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Editorial: Education budget teetering on the backs of teachers

April 7, 2015 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

The provincial budget isn’t balanced. It’s projecting a $5 billion deficit in the government’s 2015 fiscal year.

The education budget isn’t really balanced either. School board funding will rise by 0.8 per cent, or $45 million in 2015/16, but there will be no funds made available for the 12,000 new students being added to schools next year.

There is, however, a delicate balancing act going on.

The government demonstrated a commitment to honouring the collective agreements that it legislated on teachers and school boards and deserves credit for that. But achieving that commitment was not simple, in light of an estimated $7 billion hole in government revenue.

I’m quite sure that number crunchers in Alberta Education could now be hired by Cirque du Soleil for the show that they’ve put on, keeping the stacks of loonies from teetering over.

School jurisdiction funding profiles clearly show that “Base Funding – Equivalent to Average Teacher ­Compensation” is set to increase by 2 per cent. But that was only done by parsing out the base funding for “non-teacher compensation” and reducing it by 3.1 per cent. A 3 per cent cut was then liberally sprinkled across other funding envelopes.

The same funding profiles clearly show the numbers of certificated staff employed by each school board and projects that they will be maintained. The minister has declared it a priority.

Funding salary increases and ensuring that teaching positions are not cut is good news, because teachers have been rightfully concerned about these things. It would have been very problematic of the government to renege on a commitment to fund the first salary increase teachers will receive in four years or to lay off a whack of teachers to pay for these increases.

In justifying the protection of teaching positions, Education Minister Gordon Dirks said it well: “The essential element of a child’s success in school is the frontline teacher.”

Now, unfortunately, it is quite possible that educational assistants, support staff and central office personnel will be laid off as a result of this budget. This is inappropriate and unacceptable.

It is, however, unfair for teachers to be blamed for this when the responsibility to adequately fund education rests solely with government, but that is what’s happening.

The finance minister said it in his speech: “In order to accommodate teaching salaries, funding in other areas of education will see reductions.”

The government’s fiscal plan reiterates the premier’s favourite messages of recent months: “Alberta teachers’ salaries are 9.8 per cent above the Canadian average.”

It is an unfair dichotomy that suggests that we can only have fair compensation for teachers at the expense of supports for students.

If we want to compare the situation in Alberta, let’s compare it on other fronts.

Alberta teachers work in larger and more complex classrooms than their colleagues elsewhere in the world, as shown by data released last year by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The Teaching and Learning International Survey shows that our class sizes are 8 per cent larger than the global average, and those classes are twice as likely to include a significant number of special needs students (51 per cent versus 26 per cent) and a significant number of students learning in a second language (41 per cent versus 21 per cent).

The same study shows that Alberta teachers put in work weeks that are the second longest among teachers in the world, second only to their Japanese colleagues, and that they put in 10 hours per week more than the global average. This is all true while Alberta consistently continues to put up some of the best achievement results in the world. Alberta’s teachers have consistently made up for the inadequacy of education funding.

With this budget, as class sizes grow and supports for students with special needs and English language learners erode, the burden of providing quality education for Alberta students will again pile up on teachers.

It’s actually Alberta’s teachers who deserve the biggest ovation for feats of strength and balance, for the entire education system is delicately teetering on their backs.  ❚

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