N.W.T. MLAs on junior kindergarten: where is the money?

In the N.W.T. legislature yesterday, eight regular MLAs passed a motion calling for the government to rethink its plans for junior kindergarten. They say the program needs new money to work properly.

'All we're going to do is reduce the quality of education,' says MLA Wendy Bisaro

Northwest Territories MLAs wrapped up the spring session by passing a motion calling on cabinet to come up with new money for junior kindergarten.

Twenty-three communities are set to start junior kindergarten in the fall.

Regular members argued more early childhood education is good, but each of them questioned starting the program without additional money in school boards' budgets.

MLA Wendy Bisaro says students across the system will suffer from a higher ratio of students for every teacher.

"All we're going to do is reduce the quality of education. Kids are not going to be engaged.... fewer graduates is what will happen."

MLAs questioned how junior kindergarten will affect other early childhood programs, how school boards are supposed to cope with cuts, and where money for supplies and extra teachers will come from.

Sonny Blake says the two communities in his riding of Mackenzie Delta are going to have 18 extra students in their class.

“Close to 30 students for one teacher? That's just not going to work.”

Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley also questioned the plan.

"Why did we do a pilot study in three communities if we weren't going to provide an evaluation of these pilots for our reference?" he asked.

"Would it not be wise to wait one more year to implement junior kindergarten, and maybe we'll have more money in place to work out all these problems?" asked MLA Daryl Dolynny.

Teacher ratio 'won't be the worst'

The N.W.T. now averages 13.8 students for every teacher, including teacher's aides.

Minister Jackson Lafferty says there's room for that to increase.

"There's been a generous contribution over the past decade, because we had money, funds, which we don't at this point. In order to roll out junior kindergarten, we won't be the worst."

British Columbia has the worst student to teacher ratio in the country at almost 17:1.

If the territory increases its ratio to the maximum allowed under the Education Act, 16:1, it would be second worst.

Throughout the lengthy debate, Lafferty argued delaying junior kindergarten will hurt the four-year-olds who will benefit from it.

"In a perfect world, obviously we'd be seeking additional funding. but since we don't have that at this point, I had to work innovatively and creatively within the department."

The territorial government has already made its junior kindergarten programming optional for N.W.T. schools. 

In a June 4 news release, Lafferty highlighted that fact that any schools that exceed the 16:1 ratio would receive additional money.

He also said that Yellowknife schools will receive extra funding when junior kindergarten is introduced in 2016-2017, but says the budget will depend on enrolment.

“I am convinced that an education system that costs the public in excess of $150 million a year can afford to add such an important program for the small cost of $7.4 million a year,” Lafferty said in the release.

It's unclear what the territorial government will do to respond to yesterday's motion.