Spending on Alberta schools is rising too fast. It’s also somewhat unpredictable, a major headache for school administrators.
To fix these two problems, Alberta Education has come up with sweeping changes to the way school boards and students will be funded.
The main driver for change is the need to freeze operational spending on education, which right now is at $8.23 billion per year. In the past 15 years, there’s been an 80 per cent increase in operational spending in education, says Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. At the same time, the student population has grown just 25 per cent and inflation has risen just 33 per cent.
This kind of spending growth over inflation and student population growth isn’t sustainable, LaGrange says.
Seven months ago, LaGrange and Asst. Deputy Minister Gene Williams put together a team to dig into reforming Alberta’s per-student funding model for students. This deeply entrenched system has seen Alberta rise to having one of the highest per pupil funding models (about $13,000 per student for Alberta’s 700,000 students) of any Canadian province.
The Alberta student population is expected to rise about two per cent each year. At the same time, the government wants to keep educational spending at $8.23 billion for the next three years while maintaining its world-class public system.
Williams and his team came up with a plan to do all this, essentially by driving money into classrooms. The plan is to take dollars out of some pots (administration, medical assessment, Alberta Education pilot projects) and put it into one big pot mainly to pay for classroom teachers.
Alberta Education will be able to send more money to each school division next year, LaGrange says. “That was very important, that as we streamlined and found those efficiencies that we directed those dollars back to the front lines, to the classroom.”
Alberta’s 2,100 schools will now be funded for each coming school year when the Legislature sets out its budget in February or March. Each local school board will get money based on a weighted average of the number of students its had the two years and the projected coming year, with the most weight given to projected attendance.
Under the old per-pupil funding model, schools did not know their final budgets until the final student count on Sept. 30 every school year. As a result, the final school budget could only finalized well into the school year.
When she was a school trustee for 11 years, LaGrange says this uncertainty was always a frustration. Schools were often uncertain if they could afford teachers or assistants, so this change is crucial, she says. “It really will provide that surety to the system that they can make good, thoughtful decisions in the best interest of their school divisions and not have to worry that there’s going to be huge fluctuations in the dollars they receive.”
Special funding programs for students were also amalgamated from 36 to 15 programs. They were also streamlined. Under the current system, in order to get funding for a disability, students would have to be assessed every year by medical professionals. Now they will only have to be assessed once and the funding will remain in place for years at a time. This will cut down on assessment costs and administrative paperwork.
“Let’s take away all of the red tape and administrative burden that has been impeding the ability for more dollars to get directly for the classroom,” LaGrange says.
But there will still be more extra funding for various types of students, such as students in the smallest rural schools and in specialized programs, refugees, First Nations and Metis and lower income students. “We are providing equitable funding across the whole system,” LaGrange says.
More cost cutting will come at Alberta Education and school board head offices, those boards that are now spending over the average for administration.
Of course, some folks will be unhappy that we will have more students for the next three years but the same amount of operational spending. But this displeasure with the spending freeze assumes our school system’s administration can’t be streamlined and improved. It looks like Williams and his team have come up with a solid plan to do just that.
School boards will worry that the spending freeze will mean they have to cut teaching staff. It’s clear LaGrange and Williams believe that won’t happen. It’s not clear, however, if the boards have been given enough tools to find cuts elsewhere in their budgets to avoid such cuts.
That said, we need to get our fiscal house in order. This means significant changes for our two most costly areas, healthcare and education.
This looks like a sound plan to control educational spending. It promises to cut red tape, continue to care for our most vulnerable learners, and direct a higher percentage of money into the classroom. It looks like a decent bet to succeed, but we’ll need to know the details to be certain.