Alberta budget sees massive cuts to education

January 3, 2020
By Jonathan Teghtmeyer

At a time when school enrolment is expected to grow by 15,000 students per year, the Alberta United Conservative Party’s new budget proposes a freeze on operational funding in education.

Budget 2019 eliminates Class Size Initiative funding, School Fee Reduction grants and Classroom Improvement grants, while adding a new, one-time transition fund to support boards while the government plans for a new funding framework to be adopted in September 2020.

The per capita base instructional grants have been maintained, which has allowed the government to claim that they have funded for enrolment growth, but Alberta Teachers’ Association President Jason Schilling calls this line misleading.

“The government is playing a shell game in order to trick us into thinking enrolment growth is being funded,” said Schilling. “But at the end of the day, school boards have less funding per student, which means larger classes, fewer supports for students and programming cuts.”

In 2018-19, each student in Grades 1 to 3 generated a base instruction grant of $6,679 and a Class Size Initiative grant of $1,521. For 2019-20, those same students will only generate the base instruction grant, but students at all grade levels will also generate a one-time transition grant of $203 (for metro and urban boards) or $356 (for rural boards).

This is part of the government’s restructuring of the Class Size Initiative funding after a review concluded the program was ineffective. The Class Size Initiative would have been worth $297 million, after enrolment growth, if it had continued in 2019-20.

“Albertans elected us with a clear mandate to conduct an audit of class sizes and determine what happened to previous funding dedicated to class size reduction,” said Education Minister Adriana LaGrange on the release of the government’s class size review.

“This report demonstrates that we cannot continue to throw money at this problem, rather that we must look for new solutions while continuing to appropriately fund education.”

The replacement of the Class Size Initiative with the smaller one-time transition fund means a 16 percent reduction in base instructional funding for kindergarten to Grade 3 students.

“This year, class sizes got bigger and I’m very worried that this budget will result in further class size growth for our youngest students,” said Schilling. “All the research shows that class size reductions have the biggest impact at the youngest grades, yet that is where we are doing the worst job in keeping class sizes small. We have never met the 15-year-old targets for K-3 class size, and last year, 80 percent of those classes were too large.”

Schilling is quite worried about the long-term implications of the fiscal directions set out in the budget.

“The budget projects frozen operational funding for four years, which would mean 60,000 additional students and not a single additional teacher hired to teach them,” he said.

The budget proposes an eight percent decrease in the overall public sector workforce over the next four years, with most of the reductions attained through attrition.

The teachers’ pension plan is also a target of this year’s budget. Tucked away on page 120 of the fiscal plan is a directive to transfer all of the funds within the Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Fund to AIMCo, a Crown corporation of the Province of Alberta.

It was a unilateral decision by the UCP government and was executed without any prior consultation with teachers or the ATRF. The ATRF was made aware of the change only 15 minutes prior to the budget delivery.

The government points to reducing redundant administration and building a “Made in Alberta” portfolio as the reasoning for the move.

Schilling likens the move to a “hijacking” of teachers’ pensions and says there are still many questions around the move that need to be answered. The ATA is withholding any official action until more information is brought forth.

Teghtmeyer is the associate co-ordinator of communications with the Alberta Teachers’ Association. This article is reprinted with permission of the ATA News. This article also includes files from Mark Milne, Media Liaison with the ATA Media Relations Office.