Editorial: Digging into class size funding should turn up other shortfalls

April 30, 2019 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

As a result of the recent provincial general election, I have spent some more time reviewing the education platform announced by the United Conservative Party during the election campaign. The platform includes 46  bulleted items on K–12 education, which run the gamut from very good ideas to very bad ideas. 

Alberta Teachers’ Association president Greg Jeffery responded to some of the problematic ideas presented, and fortunately, the UCP backed off on a couple of them during the campaign (largely as a result of teacher and parent advocacy). Days after the education platform was released, UCP spokesman Matt Solberg confirmed that the party would not pursue proposals to bring back the Grade 3 provincial achievement test and to return to a 50/50 split weighting on Grade 12 diploma exams.

“We’ve heard concerns on this, and so we’re putting that on hold,” Solberg told the Edmonton Journal on April 4. “We will gather more feedback before determining how to proceed.”

Since the Association has already responded to a number of the negative items, it is important to also look at some of the positive ones.

The UCP platform pledges to “continue to build new schools, while ordering an immediate audit of class sizes to determine what happened to previous funding dedicated to class size reduction.”

An audit of class size funding is a laudable goal. Alberta’s auditor general found last year that the department of education did not have effective processes in place to measure, monitor and report on dollars provided to school boards as part of the Class Size Initiative. As a result, $2.7 billion was invested into funding class size reductions since 2004 while class sizes ultimately grew.

What happened to the funding was, in part, discussed by the auditor general. Changes to the way the funding was provided, combined with loosened reporting requirements, led him to state that it appeared the department had effectively converted class size funding into additional base instructional funding.

I would hope a fair audit would identify what we have suspected and in part witnessed over the past five to 10 years. While base per pupil instruction funding has remained largely constant in the past seven years, other grants have been constrained, reduced and even cut. It has been very rare since 2011 for any grants to school boards to actually receive inflationary increases.

The Association’s economist, Neil Hepburn, has analyzed the financial statements of school boards and found a number of differential funding areas where school board costs are outpacing the amount of funding being provided. Here is the average annual shortfall over the last four years for some of the funding areas where shortfalls exist:

  • Program unit funding: –$1.8 million
  • First Nations, Métis and Inuit: –$5.7 million
  • ESL: –$17 million
  • Transportation: –$12 million*
  • Plant operations and maintenance: –$64 million*
  • Inclusion: –$86 million

*average shortfall for three of the last four years

To me, the situation is relatively clear. Funding is insufficient in areas like those listed above, and as costs have risen without equivalent increases in grants, school boards have had to find money to cover those costs.

And, as I have said many times ­before, the easiest way for school boards to deal with insufficient funding is to hire fewer teachers and to put more students in each class.

So, I look forward to an audit of class size funding, because I believe that if it is done fairly, it should identify the funding shortfalls that exist elsewhere in school board budgets. But let’s not take too long to get there because, ­ultimately, what we need most and what we need right now is to have the funding shortfalls addressed and class sizes reduced. ❚

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

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