The Parkland Page

May 21, 2010

Education Funding: budget day spin VS. classroom reality Ricardo Acuña

Understanding public policy in Alberta requires much more than just listening to what a minister says or reading the newspaper. Even studying overall funding for a ministry is often not enough.

The trick to understanding what is going on involves delving a little deeper into inflation, population growth, salary costs and, most important, what’s actually happening on the frontlines. This is especially relevant to K–12 education, where what the government and media say is happening rarely lines up with what is actually occurring.

A case in point is the Alberta 2010 budget, which the mainstream media and most of the province’s political opposition parties criticized as a deficit budget with unreasonable increases in spending.

The media led with stories about the size of the deficit, the increase in funding to healthcare and the fact that education and social services had been spared from anticipated cuts. Even some of the province’s advocacy organizations, which worked hard to mobilize Albertans in the lead up to the budget, declared victory for having managed to stop the cuts.

While it’s true these organizations did a fabulous job rallying Albertans and had a positive influence on the budget, to say that the budget did not contain cuts is untrue and does a disservice to those who will deal directly with the budget’s end results.

Yes, overall spending in this year’s provincial budget did increase by about $1.7 billion, but once you factor in the money used to pay off Alberta Health’s accumulated debt and adjust for inflation and population, it’s apparent that overall spending did not increase at all.

Let’s break it down further and look at what is happening in K–12 education funding. Government budget documents show an increase to education’s operational budget of about $250 million. However, that increase will cover projected increases in student enrolment only. In other words, once growth in enrolment is factored in, the increase disappears. After inflation is factored in, it becomes clear that what the government is trying to sell as an increase is actually a funding cut.

With respect to teachers’ salaries, the five-year agreement between the Association and the government to eliminate the unfunded liability of the teachers’ pension plan, which served the government’s public relations needs well when it was signed, was supposed to usher in a new era of collaboration, predictability and stability in teacher–government–school board relations. However, the government has since declared that it will not cover the costs of the negotiated salary increases next year, which means that funds will come out of existing school board budgets. In other words, another budget cut. So much for collaboration and stability.

To add insult to injury, these cuts are coming to an education system that was already in trouble last year, as schools faced overcrowded classrooms, supply shortages and inadequate infrastructure.

The true nature of the budget becomes more evident as the numbers work their way down from the minister, to the school boards, to the schools and finally to the classrooms. School boards are now making it clear that fallout from the current budget will mean that fewer teachers will be hired, and this will result in bigger classes and more stress on teachers.

Education Minister Dave Hancock responded in a typical government fashion that has been the standard since the days of Premier Ralph Klein and Education Minister Lyle Oberg: he passed the buck. Hancock told school boards they could avoid laying off teachers by dipping into their reserves or going into debt. He also suggested that school boards look at staffing on a long-term basis and act accordingly. In other words, the minister is asking school boards to do what his government won’t do—go into debt, if necessary, and view education funding in the long term. The result is that school boards must choose between staff and infrastructure on one side and going into debt on the other, all based on Hancock’s promise that funding will increase again by some undisclosed amount at some undisclosed time in the future.

Teachers and parents have the clearest sense of what cuts to the province’s classrooms will mean. It is critical, therefore, that we understand where the problem originates, so we can direct our outrage and advocacy to the right place. Underfunding is not the fault of the principal or the school board, but of the government that set the education budget in the first place. Tell your MLA about the effects of their decisions and admonish them for not thinking strategically for the long-term good of Alberta’s children.

Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a nonpartisan public policy research institute at the University of Alberta that has been researching and publishing alternatives to public policy in Alberta since 1996. For more information about the institute or its work, contact the office at 780-492-8558 or visit www.ualberta.ca/parkland.

Also In This Issue