Editorial: Government and boards should recommit to reducing class size

March 13, 2018
Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

As outlined in a recently released report, auditor general Merwin Saher has found that, after investing $2.7 billion toward the “class size initiative,” Alberta has classes that are actually larger than they were in 2004. While the auditor’s report is definitely welcome, it is hardly earth-shattering news to teachers.

They know their classes are bigger than they have ever been in the last 15 years. They also know that those classes include way more special needs students with inadequate supports in place.

In 2003, Alberta’s Commission on Learning (ACOL) recommended that, on average, K – 3 classes should have about 17 students in them. It also recommended that class sizes should be lower with the inclusion of students with special needs. The government accepted ACOL’s recommendations and initially allocated $89 million — increasing to $150 million in the next three years — to hire more than 2,200 new teachers to reduce class sizes.

At the start of the class size initiative, the average K – 3 class size was 21.7 students, and only three of the 62 school boards in the province were meeting the ACOL guidelines. The average was brought down as low as 18.5 in 2009/10, but after that it began rising again. As of the last school year, the average sat at 20.4 students, and only five of 61 school jurisdictions were meeting the ACOL recommendation for average K – 3 class size.

Thankfully the auditor general also pointed out the flaw in using averages, saying that it obscures the actual number of classes that exceed the target. This is a particular problem for high school classes where smaller option classes are artificially dragging down the average, while core classes often have 30, 35 or even 40 students.

Many are asking how this happened. How did $2.7 billion amount to no improvement of class sizes after 14 years of trying? Here are my observations.

The class size initiative was working until about 2009. But two things happened around that time: the global downturn wrecked Alberta’s revenue sources, and Alberta’s student population began a long period of rapid growth as a result of in-migration and a localized baby boom. Between 2009/10 and 2017/18, the student population increased by 100,000.

However, with the bulk of funding being distributed to school boards on a per-student basis, education placed considerable pressure on the provincial budget at a time when revenues were constrained. The government looked for ways to slow the increase.

While the government maintained most of the base instructional grants, it proposed cuts to smaller grants. At the same time, the auditor general points out, the government adjusted how it funds the class size initiative and reduced the reporting requirements for school boards. The auditor’s report says funding was treated like “additional base instruction funding.”

School boards were faced with more students, more costs and a proportionally smaller amount of money each year.

In some cases, cuts were proposed and then reversed — sometimes after the school year began — but in other cases the grants were cut for good: AISI, enhanced ESL, ESL years six and seven, junior high and high school class size funding and so on.

The unpredictability of funding and the sometimes lack of space meant school boards were reluctant to hire more teachers, even though the total amount of funding (per pupil based with a rising population) was actually increasing.

This created a hiring lag and ultimately higher class sizes. Since 2009, if the growth in teacher population had matched the growth in student population, we would now have nearly 3,000 more teachers than we do.

But if enrolment growth and class size were continuously funded and teachers weren’t being hired, where did the money go?

First, school boards faced rising costs over time while grant rates were not significantly adjusted. So some of the money was likely used to cover those unfunded rising costs and deal with smaller grants that were cut. But, in some cases, the money may not have been spent at all.

Between 2012 and 2016, school board surpluses and reserves increased significantly. That was actually the subject of a separate auditor general report released in 2015. Further analysis is needed before the link between class size funding and an increase in school board surpluses can be confirmed, but these two reports taken together suggest a need for further investigation.

In the meantime, let’s hope that school boards and the government can use this situation to look at the funding model, the existence of some excess cash and the requirements for reporting as a way to provide the oversight and planning needed to recommit to reducing class size. ❚

I welcome your comments—contact me at jonathan.teghtmeyer@ata.ab.ca.