I was, in 1997, among one of the first cohorts of students to enter a redesigned bachelor of education program at the University of Alberta that included a mandatory course on inclusive education for all teachers.
In 1993, Alberta Education developed a policy, still in place today, that calls for the education of students with exceptional needs in regular classrooms as the first placement option to be considered by school boards. So, in my class, the philosophy of inclusive education was relatively new and still had an element of controversy. I remember some vivid discussions among students and faculty about the merits.
By 2009 the academic debate was settled, but the government was really just getting around to implementation. The ministry’s Setting the Direction initiative was a consulting and envisioning exercise meant to guide the implementation of inclusive education across the province. We were already well behind where we should have been.
Unfortunately, five years later, we’re still waiting to see the vision and mission of Setting the Direction adequately implemented in the province. This, anyway, is the verdict of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta Schools commissioned by the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
Their report extensively analyzes the reality of inclusive education in schools today and offers 38 recommendations on how it needs to be improved.
Two recommendations – and in particular, how they relate to each other – are important to note. Recommendation 3 calls for “clear, multilevel, consistent and transparent communication” from Alberta Education on inclusive education, while recommendation 8 calls for “immediate, targeted, substantial and sustained funding for school jurisdictions.”
There has definitely been a great deal of miscommunication, in particular, related to the new funding framework. I’ve heard from many teachers who had been told by their boards in 2012/13 that their funding for special needs was cut in Budget 2012. Such statements were often based on confusion.
It is true that many boards would receive less funding under the new inclusive funding model than they would under the coded funding model. But, to give the government credit, it made a choice to ensure that no board would be negatively impacted by the transition to the new model. Any board that received more money under the old model was to keep that funding level until inflation brought the new model up to a point where the transition to the new model could occur without harm. Government also then added an additional $55 per student for every board, to ensure that funding increased.
Was this funding boost enough to sustain supports in the classroom under a new model of delivery? Probably not, but the misinformation around cuts to special needs funding wasn’t helpful.
In the meantime, we are also hearing about boards that say they are spending more on special needs than they receive from government. Red Deer Public Schools reported last week that it spends $15.8 million on students with special needs despite receiving only $10.5 million from the province.
At the same time, despite all the rhetoric, teachers are well aware that the level of support for students in their schools has eroded over the past five years. That was a clear finding of the blue ribbon panel.
There is a disconnect and our students are suffering.
One thing that my professor for that inclusive education class said still sticks with me. Equity is not about ensuring that everyone is treated the same; it is about ensuring that everyone gets what they need. Many of our students are not getting what they need.
The blue ribbon panel has done some fine work, and now it is incumbent on school boards, government and the Association to work together on ensuring that their recommendations are implemented. ❚
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