Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
February 24, 2003
Pinched pennies stunt students
Alberta Learning Minister Lyle Oberg must believe that, despite years of cutbacks, ad hoc spending and school board consolidations, the Alberta government is actually overspending on education. To anyone with even a passing interest in what one Tory MLA called "the education industry" in this province, this passes understanding.
The Learning Minister seems unable to understand how the Edmonton Public System could run a $13 million deficit after a government-appointed arbitrator awarded striking teachers a 14-per-cent salary increase and the government gave the board no way to pay the bill. So now government auditors are crawling through the public school bureaucracy seeking ways to save a buck.
Indeed, the government seems so obsessed with saving money on what it pays for education, it seems unable to see any other value associated with the school system.
Edmonton Catholic Schools have so far escaped the trauma being felt by their public school counterparts. But they have not been left unscathed. Last month, the school district was forced to lay off 15 caretakers because the province had actually cut its maintenance budget by six per cent. As well, the district quietly subsidizes its programs for special needs children by $6 million a year because of government underfunding.
The public school board now has cut funding for its international baccalaureate programs - aimed at elite students - as well as for special needs students to overcome its deficit. Oberg says he doesn't agree with those cuts, which is fine to say when you're not about to ante up the money it costs to run a large urban school system.
Special needs funding is of great concern. Students in those programs are those most prone to fall by the wayside in high school and end up as frustrated people on the unemployment rolls. But when they get the special attention they need, they can overcome their obstacles to learning and eventually become the skilled labourers Alberta is said to be facing a shortage of in the years to come.
Meanwhile, the government continues with its infamous 85 per cent occupancy requirement for school districts before it will approve new school construction. In rural areas, this standard may have some value. But in Calgary and Edmonton, it forces school districts to close inner city schools before new schools can be built in new residential developments.
Again, the effect is to undermine the education of those in low-income neighbourhoods and to ignore the realities of urban sprawl, something that the government has never bothered to challenge.
Oberg is again talking about cutting the number of school boards in the province which it reduced from about 160 to 62 a few years ago.
The goal? Cut expenses.
This is the basic problem with the Alberta government's approach to education: It sees schools only as an expense, never an investment. Well education is an investment and Canada's prosperity owes as much to the high level of education of our people as it does to our natural resources. If we want a solid future, we must not be penny-pinching in funding education.
The other basic problem is the Alberta government is too oriented to the next election. This province certainly does have the financial resources to pay for the best quality of schooling in Canada and, as the next election draws nearer, it is safe to predict the Alberta government will open the purse strings.
But that won't show any commitment or any vision. It will be little more than an opportunistic effort to buy off dissent and ensure the government's sweeping re-election.
Alberta deserves better than that.
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