Alberta Election Fact Check: Would a UCP spending freeze mean no more teachers and thousands of new students?
While speaking about education funding at the Rural Education Symposium on March 3, NDP leader Rachel Notley had the United Conservative plan in the crosshairs.
“I couldn’t help but notice one of our opponents… they want to freeze education funding for at least the next four years.
“That means that over that period of time, a conservative estimate is that roughly 60,000 children will enter our schools and not one new teacher will be hired,” Notley said.
“They call it a freeze but what it means is that every child in Alberta will receive a lower quality of education as a result,” Notley said. “So we should call it what it is: a cut, plain and simple.”
The NDP used student population estimates from Alberta Education, which forecasts enrolment to grow by roughly 15,000 students each fall, for a four-year total of 60,000.
Kenney has spoken about a spending freeze to tackle Alberta’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit. However, he’s said it’s about redirecting existing assets, and disputes the NDP’s assertion it would mean deep cuts to public services.
“We are committing to maintain or increase the current (education) budget. But that will be a function of our future budget,” Kenney reiterated on March 25. “We’re not planning for an increase in funding in our platform but there will be no cuts to education under a UCP government.”
“We will seek to reduce administrative spending in the education system to push those dollars out to the front lines,” Kenney said.
The UCP’s platform outlines the same spending plan to balance the budget by 2022-23.
What are the facts?
One important thing to note: the provincial government doesn’t dictate exactly where education dollars must be spent; that’s up to individual school districts to decide.
So, the number of new teachers hired, for instance, would be up to each individual school division.
“Boards could perhaps hire more teachers but they would have to make other arrangements within their own budgets or spend their surpluses,” said Greg Jeffery, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), a registered election third-party advertiser. “But spending surpluses on human resources really doesn’t work because a surplus only lasts so long.”
A funding freeze from the government wouldn’t necessarily equate to a hiring freeze at the school board level. But, if districts decided to continue hiring teachers with the provincial funding they receive, they’d have to take money from other areas of their budgets.
WATCH BELOW (March 25, 2019): Alberta UCP Leader Jason Kenney said his government would support GSAs in schools, but also support the religious freedoms of faith-based independent schools.
“A lot of our budget is fixed, in terms of salaries and infrastructure,” said Michelle Draper, board chair of Edmonton Public Schools.
“In terms of hiring and determining where our needs are, we work very closely with our principals… to help figure out where do they need staffing? Where are the big pressures?”
She said Edmonton Public gets 94 per cent of its funding from the province. If the government decided not to increase funding for every additional student the district sees, it would mean about $39 million less than what district would expect. Its total budget is $1 billion.
Edmonton Public estimates it grows by about 3,000 students a year. Edmonton Catholic sees between 1,500 and 2,000 new students annually. Calgary Board of Education welcomes about 1,670 new students and Calgary Catholic Schools grows by 1,000 to 1,200.
What do stakeholders say?
“It would absolutely limit the amount of new hires that we could make as a district to support those 3,000 new students (a year) that are coming into the doors. It might affect other resources that we’re able to provide,” Draper said.
“It would be devastating for us as a school district to not receive funding for growth.”
The ATA projects the student population will actually grow by 74,000 over the next four years. The group used numbers from Alberta Education and population growth data from Statistics Canada.
Over that four-year period, the ATA estimates funding that matches enrolment growth would see about 4,300 new teachers hired. Without funding, it forecasts class sizes in Alberta would increase 10 per cent or more, which would see the average kindergarten to Grade 3 class size rise from 20.2 to 22.4 students. The recommended class size is 17, according to the Commission on Learning.
“Class size is going to go up, there’s just no way around it,” Jeffery said. “…Also the supports for inclusion.
“Those special needs students within the classroom would not get the same level of support because you’re talking things like educational assistants, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, those sorts of things quite often you see are a first line of cutting when cutting has to happen.”
WATCH BELOW (March 25, 2019): Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley reacts to the education plan unveiled by the UCP on Monday.
What’s the difference between a freeze and a cut?
How can the same spending plan be referred to by one party as a cut and by another, a freeze?
“It obviously has to do with politics,” said Elizabeth Smythe, a professor of political science at Concordia University Edmonton.
“The two biggest areas of expenditure in the provinces are education and health care. In both cases, expenditure is population sensitive.
“In other words, if the number of students is growing, then an absolute freeze in the amount of money you spend on education, if you do the math, means less spending per student… So, a freeze, in that case, could be a cut.”
While citizens don’t like paying taxes, two areas of public service they value a lot are health and education, Smythe said.
“Nobody wants to say: ‘I’m really concerned about the fiscal situation and I’m going to massively cut in this area or massively cut in that area,’ especially in health care and education. Those are the two biggest programs, provinces are totally responsible for them, they’re accountable, everybody knows who did the cuts.”
“The party that wants to limit spending is going to refer to it as a freeze. The party that opposes that party is going to characterize it as a cut. It’s a sort of negative way they can go after the other party for their controlling of spending,” Smythe said.
The Alberta NDP’s overall allocated budget for education in 2017/18 was $7.9 billion.
Smythe said it’s possible for a government to partly make up for a freeze in spending by increasing the efficiency of services.
“There’s no question you can deliver better services more efficiently in certain areas and you can try and limit costs with these kinds of efficiencies,” Smythe said. “But these are big programs and they spend big amounts of money.
“To claim you can really keep the lid down, or freeze the spending, or you can even engage in some sort of cuts, without affecting services is really questionable.”
She added a spending freeze would impact different boards, regions and schools differently.
“A school in a mature area of Edmonton maybe is going to get a few more students. Maybe in a suburban area, they’re going to get a massive increase in students. How’s the school board going to deal with that?
“They’ve got an existing pool of money. Are they going to shift some money from the school that’s maybe got a smaller or dwindling enrolment? Maybe at that school, are they going to take money out of, I don’t know, computers, and put it into hiring teachers?”
WATCH BELOW: The UCP says it wouldn’t make cuts to education but find efficiencies and push dollars to the front-line. However, the NDP says not providing more money for additional students is a cut. Emily Mertz has this Fact Check.
What about class sizes?
Class Size Initiative (2004)
Alberta’s Class Size Initiative was established in 2004 following recommendations from the Commission on Learning that average class size for Grades 1-3 should be capped at 17, at 23 for Grades 4-6, at 25 for Grades 7-9 and at 27 for Grades 10-12. Alberta Education increased funding in 2008 by nine per cent, to a total of $212 million. It was the province’s responsibility to ensure that school boards met those class size requirements.
In Feburary 2018, Alberta’s auditor general recommended the government do a better job monitoring the millions given annually to school boards to reduce class sizes. The auditor said there was no accounting for how the boards spent the money over 13 years.
“[The initiative] was put in place, I believe in 2004,” Jeffery said. “Class sizes were coming down because there was a requirement to report on how the funding was used, but the boards were finding that requirement to report quite onerous and complained to the government of the day, who said, ‘Well, we just won’t worry about the reporting.’
“And then it seemed the class size initiative funding got absorbed into other parts of board budgets.
“There are some specifics situations where there is what we call targeted or enveloped funding,” Jeffery added. “One is the class size initiative funding. That’s in place now. The present government has just reintroduced the requirement to actually report on how those dollars were spent.
“That stopped in 2009 and class sizes have risen steadily since 2009.”
Classroom Improvement Fund (2017)
Notley said an NDP government would hire 600 teachers and another 400 teaching and support positions would come through a $23-million increase in the province’s Classroom Improvement Fund (CIF).
The fund was originally designed as a one-time grant for the 2017-18 school year and was later renewed for 2018-19. The fund is distributed to schools based on student enrolment. School districts apply for the funding and explain how they plan to use the money. Alberta Education must approve each proposal to make sure it falls in the grant’s parameters. This year, the focus was on hiring teachers and support staff.
WATCH BELOW (Nov. 20, 2017): Education Minister David Eggen says class sizes are smaller under the current NDP government than they would be under a Jason Kenney government.
An ATA spokesperson said most grants provided by Alberta Education “have an identified purpose, however school boards are generally allowed autonomy to spend the funds they receive how they see fit.”
Since the fund was introduced, the education ministry has required boards to report on how funds were used. Certain restrictions were placed on the funds and “the government emphasized the hiring of teachers and other educational support staff, but these funds have been spent on other things as well,” the ATA said.
Some school boards said essential services, like the hiring of teachers, should be budgeted and paid for by more predictable funding sources, rather than a grant program.
The ATA estimates the additional $23 million, if used solely for hiring additional teachers, would translate to about 250 to 300 more teachers hired.
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