Shaping Education in Alberta

May 21, 2010
Ernest Clintberg

What influence have education ministers had on educational opportunity?

It is almost impossible to predict the changes that lie ahead for teachers and education in Alberta. However, what is clear is that politicians have influenced education. Featured here are eight education ministers that left their stamp on educational opportunity.

Educational opportunity for students, also known as equity for students, has been available in one form or another throughout Alberta’s history. The question is: has it changed, and if it has changed, why did it change?

Publicly funded and governed education in Alberta began in 1883 with the North West Territories Act. The legislation of the day, An Ordinance Providing for the Organization of Schools in the North West Territories, set out a legislative framework that provided distributive funding through local taxation. That model acknowledged public involvement to ensure children received an education at no cost—the provincial government and local school boards would pay for it out of their taxation revenue. The legislative funding model changed significantly in 1961. The School Foundation Program Fund was introduced by the provincial government, with school boards collecting an additional supplementary education tax from property owners. Government funding and fiscal equity, it is often said, is the first measure which indicates the level of educational opportunity being offered to students and these models affected that opportunity.

Events, resource funding models and, as is the subject of this article, politicians shape educational opportunity. Much of the research cited here is from a series of interviews that I conducted with ministers of education, their deputy ministers and other department of education officials who worked in the education department from 1971–2004.

the major players from 1971–2004

Lou Hyndman, QC, 1971–75

Lou Hyndman and his department gained the support of the Alberta legislature for the establishment of preschool and elementary education programs. Hyndman believed in equity as fairness (a concept in law), and his recognition of parents’ and teachers’ pleas that children with disabilities be part of a publicly funded school system helped elect his party’s government in 1971. Hyndman referred to educational opportunity as “equity.” He believed that the preschool and elementary years were the most important years in a child’s education and consequently turned his attention to education in two areas: children with special needs, and preschool children up to Grade 6. As a result, frameworks were designed with specific program grants that supported and encouraged improved special education programs and elementary educational opportunities. The frameworks included raising teacher certification standards by improving the level of teacher preparation for all teachers, not just for high school teachers who were already expected to have a degree. Now, all teachers were expected to have at least four years of university education and a teaching certificate.

Special education gained a favoured place in the province’s faculties of education during Hyndman’s tenure. Disabled children received additional attention through special funding grants to school boards to support instruction and to provide diagnostic tools for these students. In addition, Hyndman narrowed the difference in funding between elementary, junior high and high school by initiating a process that would lead to increased funding for elementary programs. Fiscal equity was improved further when the department began to design an equalization grant to compensate school boards with a poorer property tax base. Hyndman also established a Minister’s Advisory Committee on School Finance (MACOSF) and consulted with the academic community and other education stakeholders about special education and other education financial issues, including equity.

Julian Koziak, QC, 1975–79

In 1976, Julian Koziak carried out the initiative of narrowing the funding gap between elementary, junior high and senior high school and introduced the equalization grant that Hyndman had originally proposed. Koziak established grants to offset the fiscal constraints of some of the poorer boards due to their low property assessment. He improved fiscal equity for separate school districts when he allowed corporations to declare their taxes for either the public or the separate school district. In addition, he provided a method for separate school districts to more easily expand the boundaries of their districts and capture a broader tax base. Koziak also brought his experience as a lawyer to his position as minister. He focused on listening to his clients (students and parents).

David King, 1979–86      

David King upheld equal educational opportunity and fiscal equity. Early in his tenure, King responded to the Carriere court decision, which established that disabled students could attend their home school without impediment. As a result, the department improved resources for disabled students. In concert with the rights outlined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the court’s decision positively affected equity for the disabled; however, it meant that educational costs increased. In 1983, an Alberta Supreme Court decision gave children the right to receive a francophone education. However, francophone education was limited to locations where there was a sufficient number of students.

King began a review of the School Act during his ministry, which resulted in a major revision in 1988. King said that then-premier Peter Lougheed believed that everyone should be listened to and heard; everyone should have a voice when it came to setting government agendas, including the opposition.

King prided himself on his efforts to listen to and debate education issues with all stakeholders. Under his leadership, nine equity grants were created to deal with various funding shortfalls faced by school boards, a number of which complained that regulations related to the funds were complex and needed to be simplified. The grants were then rolled into a single equity grant in the same year that the government’s grants to education were held to a 0 per cent increase. During King’s tenure as minister, MACOSF was disbanded, and the phrase equal educational opportunity was slowly replaced in political circles with the word equity.

Nancy Betkowski, 1986–89

Nancy Betkowski held beliefs similar to King’s and vowed to meet with education stakeholders. As a new mother, Betkowski viewed many issues through maternal eyes. This was most evident when she worked with her department and the legislature as she guided a major revision of the School Act. She believed that children had the right to be treated equitably in their education, and equity begins with access to a local school. While preparing amendments to the School Act, Betkowski sought the support of caucus for the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of the Child but did not receive it. In the legislature, she listened to all who spoke—government and opposition alike—about education issues. This approach also applied when the department’s budget was debated in meetings. Betkowski and Jim Dinning, who followed her as minister, confirmed that under her direction, the School Act focused on equity for students. To guarantee educational equity for all students, Betkowski wanted to ensure that all students had access to an education regardless of where they lived and their abilities or disabilities.

In 1987, Betkowski reduced education funding by 3 per cent but increased special-needs funding. To offset reduced funds, she attempted to bring about fiscal equity through corporate pooling. She and Reno Bosetti, deputy minister of education, saw corporate pooling as a way to address growing fiscal inequity between poor and wealthy school boards. Betkowski’s efforts failed in caucus—those opposed to corporate pooling won the day. (Corporate pooling: Rather than each school board collecting its corporate taxes, corporate pooling is a concept of taking all taxes gathered across the province from corporations, pooling the funds and redistributing them equally back to all school boards.)

Jim Dinning, 1989–92

Jim Dinning inherited the growing problem of fiscal inequity among school boards and travelled across Alberta to meet school board trustees in an effort to reach consensus on models to resolve inequities. Despite his attempts to hear all sides and reach a compromise, he was also unsuccessful and disparities continued to increase.

Halvar Jonson, 1992–96        

Halvar Jonson inherited the fiscal inequity problem when he became education minister. A second problem—an annual deficit and the growing provincial debt—plagued the government throughout the early 1990s and was an issue in a hotly contested party leadership campaign in which Ralph Klein defeated Nancy Betkowski in 1992. Klein became premier and called an election in 1993, campaigning on a platform of eliminating the government’s deficit and debt. Jonson, who was appointed minister of education in 1992, moved to eliminate the deficit and debt. In 1993, with the support of Bosetti, Jonson met with the Treasury Board (chaired by Dinning). Jonson and Bosetti opposed the Treasury Board’s plan to cut the education budget cut by 20 per cent; they did not see how school boards could operate with such a deep cut to funding. The Treasury Board resolved the fiscal equity problem by implementing corporate pooling, taking over all taxing authority from the school boards and implementing the new equalized assessment scheme. It was agreed that only 12.6 per cent would be cut from the education budget. When the plan came into effect in 1995, many property taxpayers saw a drop in their tax bill for education.

In 1994, the department developed a new fiscal framework that distributed funds in envelopes for instruction, facilities, transportation and administration. A sparsity and distance grant continued to assist remote school districts whose costs were higher because of their distance from major centres. Students with high needs were still funded by the government; however, the grant was capped, which meant that no funding was provided beyond a specified number of students. In other words, school boards did not receive additional funding for additional high-needs students.

Early childhood education (ECE) funding was cut by 50 per cent, which left school boards with the option of reducing their ECE programs, charging tuition fees to keep the ECE programs or supplementing the programs with Grades 1–12 instructional money. Although funding was not reduced further from the previous year for regular students, the public and the opposition raised an additional issue to student equity: Adequacy of funding. The opposition questioned whether the new funding framework was equitable for students and school boards. Jonson and the government neither relented nor responded to the repeated questions and demands in the legislature, and the opposition made no headway in changing government policy.

Debt reduction drove the decision to pool all education tax sources; Jonson’s and Dinning’s resolve to fix the fiscal equity problem was successful, according to those interviewed. However, it left the question of reduced student equity unresolved as well as the question of adequacy.

Gary Mar, 1996–99        

Gary Mar maintained Halvar Jonson’s funding framework and sought no changes to it other than to reinstate ECE funding and remove the cap on high-needs funding. Research was completed as needed (by politicians rather than academics and other stakeholders). The opposition continued to question the government on adequacy and equity for funding, but all to no avail.

Dr. Lyle Oberg, 1999–2004

When Dr. Lyle Oberg took on the education portfolio, which now included Advanced Education, the funding formula, with only the previously mentioned changes, remained untouched save for annual percentage funding increases that did not keep up with cost of living increases.

Did Fiscal Equity and Equal Educational Opportunity Change?

Did the concept of fiscal equity change between 1971 and 2004? It appears not. However, the methods the government used to achieve fiscal equity changed with the introduction of equity grants in the early 1970s. In 1995, under Halvar Jonson, the government removed school boards’ authority to tax property and left them with access to tax through plebiscite only. This brought about the greatest degree of fiscal equity for the province in its history, according to those interviewed. However, the decade beginning in 1990 found funding levels falling far behind. Alberta’s cost of living increases raised a related topic—adequacy of funding.

Late in the 1960s, parents became much more vocal in agitating for services and education for these students and their voices were heard by the then-opposition PC MLAs. Equal educational opportunity was an objective for students who were seen as “normal”; those who were not were placed in segregated programs, either in institutions or in special schools in the school district in which they lived. Students who were segregated in the “other” category had mental, vision or hearing disabilities, and school districts saw little or no obligation to educate them.

Equal educational opportunity or equity for students from Hyndman to Oberg did change in definition and methods of delivery. When the PCs formed the government in 1971, their agenda included improving services in education for the disabled and finding a better definition of the term learning-disabled students. The definition of students with handicaps or special-education needs changed under Hyndman and was refined under other ministers. Not until the Carriere court decision in 1978 did the definition change to expect school boards to directly accept handicapped children into their schools. This change was consistent with the Canadian Bill of Rights and later reinforced by the Canadian Constitution. The School Act still did not acknowledge such rights of access in the early 1980s; not until 1988 did this element of right of access for students appear in the newly amended School Act, tabled by Minister Betkowski. After the new act was declared law in 1988, children with disabilities gained the legislated right of access to regular classrooms. This demonstrated an evolution in the understanding, approach and methods used to achieve equitable treatment of students with special needs from Hyndman to Oberg. At the time that Hyndman was appointed education minister, students with special needs were not funded other than through a limited opportunity fund and institutional programs. By 2004, these same students had access to funded programs that were often provided in the regular classroom.

Clearly, Alberta’s education ministers have influenced teaching and education. In years to come, we’ll have an opportunity to reflect on the decisions made by the subsequent ministers of education to see how they shaped Alberta’s educational system.

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Dr. Ernest Clintberg is the associate executive secretary of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. His doctoral research, completed in 2005, focussed on the concepts of fiscal and student equity in Alberta.