Treat our Children's Education as an Investment

Dear Parents:

Many of us place our children into the care of the education system without much thought.  We assume that they are receiving the best education available under the best system that can be offered in a society that values public education and believes strongly in the benefits of investing in our children’s future.  After all, as graduates of a public system, without question, most of us benefitted from a level of education that is the envy of many people in the world.  Certainly, even the most myopic person can see how, for generations, society has progressed with an educated public. We rely on the expertise of professional teachers and administrators that, also as products of the system, demonstrate on a daily basis their belief in the public system to deliver the best possible education to our kids.  We trust in our politicians and decision makers, themselves beneficiaries of a robust education system, to provide at least the same level of opportunity to our children as they have received for themselves.

However, I am afraid that this is not the case.  For years, certainly since the so-called Klein Revolution, and certainly in the time since I first dropped my toddler off at the doors of Lakedell School nine years ago, there has been a slow and steady erosion of the system’s ability to deliver a consistent, predictable and equitable education to small rural schools.  The culprit: a funding formula for schools from Alberta Education that fails to recognize the challenges of educating small, diminishing and dispersed rural populations.

Like most small incremental changes, when viewed year to year, this slow and insidious wearing may not seem like much; a teaching assistant cut here, a ˝ teaching position there. But when viewed on the whole, we are now at a stage where the rural education system is cut to the bone and to the point where the opportunities available to our children are considerably less than opportunities available in larger population centres.

In the recent provincial budget, as with most budgets over the last decade, there was hope that the inequity would be addressed.  In the budget announcement, there was an increase to the base education grant and to special needs funding of 4.4%, which looked positive.  However, looking further, there were cuts to virtually every other grant program that goes to school districts.  The result was a net decrease in funding that will put next year’s budget for the Wetaskiwin District in a deficit in the range of $800,000.00.  Instead of increasing the overall funding, Cabinet just changed the way they cut up the funding pie.

Recently, a number of concerned parents met with WRPS administration and trustee representation to discuss the funding situation.  This was a series of three evening meetings where we went over how money comes to the district from the Province, how that is distributed within the District, and what that looks like at the school administration level.

The parents reached pretty much the same conclusion as the trustees and administration.  There is not enough money in the system.  There is only so much that can be done with increasing costs, much of which is outside of the control of schools, and a declining rural population that directly impacts revenues, as most programs are funded on a per head basis.

One obvious, but I would argue temporary solution, would be to close some of our smaller schools.  This solution would take probably at least two years and, in my view, would not provide any long term solution to funding, just a momentary reprieve.  You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

What really needs to be done is to re-examine how rural schools are funded, particularly in areas that experience what is called “scarcity and sparsity”.  That is, we are few and far between.  We all must realize that we must strive for equity in the system between educational opportunities for urban and rural children.  Where this is the ideal, in reality it is something that we must reach for but may never attain; however, equity must be a key principle in any funding model.

Wetaskiwin School District staff, principals, and trustees have developed a set of principles or criteria they use to distribute funds to the schools.  These principles seek to identify the key aspects of a good education that every child in the district should be able to access.  These principles are insightful and well thought out and articulated. The Alberta School Board Association has lobbied for years to have a similar set of principles established within Alberta Education, but to no avail.  The result is a broad-brush provincial funding formula that fails to meet the unique needs of each school jurisdiction and as we see, puts many school jurisdictions in a situation between a rock and a hard place.  A decade plus of decreased budgets has taken all the meat off the bone.  I fear that soon, our schools will be butchered to a point where they struggle to provide even the basic needs.

It is the duty of all parents to push the Government of Alberta to treat our children’s education as an investment, not a line item in the expense column.  We, in the older generation, have benefitted from adequate public investment in education.  Our children require and deserve no less. We need to re-work the funding formula to recognize that needs and costs vary from region to region and we need a provincial funding formula that has flexibility and accountability from Alberta Education. Efficiency needs to be a tool, not the end outcome.  If we treat expenditures in education as an investment in the future, it will pay dividends for the future.

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