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Viewpoints: Mysterious black box provides warning of budgetary consequences

April 7, 2015 Dennis Theobald, Associate Executive Secretary

“You see Dennis, I have on my desk this black box, and with it I pretend to control education in Alberta.”

The man with the metaphorical box was Dr. Roger Palmer, former deputy minister of education and the second smartest man I’ve ever worked for (the smartest being without question my current boss Dr. Gordon Thomas — I’m no dummy myself). Palmer has a doctorate in theoretical physics, has taught at Eton and held top positions in several of Alberta’s ministries. This was the guy teaching me, a wet-behind-the-ears special assistant on secondment to Alberta Education from my classroom in Tofield, how government really worked.

“There are two dials on the box: one fine-tunes policy and the other the flow of money.”

So far so good …

“The policy dial has this very intricate and finely divided label, allowing me to adjust it just so. The problem is that I’m not sure that the policy dial is actually hooked up to anything in the box, because whenever I spin it, nothing happens. On the other hand, I know the money dial is connected because when I turn it even a little, it has all sorts of effects out there in the field. The problem is that the label has fallen off so that I haven’t a clue as to what those effects might prove to be.”

In their time, ministers and their deputies all have to contend with that mysterious control box and the limitations it imposes on public governance of education. Sometimes the officials adjust the policy dial, for example, attempting to address teacher workload issues, with varying and in many cases minimal effects out in the classroom. Other times, the government will give the money dial a good crank and then we all get to see just what is going to happen, usually something not entirely anticipated.

All of which brings me to my main point: how the education system could potentially respond to the most recent provincial budget.

To start with, in an attempt to contain education expenditures, the government has announced that it will not fund enrolment growth. This means the system will have to accommodate a projected increase in the student population of 12,000 without additional funding. In its budget documents, the government states that this alone will result in a 1.2 per cent underfunding, which will simply have to be absorbed.

But it’s important to remember that these are aggregate figures and that student enrolment growth is unlikely to uniformly affect all school authorities or individual schools. There won’t be any winners, but some stand to lose considerably more than others under this funding regime.

Given this reality, how will boards respond when they are effectively disincentivized from taking on additional students, and what will that mean for Alberta’s often vaunted commitment to school choice? Will school boards and individual schools be reluctant to admit out-of-district students? Will Roman Catholic separate school authorities decide to roll up the welcome mat to students from other faith traditions? Will boards continue to invest in “magnet” programs that are intended to draw in students to participate in specialized programming? Will private school authorities decide to cap enrolment or have parents make up funding shortfalls by raising tuition, and what implications does this have for equity? All of these would be rational, if not intended, reactions to the failure to fund enrolment growth.

The ministry of education, too, has been hit hard and is facing expenditure reductions of nine per cent, or approximately $10 million. While those who believe that government is bloated and wasteful may regard such economies as being long overdue, these cuts too will have consequences. The most immediately affected will be our colleagues in the department who, through no fault of their own, will suffer job losses and compensation freezes or cuts. Secondees to the department may be returned to their schools, depriving government of practical insight into the real world of classrooms and, as they return, displacing other teachers.

If you are not one to be moved by such considerations, remember this: policy is cheap — support is expensive. So that means that Alberta Education will tend to move toward a model where it will be steering (or more likely shouting directions from the back of the boat), while everyone else (that means you) will be expected to row. We may be even more likely to see the department making decisions that emphasize cost savings rather than educational value. Recall, for example, the previously kiboshed speculation about having students’ written work assessed by a computer rather than by real teachers.

Perhaps, though, the greatest impact of this budget will be on the support provided to classroom teachers to assist with classroom complexity. Grants to assist schools to serve students who do not speak English or French, who have special learning needs, who are facing developmental challenges or socio-economic pressure, have been cut. As boards attempt to achieve a 2.7 per cent reduction in their total nonclassroom teaching costs, the services of in-class teacher aides and specialists will become much harder to obtain. Teachers will be expected to fill the gap, but the reality is that these students’ learning and enjoyment of school will suffer. What consequences will this have for school completion and the life prospects of those affected?

The parable of Dr. Palmer’s mysterious black box provides a warning about the dangers of hubris. Government cannot know or control all the consequences of the decisions embedded in the budget. In such circumstances, it falls to teachers, administrators and trustees to struggle to mitigate the damage that might be done, but also to make very clear to the public and politicians what those consequences are. ❚

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