So a picture is emerging of an ideologically driven government determined to change the nature of public education. Here is what they have decided to do so far (and it is less than a week since Alberta’s Budget 2019):
- Not fund enrollment growth beyond 2019-20 and not add funds to cover inflation over the course of this parliament – an 18% cut in real terms.
- Immediately cut funding for grades 1-3 by $1,300/student in urban districts
- Cut funding for teaching assistants – essential in complex classrooms, such as those found in Alberta
- Over the four year period, cut funding for public education (which can no longer be called “public”) by 2.8%
- Allocates $400 million to charter and private schools
- Plans the introduction of a Schools Choice Bill in the current sitting of the legislature
- Cut post-secondary budgets in significant ways, reducing funding by $600 million, with some institutions “hit” harder than others.
- Removes the tuition freeze and permits universities and colleges to charge up to 7% more each year – potentially a 28% rise in costs to students.
- Seeks to roll back teacher pay by between 2% and 5%
- Seeks to transfer management and control of teacher pension funds from an organization co-directed by teachers to one in which teachers have no voice – from ATRF to AIMCo.
- Abolishes the STEP program, which provided a chance for students to work in the summer in companies and non-profit organizations and replaces it with a $6 million/year Next Generation trades program intended to help 6,000 individuals.
None of these developments were negotiated or involved prior consultation. For example, school boards and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) were not consulted or advised of the cuts to grades 1-3 nor were the ATA advised or consulted over the intention to make fundamental changes to the management of their pension plan.
The rationale for these measures is to “balance the books” and to bring Alberta in line with education spending in other jurisdictions. Neither of these intentions is entirely honest. Alberta will not balance its books any sooner because of these measures than it would have done under the previous NDP government, which sought to invest in public education. We cannot bring expenditures in line with other Provinces without understanding their different revenue streams.
What is more, the budget makes assumptions about both economic growth and the price of oil which are more than questionable. It is more likely that these measures will lead to higher deficits and debt (especially when coupled with tax giveaways to profitable businesses and the reduction of revenues through the cancellation of the carbon levy). By making the revenue situation worse, the Government makes the likelihood of “fiscal balance” less likely rather than more likely.
The impact on public education will be felt in a variety of ways – quality of the learning will go down as class sizes rise, teachers will leave the profession faster than they do now and there will almost certainly be labour unrest after the arbitration / pension decisions. The removal of support for teaching assistants will worsen the already precarious position of students with special needs.
This is part of the strategy, two to three years from now, to justify a significant expansion of private education in response to “the obvious” weaknesses of public schools – hence the language of “school choice”.
This will also be a precursor to the amalgamation or abolition of school boards – something we have seen in other Provinces (and are about to see in Quebec).
Teachers are already upset about class size and conditions of practice, lack of a pay rise (they are just now learning of the ask for a 2%-5% roll back) and are furious about the attempt to shift management of their pensions to AIMCo.
If you didn’t believe public education was vulnerable before, you should now. It is under attack.