Having now spent 16 years as a teacher, I find it interesting how often I’ve seen public education attacked through underfunding. It has happened with remarkable frequency in my relatively short career. However, over that time, I’ve also consistently seen teachers and parents stand together to defend public education.
A 2001/02 recession led to belt tightening that impacted classroom conditions across the province. Teachers led the charge to demand reduced class sizes and better supports to stop students from falling through the cracks. In 2003, an unfunded arbitrated salary settlement led again to massively deteriorating conditions of practice; again, teacher advocacy prompted greater funding supports. Threats were fended off in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015 through advocacy and political action on behalf of teachers.
You might be inclined to think that this sort of work will not be necessary with the election of an NDP government, but teachers will need to remain vigilant. The forces that press for cutbacks are strong in this province, and they are motivated by the falling economy and worsening picture of government finances. They will continue to point to large deficits, increasing debts and interprovincial rankings of expenditures to support their claim that spending is out of control.
At a time when financial insecurity and the impacts of a recession are visible everywhere, public opinion, which drives political action, can and will shift too. An NDP government in a bad economy will be vulnerable to a narrative about out-of-control spending, and it could be convinced to adjust tracks for political reasons.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association regularly conducts public opinion polls on a variety of issues related to education. Our latest iteration, conducted in late February, suggests that public opinion has already shifted. The number of Albertans who cite funding issues as the most important issue in education has halved since last June, from 46 per cent to 23 per cent. This is not necessarily because the funding issues have gone away; I suspect it has more to do with the declining economy affecting the acceptability of an underfunded education system.
Other results lead to similar conclusions: the percentage of Albertans who feel education is underfunded dropped by nine points since June 2015, those who feel the government should live up to funding commitments also dropped nine points, and the rate of Albertans who picked program cuts as the best way to respond to declining revenue rose by seven points.
Bad news? Maybe. The trendlines are down, but there is still strong public support for education funding. A majority (57 per cent) of Albertans feel that not enough is being spent on education in Alberta compared to only seven per cent who feel too much is being spent. Seventy-three per cent of Albertans feel the government should maintain funding commitments even in the face of declining revenue. And when asked what should be done to combat declining revenue, 53 per cent of Albertans pick an increased revenue option and another 22 per cent say run a deficit over making spending cuts.
The ongoing critique of education spending will affect some people’s views but many are not being swayed. However, the longer the economy remains in the doldrums, the harder it will be to challenge this narrative. Ian Hussey from the Parkland Institute (see Viewpoints, page 3) provides us with ample evidence to argue that Alberta has a revenue problem and not a spending problem. We as teachers will need to continue our advocacy efforts to protect public education.
The government’s April 14 budget is expected to protect current conditions but will likely not make significant improvements. It will likely be the best budget we could hope for given the circumstances, and if that’s the case, the government should be applauded, but maintaining funding will get harder and harder in the coming years. The voices of teachers will be needed to help promote further spending in education and to combat the growing sentiment that favours spending cuts.
The good news is that the public should be largely responsive to the stories of teachers, the need for adequate education funding and even suggestions that revenue must improve. We just need to make sure our voices stay out there. ❚
I welcome your comments—contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.