Albertans receives lowest amount of funding for public education

Thursday’s provincial budget will be a test of the Alberta government’s willingness to fund public schools, says ATA president.

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Ahead of what’s expected to be a tight provincial budget Thursday, the Alberta Teachers’ Association is pointing to new data showing the province spent the least on public education in Canada in 2020-21.

The newly released Statistics Canada numbers also mirror the previous year’s data, which showed Alberta ranking last among Canadian provinces for per-student funding in K-12 education.

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“Alberta students deserve better,” said ATA president Jason Schilling, asking the UCP government to make education a priority in Thursday’s budget.

“The premier used a provincewide TV address (last week) to forecast budget funding that would not keep up with enrolment growth and inflation.

“For public education, this is nothing new. It’s been our reality for years, and that is how we have ended so far behind every other province.”

Data released last week by StatCan shows that operational expenditures by school boards in Alberta totalled $11,601 per student in the 2020-21 school year, putting Alberta last in the country. The Canadian average for that same school year was $13,332 per student.

In 2019-20, StatCan reported Alberta funded students at $10,896 per capita, also putting the province last, and well behind the Canadian average of $12,105.

Schilling argued that Alberta Education would need at least a 13 per cent boost in funding to bring education spending to the national average, equivalent to a hike of about $10 per student, per day of school.

“Thursday’s budget will be an interesting test for government,” Schilling added.

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“Will it make Alberta’s students a priority and move them toward the level of funding provided to every other student in Canada, or will it continue to make excuses, overcrowd classrooms, undersupport students and demand more from teachers to keep the system afloat?”

Alberta public school funding
A classroom at the North Trail High School in Calgary. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

Alberta schools facing unprecedented enrolment growth

Schilling said Alberta’s continued lag in education funding raises questions about government priorities.

“We’re seeing an increase in class sizes, classroom complexity, the social, emotional and behavioural needs of students.

“Government is not funding education in ways that are allowing teachers to address the needs for students. And that should be a huge concern for parents — it’s a concern for teachers.”

Alberta’s school districts experienced unprecedented growth over the past two years, welcoming families from across Canada, as well as thousands of newcomers from wartorn regions such as Ukraine and the Middle East.

For example, enrolment data released by the Calgary Board of Education for this school year showed the system taking in as many as 7,029 new students for 2023-24, double what was normal for a regular school year before COVID.

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And that’s on top of the 5,734 new students Calgary public schools received the previous year, and the additional 5,955 officials expect next year.

Large urban districts that saw historic growth did receive an additional $30 million from the province late last year for additional resources.

But Schilling argued it wasn’t nearly enough to address the severe underfunding experienced across all districts since the pandemic.

“We’ve seen through the last several years, increasing enrolment and increasing inflation. But the UCP kept funding flat during the pandemic, and we didn’t see any increases to instructional grants.

“Schools were completely back in place for 2020-21, they were only on emergency remote learning between March and June of 2020. After that, kids were back at school, but they did not get funded properly.

“The province wasn’t funding growth then, and they’re not funding it now. And that lack of funding is essentially a cut.”

Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides argued the province increased funding by 5.2 per cent, for a record investment of $8.8 billion this year, including more than $820 million over three years specifically to address enrolment growth.

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“This funding may be used to hire additional teachers and classroom support staff, so school authorities can manage class sizes and the growing number of students.”

Nicolaides also said the additional $30 million to help school boards with enrolment pressures was combined with $126 million in new funding over three years for complex classrooms and focused learning.

But Schilling said the province would need an investment of more than $9 billion in public education in Thursday’s budget, as well as more than 5,000 new teachers to address large class sizes and complex learners.

“We have to put funding in place that repairs the damage of the lack of funding in previous years.

“We’ll need to see government address funding for enrolment growth, funding the amount of new students coming into the system,” Schilling said, adding that Calgary, Edmonton, Rocky View and Stony Plain will continue to see exceptional growth in the coming year.

“But we also need to provide funds so school boards can address inflation. When those costs come up, they, too, have to pay for utilities, gas for buses, et cetera. And if that funding isn’t there, schools are forced to take away from instructional funding to cover it off, like we’ve seen in the past.”

The UCP government is expected to release its budget in the Alberta legislature on Thursday shortly after 3 p.m.

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