Editorial: Financial pressures mounting for Alberta government

March 22, 2016 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief
A number of media reports surfacing in the past few weeks have highlighted the large number of financial pressures accumulating on the provincial education budget. With the budget’s release around the corner, this sort of prebudget jockeying and speculation are expected. However, growing anxiety over a declining Alberta economy has the effect of raising the volume on these issues. News stories about rapid student population growth, the impacts of growing class sizes, supports for inclusion, school fees, school nutrition programs and, of course, the outcome of negotiations with teachers have all popped up recently. Student population growth will likely be the biggest driver of education costs for the province. The government recently announced that the 2015/16 student population grew by 16,000 students — even higher than the 12,000 predicted last March. While job losses mount in Alberta, this has not dampened the expectations for student population growth. High fertility rates in recent years, combined with continued immigration, mean that the student population will continue to grow. The NDP’s election win last year was helped by the Jim Prentice government’s failure to fund new students, so expect to see the government fund this growth. Further population growth is putting pressure on class sizes, which are already quite large. Education Minister David Eggen crowed about the hiring of 740 new teachers this school year, but the numbers over the past six years suggest more are needed. Since 2009/10, the student population has grown by 75,000 students while the teaching population has only grown by 1,700. The student population growth rate has outpaced the teacher population growth rate by nearly three to one. Classes are likely larger now than they were in 2002/03, when teachers withdrew services to protest class size concerns. Metro Edmonton also reported this month about parental concerns regarding inadequate support for students with special needs. Two years ago the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta Schools highlighted systemic concerns, but little has changed in that time. The budget released last fall promised $119 million over the next two years to address classroom complexity, but current fiscal pressures are putting that promise in jeopardy. That same budget projected a new $45 million program to reduce school fees paid by parents and a $40 million school nutrition program for the next school year as well. Implementation of this spending may be bumped back, despite the fact that some school boards have already announced that they will eliminate fees next year. It would be a shame if these programs were lost — especially in this economy — when such programs provide important relief and support for parents who may already be suffering as a result of the recession. If these programs are not a priority now, when will they be? I’m certain teachers don’t need to be reminded that their salaries were targeted this month by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. The CTF’s push to roll back salaries by 10 per cent ignored the real earnings cut experienced by teachers when inflation rose five per cent while teachers went without salary increases. It also glazed over evidence that shows all Albertans are paid on average 23 per cent more than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. Teacher negotiations will discuss compensation and conditions of practice. Some of the outcomes may not have costs, but others may, so this would create another pressure on the coffers. Groups like the CTF will point to these financial pressures and other government spending as an indication that the province has a significant spending problem. But evidence from the Parkland Institute’s report Hard Math, Harder Choices demonstrates that Alberta’s spending is neither bloated nor unaffordable. Alberta’s public expenditures amounted to only 18.7 per cent of household income in 2014/15, which is lower than it was during most of the time that Ralph Klein was premier. Not only is this not the highest spending among the provinces, it is in fact below the national average of 24.9 per cent. We do not have a spending problem in Alberta; we have a revenue problem. Alberta’s tax regime is so low, the province could raise $8.5 billion more in tax revenue and still be the lowest-taxed jurisdiction in the country. This amount doesn’t erase the deficit, but it clearly explains it. The financial pressures in education will continue to mount until the government decides to tackle the revenue issue head-on. Unfortunately, I don’t predict that much will change next month. ❚ I welcome your comments—contact me at jonathan.teghtmeyer@ata.ab.ca.

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