Q & A: Budget is good but not sustainable

April 10, 2018
Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary

Question: What will the recent provincial budget mean for Alberta teachers?

Answer: At a projected cost of $8.4 billion in fiscal 2018, the provision of K–12 education in Alberta is the second largest functional expenditure of government, second only to the $22.1 billion spent on health care. It accounts for about 15 per cent of the province’s annual spending. Of course, the magnitude of this expenditure must be considered in terms of the enormity of the system and the resources it requires to provide some 700,000 Alberta students with high-quality learning experiences 200 days out of the year.

The recent provincial budget will ensure that new money is available to cover the continuing growth of Alberta’s student population — projected to be 15,000 new students over the course of the year. This in itself is not a small commitment and should not be taken for granted. Before it was defeated in the general election of 2015, the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Jim Prentice was proposing to freeze funding, which would have forced the education system to absorb additional students without any additional support. Accommodating the increased student population also poses a challenge, and the government has responded by budgeting $393 million for 20 new school construction projects across the province.

However, it must also be remembered that student enrolment is not the only cost driver for education. Although inflation has remained relatively low in recent years, the incremental increase in the price of goods and services is exerting real pressure in the education sector. Failing to provide the additional funding necessary to compensate for these increased costs amounts to a cut that must be absorbed by the education system. To date, teachers and other school employees have borne much of this burden by accepting salary constraints, a “solution” that is not sustainable over the long term.

Adding to the pressure on the education sector are changing expectations and demands. Teachers continue to point out to whomever will listen that inclusion is not being adequately supported and that class sizes are growing beyond the targets first identified in 2004 by Alberta’s Commission on Learning. While funding enrolment growth helps to provide stability, it does little to enable teachers and schools to establish conditions of teaching and learning that can best help every child achieve their individual potential.

Of course, the government is not unaware of these realities. The fundamental problem it faces is that decades of dependence on uncertain resource revenues has created fiscal uncertainty and a structural deficit that surfaces whenever the value of energy exports falls. This in turn limits its ability to respond to pressures, however acute, for increases in program spending. As noted by my colleague Jonathan Teghtmeyer in his editorial, there is broad consensus among economists that the long-term solution to this problem is to broaden the province’s revenue base, most likely by introducing a harmonized provincial goods and services tax.

As matters stand, of all the provinces, Alberta currently expects the least of its citizens as taxpayers — but its citizens still expect the best in education and other public services.

So what does the budget mean for teachers? It means that things will not get much worse in classrooms, but they are not going to be getting any better any time soon. Teachers now have an obligation and an opportunity to become involved in the political life of their province and in their communities to help change this reality. We need collectively to demand better from this government and from those who might aspire to replace it as well. ❚

Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at dennis.theobald@ata.ab.ca.