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Grant plan to cut Alberta class sizes has failed, says education minister

WATCH: The provincial government is looking at changing the way it tries to reduce large class sizes in Alberta schools. As Sarah Komadina reports, it says the current approach isn't working.

Alberta’s education minister says a grant program to cut class sizes in schools has spent $3.4 billion over the last 15 years while failing to deliver results.

Adriana LaGrange says a report on the Class Size Initiative has barely “moved the needle” and they have to look at more effective ways of spending the money.

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The initiative began in 2003 under the former Progressive Conservative government, directing money to schools to specifically reduce class sizes.

However, an education department audit released by LaGrange says kindergarten to Grade 3 classes have dropped by only 1.4 students on average during that time, well below targeted levels.

The report says the reason is schools were given autonomy to spend the money, with some diverting funds to other areas, such as support for special needs students.

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READ MORE: $2.7B spent in failed bid to cut Alberta classroom sizes: auditor

LaGrange says she and her officials are now deciding what to do with the grant, but that overall funding to education will not be reduced.

“We are committed to education,” LaGrange said Friday.

“We are not cutting funding to education and we are going to look for better (funding) solutions.”

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The report says schools believe the grant is not an effective tool and the money should instead be rolled into base funding.

It also notes studies that say cutting class size is not the only method of improving education and that the quality of teachers can have an even greater affect on student learning.

The grant program began with $90 million in funding and has grown every year as school enrolment increased, with $291 million delivered in the current budget year.

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Kindergarten to Grade 3 is where class size is believed to have the biggest affect on learning. The grant initiative targeted class sizes in those levels to come down to 17 students per class, but as of this year the average is more than 20.

A 2018 auditor general report found that the department could not explain why the targets had been missed.

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LaGrange said the bottom line is that the program has failed.

“We’ve spent $3.4 billion and we have not moved the needle hardly at all in terms of addressing the class size issue,” she said.

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Further details on how the province will allocate education resources will be announced Thursday, when Finance Minister Travis Toews presents the 2019-20 provincial budget.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association believes underfunding education creates large class sizes and says the only way to address the issue is to increase funding.

“I’m worried that this report is a signal that the government is abandoning efforts to ensure that class sizes are returned to manageable levels,” ATA president Jason Schilling said. “Should teachers, students and parents just accept the reality of large class sizes?”

Schilling said the report recommends getting rid of “the little accountability and oversight for class sizes that currently exist.”

He said the ATA believes school boards are underfunded by about $200 million per year for special needs supports, ESL, plant operations, maintenance and other transportation.

“Ultimately, there needs to be funding,” ATA spokesperson Jonathan Teghtmeyer added. “The minister is suggesting that funding is not part of the solution and in fact underfunding was the problem and the only solution is there to be greater funding for education.

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“We’ve known full well that class sizes reduction efforts haven’t been successful in the past little while and at this point, we have class sizes that are on average higher now than they were 15 years ago. We recognize that more needs to be done in order to achieve the classroom conditions that student and teachers require.”

Chair of the Edmonton Public School Board says moving funding for class sizes into base allocation gives school districts more flexibility.

“We know where we can spend that money,” Trisha Estabrooks said. “We know how we can target it to best support moving towards better class sizes.”

She stressed it’s difficult for a fast-growing metro district to meet those class size targets.

“The question is: were they ever realistic in the first place?

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“Edmonton Public is the fastest-growing school district in Alberta. We grow by 3,000 students every year,” Estabrooks said on Friday.

“A quarter of our students are English-language learners and we know that in particular for English-language learners and students with complex learning needs and also kids in some of our younger grades, we know that that’s where a smaller class size can really make a difference in a kid’s experience in our classrooms.”

— With files from Emily Mertz, Global News

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