or expand, public education. “The failure to provide adequate funding, and particularly to maintain the class sizes in accordance with the recommendations of the Learning Commission, amounts to a violation of the spirit of the agreement that the ATA concluded with the government in 2007,” he said. As part of that agreement, Premier Stelmach, in a letter to then ATA president Frank Bruseker, stated: “Now that we have reached an agreement in principle, it is incumbent on all parties to facilitate its successful implementation. To that end, I pledge to seek the Legislative Assembly’s support for the necessary funding to enable the Memorandum of Agreement’s full execution and provide a five-year stable learning environment for teachers, students, school boards and Albertans.”

Teachers do not buy the government’s argument that it can’t provide ongoing stable funding for education, Jeffery said, pointing out that “two years ago, Premier Stelmach announced that he was rolling back liquor tax increases, effectively reducing government revenues by $180 million a year. Stelmach said he was never comfortable with raising the price of a dozen beer. … It tells you something about a government’s priorities when it worries more about adding a dime to the cost of a bottle of beer than it does about the potential loss of 1,000 teaching and teaching support positions.”

The resolution passed ­unanimously.

Creating an independent office of education funding

In 2002, the ATA recommended to Alberta’s Commission on Learning that an independent office be established by the government to monitor education funding decisions and provide transparency and clarity on key budget decisions. Resolution 188 urges the government to establish such an office.

ATA Past President Frank Bruseker characterized public education’s current funding and governance structures as fundamentally dysfunctional, as the structures separate “the authority to raise and distribute revenue from the responsibility for operational expenditures and program delivery.” This state of affairs has existed since the early 1990s and has resulted in continuing conflicts over education funding, he said.

“As we emerge from the five-year agreement concluded in 2007, we need to look at new ways of dealing with education funding,” Bruseker explained. “Currently, school boards are entirely dependent on the provincial government for funding and yet they have no formal means to ensure that the financial resources they receive are sufficient to do the job they are required to do. Nor does the province have an objective means to substantiate its claim that school boards do have the funds they need.”

The greatest challenge facing public education is the failure to connect the demands being made of the public education system with the resources available to meet those demands, said Bruseker. A solution is found in the proposed resolution to establish an “independent office to assess as objectively as possible and in consultation with key education partners the level of funding required to meet clearly articulated standards for education services,” he said.

The office would be independent and report directly to the legislature. The government would retain responsibility for setting the education budget, but “we would have a mechanism to ensure transparency and provide the objective assessment and analysis that we are now sorely lacking.”

Moving on educational transformation

Christine Harris, district representative for Edmonton City, told delegates that while the ATA supports the basic tenets of educational transformation, what is needed now is continued consultation with stakeholders about the process, and funding that is dedicated to providing the required transformation. And that is the intent of ­Resolution 189.

In 2008, Education Minister Dave Hancock launched an initiative that would create a long-term vision for education in Alberta, Harris said. “Minister Hancock’s vision was one of transformational change. He understood that in building an education system we are building a future society.”

Alberta teachers and the ATA supported Hancock’s vision by investing “significant time and resources to contribute directly to the Inspiring Education process. We also undertook research and policy analysis on our own to promote informed transformation. And we have also undertaken a partnership with educators in Finland. We believe that when it comes to transforming education, Alberta and Finland have much to learn from each other,” Harris said.

Despite the lofty ideals and talk of change, little seems to have transpired, she said. “So now we need to ask: What has been the result of all this work? So far, not much; we now have tabled in the legislature Bill 18, the proposed Education Act. You would be hard pressed to find much that is transformational in that act, and the one piece that could be considered new, the proposed expansion of charter schools, is hardly an example of informed transformation. Instead, it is an attempt to re-tread a tired ideological model imported from the United States.”

Harris observed that it is difficult to create a new future when your present is characterized by cuts to teaching and support staff positions and cuts to action research and education programs.

“Does this mean we should give up on educational transformation? Not at all. This resolution calls upon the government to continue the process that Minister Hancock initiated, to consult with the profession and to take transformation seriously. The resolution also calls upon the government to recognize that some aspects of transformation may require additional resources to support their implementation and that adequate support and funding must be provided,” she said.

Harris concluded: “Transformation in education is too important to abandon. Instead it must be done right and that is exactly what this resolution calls upon the government to do.”

The resolution passed ­unanimously.