You don’t have to live very long in Alberta before hearing a premier talk about falling oil prices creating a huge hole in government finances. Most recently, Premier Jim Prentice in early January 2015 projected a $500 million deficit for the current fiscal year and a $7 billion hole for Budget 2015. Teachers are mindful that the same language was used by Alison Redford in 2013. It was the same rhetoric used by Ed Stelmach in 2009 and Ralph Klein numerous times before him.
In itself the rhetoric is damaging.
Since 2008, school boards have faced year after year of uncertain and unstable funding. A few times over the last seven years the government provided additional funding months after the provincial budget was released, but often it was too late to make a difference in the province’s classrooms. By then, timetables were already set with reduced teacher numbers, programs were cut and class sizes increased. Destabilizing talk about tough economic times and threats to funding meant that school boards remained reluctant to immediately reinvest in classroom conditions and so we continued to play catch-up.
Teachers, parents and trustees pressed the government to fix the instability and, as a result, the government promised in 2012 to provide three-year funding projections. The promise in Budget 2012 was for grant rates to grow by five per cent over the next three years; the reality is that the basic grant grew by only
one per cent in 2012 and has been frozen since. At the same time, other school board grants have been systematically cut.
Seven years of unstable and inadequate funding has resulted in classroom conditions that are worse now than they were in 2002, when Alberta’s Commission on Learning was called in to investigate the state of education and found that school boards were $136 million short of the funding they required to adequately support public education.
That commission established recommendations for average class sizes, including a recommendation that K–3 classes have an average of 17 students. From 2002 to 2008, targeted funding resulted in class sizes falling to a low of 18.2 students on average, but they have steadily increased since. The 2013/14 average was 19.9, and by next year we’re projecting the average to grow to more than 22 students.
The reality, however, is that too many classes already have 30 or more six- and seven-year-olds in one room with one teacher. Junior and senior high classes are much larger.
How did we get here?
Alberta’s overheated economy has meant that large influxes of young people have entered our province and sought to lay down roots. Not only have the rates of in-migration and immigration soared, but so have fertility rates. Alberta student population growth has outpaced the already astonishing general population growth.
Student enrolment has expanded by more than 70,000 students since 2008, but teacher numbers have not kept up. After a small bump in teaching positions in 2009/10, we experienced two years of layoffs. We recovered positions in 2012/13 but remained flat last year.
Finally, this year, we gained about 1,000 teaching positions, but that growth will not be enough to compensate for 70,000 additional students. We would need an additional 3,000 teachers to bring the equivalent teaching force back to the size it was in 2008/09.
So, now we should be focused on repairing that gap and ensuring that our kids have the quality education system they deserve in our wealthy province. Instead, schools are bracing for another hit.
The finance minister has projected that Budget 2015 will include a five per cent cut to public services. Our schools will not be able to manage that. At a time when school board costs are projected to rise by two per cent, a five per cent funding cut would result in the loss of an additional 2,500 teaching positions next year alone. This at the same time as another 19,000 students will be added to the system.
To put the comparative loss of teaching positions into perspective, if you had a school with a static population of 400 students, that school would have lost two teaching positions over the past six years and would be slated to lose another two positions next year.
What programs and services will be cut? Which of your child’s teachers will be let go? What does it look like if a school loses a guidance counsellor, a special needs teacher, a music teacher and a math specialist over the course of seven years?
This is not sustainable and it is no way to build the future of this province. Parents and supporters of public education need to stand up for our students and to stand up for our schools.
Please visit www.bettereducationtogether.com to find out how you can help. ❚
Mark Ramsankar was elected president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association in 2013 following two terms of service as vice-president. Ramsankar was an assistant principal at Hardisty School in Edmonton. A previous winner of the Excellence in Teaching Award, he has teaching experience at all grade levels and in special education.
This article also appeared in the Feb. 26 edition of the Edmonton Sun.