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'Last place' Alberta education funding shortchanges public school students: teachers' union

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Some Alberta parents are saying the annual funding for public education is falling well short of what's needed, a view echoed by the province's largest teachers' union.

The Alberta government in its annual budget presented last week increased spending for Kindergarten-to-Grade-12 schools by 4.4 per cent. Overall, primary and secondary schools will receive a record $9.3 billion for operations.

The head of the Alberta Teachers' Association says, however, that funding needed to go up by 13 per cent in order to bring the province to the Canadian average spending per student.

Jason Schilling, the president of the ATA, said students in Alberta receive the least amount of provincial funding in Canada, needing an additional $400 million "just to move out of last place" or $1.2 billion "in order to be at the Canadian average."

And given government projections of an additional 57,000 students over the next two years, the problems of overcrowding and inadequate staffing will only get worse, Schilling said.

"That is what's happened in our schools, and not overnight, but gradually and consistently over 15 years," Schilling said during a virtual media conference on Tuesday, calling the 3.6 per cent increase in instructional spending inadequate as it's the "same percentage as the enrollment growth increase."

"This means that there's absolutely no additional budget afforded to inflation and no additional budget afforded to improve the current state of our learning conditions," he said.

"Therefore, students and teachers will not see improvements to their learning and teaching conditions. They will continue to fall behind and our students deserve better."

Situation 'unfolding for a long time'

Nancy Hunt, a parent of two children in the Edmonton Public school system and the co-founder of the Edmonton Public School Advocacy Network, told CTV News Edmonton overcrowding in schools is a situation she's watched "unfolding for a long time and heard for many, many years," and is something her kids grapple with daily.

"For my son, who's in Grade 6, we made the decision to change schools for him this year in elementary school, rather than wait until junior high, so that he's going to have a path for a school that he wants to go to, for junior high and high school, and that's not a typical time to make a change," said Hunt, who also has a third child, a daughter in university.

"For my Grade 10 student, she's in one of the most crowded schools in the city, they're at 111-per-cent capacity ... she describes getting from one class to another as slow and really crowded, long lineups at the bathroom and that makes people late for class."

For both her current high schooler, the "more worrying issue" is course availability, something her older daughter experienced as well, Hunt said.

"They've both encountered a situation where they needed to get a class or make a class change, and the new one that they had wanted was just not available because it was full ... We're getting deeper into the hole of not having enough seats," she said.

"We're already under stress in the system, and I see it getting worse."

Private-school funding hike questioned

The ATA, which on Tuesday launched an advertising campaign highlighting Alberta's place at the bottom of the country's public education-funding heap, also raised concerns about an additional $255 million earmarked for private schools.

"That’s an equity issue," Schilling said. "The majority of our students go to public school, and that money should be directed to the needs of our public schools across the province."

Political scientist Lori Williams questions the Alberta government's motivation for that funding.

The associate professor of policy studies at Calgary's Mount Royal University told CTV News Edmonton she thinks the private-school funding is partly a response to some in the ruling UCP party's base who want schools that address their concerns, needs and interests, and that while "there's a place for that ... the balance has to be kept."

"There's got to be really strong investment in the public system for those who don't have the options of joining a charter school, particularly those who are in centres or parts of the city where they just can't access those schools," Williams said.

"The balance needs to be very strong on both choice and on the fundamentals, investing and adequately funding, public education, in the sense that everyone has access to strong, well-funded education, and that it doesn't provide advantages or doesn't privilege certain kinds of school at the expense of others."

Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides told CTV News Edmonton in a statement on Tuesday that funding is based on enrolment, adding "choice in education is built to support students and families, as a one-size-fits-all system doesn't work for everyone."

Hunt says she fears the quality of her children's education is coming down to luck.

"Many parents are facing a lottery of whether their kid will get into a school," she said. "Honestly, whether we get a school or get any funding feels like a lottery, too." 

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