July 2, 2019 3:57 pm

COMMENTARY: Simple cuts not enough for Alberta’s complex education problem

Vacant desks are pictured at the front of an empty classroom is pictured at McGee Secondary school in Vancouver on Sept. 5, 2014.

Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press
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Outside of Christmas, this time of year has to be one of the best for a student.

In the anthem “School’s Out,” Alice Cooper sings, “No more pencils and no more books.” Well, at least until September.

While everyone from students and teachers to support staff and administration are now on their summer vacations, those overseeing the education system will have their no. 2 pencils and graphing calculators in hand.

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READ MORE: Calgary public school board approves 2019-20 budget

Are those even things anymore?

I’m kidding. Kind of.

The province’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta’s Finances is hard at work with the expectation it will report back to the UCP government in the fall on whether we are getting the best “bang for our buck” on a number of fronts.

READ MORE: Alberta government bringing back Grade 3 standardized testing

Education will be one of them.

It is that work that led to the government bringing forward Bill 9 to delay wage talks with unions.

Fiscally responsible mandate

It makes sense in the grand scheme of things. You can’t enter negotiations not knowing how much money you can or can’t afford to spend. It’s called fiscal responsibility and it also stays on message for the new government, which I would argue has come in “as advertised.”

READ MORE: Higher oil prices, more tax income: Alberta ends 2018-19 with smaller deficit

I don’t think anyone has been surprised by the backlash Bill 9 has received from the unions and the opposition NDP.

Even if mandated renegotiation is part of the original contracts, that could be viewed as a trap set by the previous government.

READ MORE: Alberta nurses launching legal challenge of province’s wage arbitration bill

One of the main talking points behind this backlash has been the idea that Bill 9 is simply a precursor to system-wide cuts. The UCP has come out against this, saying they will continue funding at current levels at a minimum and have gone so far as to say they will also fund growth, as well.

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I think this is all code for something. The UCP is essentially saying, “We will give the boards the money. Then it is up to them if they want to cut teachers or not.”

It seems the boards and bureaucracy within each school division will have some homework to do. And if they don’t do it, could this open the door to the government doing a full-scale review, like what was supposed to happen with the Calgary Board of Education (but was quietly mothballed before the election)?

READ MORE: Calgary Board of Education budget calls for increased class sizes and layoffs

Now funding is one thing, but student achievement is another and that’s what will be on the line with all this political talk.

Back in my early days as a reporter at 770 CHQR — 2007-2008 — I covered both of the city’s public and Catholic school boards and have always had an interest in education, given it’s a multi-million dollar facet of our society that has an impact on every single person that calls our city home.

READ MORE: Alberta promises to fund fall school enrolment growth

While it’s easy to say “We need to cut,” or “Wages need to be rolled back,” you should really look at the realities faced in classrooms right now.

Complicated classroom problem

Let’s start with classroom sizes and narrow it down to elementary school.

The optimal classroom is 17 students, yet many classrooms in Alberta are well above that — in some cases close to double.

READ MORE: Parents in north Calgary get first look at design plans for new high school

For those pining for cuts, I ask a simple question: Are you okay with even less one-on-one time for students?

Complicating the matter even more is the idea of “inclusive education.”

Gone are the days where children with special needs are in a classroom all their own. And while some of them require special attention or aides, sometimes the funding doesn’t necessarily follow the student in that way.

READ MORE: Calgary schools preparing for expected increase in students, possible teacher loss this fall

Further complicating the matter is the unwritten rule around not failing or holding back kids.

So now you have children who haven’t grasped the fundamental concepts in grade one and two and are being ushered through subsequent grades, not knowing how to count to 100 or write proper sentences.

If you’re wondering what’s really wrong with grade nine math scores, I think this might be a clue!

No simple solutions

As you can probably tell, this isn’t a simple conversation to have and I haven’t even touched on half of the issues I’ve seen and heard about. I’m barely scratching the surface, to be honest.

READ MORE: Kenney government launches website to let Albertans help decide where to cut red tape

We could talk about whether there’s too much largesse in the bureaucracy. We could talk about grade three provincial achievement tests. We could talk about how some teachers are overly-protected even when they don’t meet expectations. We could also talk about how some parents treat school like a glorified daycare where the idea of homework is met with the refrain, “We have better things to do.”

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Don’t get me wrong: none of these issues will be fixed before the bells start to ring again in September.

With the change in government this spring, I hope it does open up a real, frank discussion about our education system. It’s not just funding. And it’s not just classroom sizes. And it’s not just accountability.

It’s all-encompassing and it’s all connected. And if that don’t suit you, that’s a drag.

Joe McFarland is host of “Calgary Today” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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