New schools are sorely needed, but so are the teachers to staff them
Last week, Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives swept four byelections held in Edmonton and Calgary. The results mean that both our premier and our education minister now have a publicly authorized mandate and will be able to sit in the legislature.
Education played a key role in the electoral outcome for the new MLAs, who represent a change in government without a change in the governing party. The Facelift Four (Prentice, Education Minister Gordon Dirks, Health Minister Stephen Mandel and Calgary-West MLA Mike Ellis) benefited from a mid-campaign announcement that the Prentice government will build another 55 new schools and complete 20 more modernizations over the next six years.
The school buildings are critical in order for our education system to keep up with a massive student boom currently underway in Alberta. As a result of significant immigration, in-migration and high fertility rates, Alberta’s K – 12 student population has grown by more than 45,000 students in the last four years, and that high growth will continue (expect another 15,000 students this year alone).
The school buildings are also critical for the political future of the PCs. The young families driving this growth are settling in new communities on the outskirts of the major cities — communities without schools. These are also the areas where the PCs need to continue to win to maintain government. As the Wildrose Party attempts to build on its rural and exurban base, it needs to make inroads into the city suburbs. The electoral battleground in 2016 will be the areas adjacent to our two metropolitan ring roads.
And so, we build schools — lots of them!
But infrastructure is only one side of the equation. Prentice’s major educational challenge going forward will be allocating the stable and adequate instructional funding needed to operate those schools.
Between 2009/10 and last year, while the student population grew by 45,000 students, the teaching force only grew by just over 100 positions. The scale of growth in teaching positions for this fall is not yet known, but it will not match the 4,000 teaching positions that would be required to bring our teaching force back to the level we had in 2009/10, when both the student-teacher ratio and K – 3 class size were at their lowest. We cannot allow this deterioration of learning conditions to continue.
Government will tell us that they funded the growth by providing the per-student funding allocation that each new student comes with, but they will leave out the story of funding uncertainty, cut grants and rate freezes that have placed significant stress on the growing system.
We have to tell that tale … again. It’s a tale that, unfortunately, we have had to tell over and over again too often in this land of plenty, but we will need to keep telling it. As much as Prentice wants to represent change, I am worried we will get much of the same. Not because he doesn’t want to do better but because he has painted himself into the same corner as Redford did. Already the premier has committed not to address the fundamental revenue problems that face the province and, with oil prices on the slide, I fail to see how he will deliver on the stable, adequate funding that education needs.
Parents and other concerned Albertans cannot be satisfied just with new schools; they must also tell the story of how new teachers are needed to staff those schools. Those stories, along with tales of inspirational teachers, can be told at www.bettereducationtogether.com. ❚
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