ATA president Jason Schilling shares his thoughts on the 2019 provincial budget at the Alberta legislature on Thursday, Oct. 24.
At a time when school enrolment is expected to grow by 15,000 students per year, the UCP’s new budget proposes a freeze on operational funding in education.
Budget 2019 eliminates class size initiative funding, school fee reduction grants and the classroom improvement fund, while adding a new, one-time transition fund to support boards while the government plans for a new funding framework to be adopted in September 2020 (see table below).
The per capita base instructional grants have been maintained, which has allowed the government to claim that they have funded for enrolment growth, but ATA president Jason Schilling calls this line misleading.
“The government is playing a shell game in order to trick us into thinking enrolment growth is being funded,” said Schilling. “But at the end of the day, school boards have less funding per student, which means larger classes, fewer supports for students and programming cuts.”
In 2018/19, each student in grades 1 to 3 generated a base instruction grant of $6,679 and a Class Size Initiative grant of $1,521. For 2019/20, those same students will only generate the base instruction grant, but students at all grade levels will also generate a one-time transition grant of $203 (for metro and urban boards) or $356 (for rural boards).
This is part of the government’s restructuring of the Class Size Initiative funding after a review concluded the program was ineffective. The Class Size Initiative would have been worth $297 million, after enrolment growth, if it had continued in 2019/20.
“Albertans elected us with a clear mandate to conduct an audit of class sizes and determine what happened to previous funding dedicated to class size reduction,” said Education Minister Adriana LaGrange on the release of the government’s class size review.
“This report demonstrates that we cannot continue to throw money at this problem, rather that we must look for new solutions while continuing to appropriately fund education.”
The replacement of the Class Size Initiative with the smaller one-time transition fund means a 16 per cent reduction in base instructional funding for K–3 students.
“This year, class sizes got bigger and I’m very worried that this budget will result in further class size growth for our youngest students,” said Schilling. “All the research shows that class size reductions have the biggest impact at the youngest grades, yet that is where we are doing the worst job in keeping class sizes small. We have never met the 15-year-old targets for K–3 class size, and last year, 80 per cent of those classes were too large.”
Schilling is quite worried about the long-term implications of the fiscal directions set out in the budget.
“The budget projects frozen operational funding for four years, which would mean 60,000 additional students and not a single additional teacher hired to teach them,” he said.
The budget proposes an eight per cent decrease in the overall public sector workforce over the next four years, with most of the reductions attained through attrition.
On a positive note, the school nutrition program will continue with an additional injection of $5 million for support to non-profit agencies to expand the program. The program that provides breakfast and lunch to over 30,000 students will now be able to expand into additional schools and communities.
The capital budget provides funding to continue current school builds as well as $123 million for approximately 250 new modular classrooms and $397 million over five years for 25 new schools and/or modernizations. New school announcements are still forthcoming.
Pension changes a “hijacking”
The teachers’ pension plan is also a target of this year’s budget. Tucked away on page 120 of the fiscal plan is a directive to transfer all of the funds within the Alberta Teachers Retirement Fund (ATRF) to AIMCo, a Crown corporation of the Province of Alberta.
It was a unilateral decision by the UCP government and was executed without any prior consultation with teachers or the ATRF. The ATRF was made aware of the change only 15 minutes prior to the budget delivery.
The government points to reducing redundant administration and building a “made in Alberta” portfolio as the reasoning for the move. A large part of the ATRF’s investments already include Alberta’s oil and gas industry and the administration is salaried by the fund.
Schilling likens the move to a “hijacking” of teachers’ pensions and says there are still many questions around the move that need to be answered. The ATA is withholding any official action until more information is brought forth. The Workers’ Compensation Board and Alberta Health Services will also be expected to move their funds over to AIMCo.
Outside of education
The UCP’s inaugural budget introduces a plan to cut spending by 2.8 per cent and balance the books by 2023, although this budget projects a deficit of $8.7 billion, $2 billion larger than the last deficit posted under the NDP government. Total debt is projected to climb to $93 billion by the time the budget is balanced in 2023.
Elsewhere the budget notes that the government will provide a total of $4.7 billion in corporate tax cuts over the next four years. It also touts an Alberta personal tax advantage of at least $13.4 billion, noting that Alberta would collect that much more in taxes if it adopted the tax regime of Ontario, the next lowest taxed province in the nation.
Post-secondary education saw tuition caps removed and a five per cent funding cut to advanced education. A performance-based funding formula will be in place by 2020/21. Student loan interest rates will also increase from prime to prime plus one per cent.
Health care, the province’s largest expense, will see a slight increase of approximately $200 million, bringing its funding total to $20.6 billion per year. One hundred million of those additional funds will be directed towards a mental health and addictions strategy.
Capital funding to municipalities will be cut by nine per cent over the next two years, which will force municipalities to either defer or find alternative funding for major projects and infrastructure. ❚
– With files from Mark Milne, ATA News staff