Teachers have a good understanding of the fiscal realities facing the province of Alberta right now. It’s clear that a fair amount of pain and suffering has been caused by the slowdown in our energy sector as a result of slumping oil prices.
To understand the extent of the situation, let’s consider the history of the price of a barrel of oil measured by the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) standard. For the first half of 2014, the price sat relatively comfortably between $100 and $110 U.S. Between the summer of 2014 and the start of 2015, the price stumbled to less than $50 per barrel. In the lead-up to the 2015 provincial election, the price had climbed to $60 per barrel, but then fell again, reaching a low of less than $30 in January and February of 2016.
The low oil price made many projects in Alberta less profitable and resulted in significant layoffs and other rollbacks in the energy sector. Higher unemployment and other economic spinoff factors meant a spillover into other areas of the Alberta economy, including retail and wholesale trade, as well as various service industries.
While most analysts believe that the recovery will be long and slow, there are signs that things are improving for Alberta. The WTI price has held steady above $50 since the beginning of December and projections see it continuing in an upward direction. Oil prices above $50 make traditional oil production much more profitable, and prices above $60 greatly increase the profitability of oilsands production. A low Canadian dollar and recently improved prospects for greater pipeline capacity mean that Alberta producers will get better returns on their investments.
Elsewhere in the economy, retail sales have been moving up for four months in a row, wholesale trade has started to increase again, and employment trends are improving and so are housing starts. There are still some negative indicators,
and teachers should be aware that the well-known Alberta Average Weekly Earning index is down about six per cent from January 2015.
“Cautious optimism” seems appropriate to describe the current reserved outlook for Alberta’s economy. But given that the economic prospects have improved, I think it is time for the Alberta government to look at making some strategic investments in education in the upcoming provincial budget.
The government has carried through with its election commitments to fund student enrolment growth and deserves significant credit for that, especially in response to a worse-than-anticipated economic situation. But funding enrolment growth only maintains the current conditions of learning and supports — it doesn’t improve the plight of Alberta’s students.
A few promises made in the NDP election platform would bring improvement but, unfortunately, they have been put on hold so far.
According to the NDP’s 2015 platform, the 2017 budget was forecast to include $75 million for class size reduction and inclusive education, $45 million to reduce school fees and $60 million for a school lunch program. The government has started with a $3.5-million investment in a school nutrition pilot project, but none of the other commitments have been advanced even though the platform called for each to begin in 2015.
Now that the price of oil is returning to the level it was at when that platform document was drafted, and now that the economic horizon appears brighter, I think the government should move forward on one or more of these three commitments.
A cost-effective strategic investment in education this year will ensure that a generation of students who may have been affected by this recession in other ways will see some important improvements to their education at a time when they could really use it.
I welcome your comments — contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.