Calgary

Changes to education funding model ends AHS rehab partnerships in Alberta schools

A spring change to the Alberta Education funding framework means funding has been cut for the Regional Collaborative Service Delivery, which supported the delivery of things like occupational, speech and physical therapy in schools.

Alberta Education says the change allows school boards greater control and oversight of specialized services

Some school officials are worried this is a government push toward further privatization in healthcare and education. (David Donnelly/CBC)

A spring change to the Alberta Education funding framework means funding has been cut for the Regional Collaborative Service Delivery, which supported Alberta Health Services in the delivery of things like occupational therapy, speech therapy and physical therapy in schools.

Funding for services previously provided under RCSD will now be going directly to school boards through a new composite grant called Specialized Learning Support grant, which also replaced the Inclusive Education grant and a variety of other grants.

The new grant is used to support a large range of specialized needs including speech, occupational and physical therapies, mental health supports, diverse learning needs and special education programs and resources.

 Some school officials are worried this is a government push toward further privatization in healthcare and education.

"Having a team that would come out and support you with a student who may have a complex need, or a variety of needs, was very useful to schools," said Linda Wigton, board chair of Northern Gateway Public Schools.

"The loss of that will mean that we are going to have to go to private contractors and acquire these services separately. And school divisions will do that. I mean, absolutely, we're going to be doing that and schools will be doing that. To the extent that they were able to do it, I'm not sure." 

'They wanted to have greater control'

In a statement to CBC News, Alberta Education said school authorities requested this change during consultations for the new funding model.

"They wanted to have greater control and oversight of the delivery of student learning supports, services and outcomes," reads the statement.

"Local school boards have the option of hiring specialized health professionals directly or contracting these supports and services from Alberta Health Services zone operations or private contractors."

For some school divisions, like Edmonton Catholic School Division, it's a welcome change. 

"We have a process we have used for the past 5 years with school teams to determine the supports they require for their schools, such as OTs, speech therapists, within the funding that we receive from Alberta Education," ECSD said in an email.

"So the change from RCSD, allowed us even more opportunity to be flexible and responsive to the needs of students in our Division, by having the dollars all in one fund and the flexibility to staff school teams with the people they need."

'Civil watering down'

But Wigton called the move a part of "civil watering down" of the public education system, and the collaboration between the public education system and healthcare system, in serving all the students in the province.

"I just worry about that. The majority of our services are focused on speech language for children in the younger grades, and although those services are normally provided in person or using remote technology, that change in partner delivery has seen a reduction in direct service," she said.

"Now it's just using in-school services. Our inclusive education facilitators are going to be doing more of the work to support these students."

Wigton said supporting students in rural Alberta with inclusive education is more expensive than it would be in an urban setting. 

"We have to bring our support people in, or it's more difficult to find individuals willing to come out to rural Alberta, so it is more expensive to provide those services," she said.

"I see this as just another barrier to providing those kinds of services to rural students. We need equity in opportunity here. Our students deserve to have the same quality of services as children in urban settings, regardless of the cost."

Less overall healthcare staff in some schools

Brad Volkman, superintendent of schools for Wild Rose School Division, said that since the reallocation of funding, the school district is down approximately one full time position.

His school division is now relying on contractors from speech, occupational physical, deaf and hard of hearing, educational audiology and vision impaired therapy.

"Some of these individuals are being shared with neighbouring school divisions," he said in an email to CBC. "This is especially important when smaller divisions like ours do not have enough funding or enough students to justify and support a full time position on our own."

Volkman said the main advantage of the new model is increased flexibility. 

"For example, we are better able to provide universal support for students across the division," he said. "However, the main drawback of the new model is having less overall health care staff than we had access to under the old RCSD model."

'Going to leave students behind'

Medeana Moussa is the executive director of Support Our Students Alberta (SOS).

"My initial reaction is that I think this is essentially about continuing to push services that have been covered by in the public sector, in the public schools, out to for for private servicing," she said. "And, I think it's unfortunately going to leave students behind."

Moussa said after putting her son on a wait list at his school almost a year ago to get speech therapy, she was told this week that schools are still waiting to hear how speech therapy will be delivered to schools, if at all this year. 

"Initially [speech-language pathologists] were deployed to aid in the COVID efforts and now there might be a funding issue. This is something Superintendents are discussing with AHS," reads the response Moussa received from the school.

'Exceeds earmarked funds on an  annual basis'

The Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) said given the composite nature of the new grant, it does not lend itself to a meaningful comparison with the RCSD funding of prior years, but said it's budget spend on students with diverse learning needs generally exceeds earmarked funds on an annual basis. 

"For us in our school division, we have felt really strongly to continue to provide these services for students," said Andrea Holowka, superintendent of learning services at CCSD. 

"There's always that give and take of what are you no longer supporting? We're trying to balance all of those needs, probably with less overall funding."

Holowka said the school district is still seeking clarity from AHS regarding the types of services they provide outside of the education budget. 

"But it affects education and kids. The challenge is, of course, and I think we all understand, that they're extremely busy with COVID," she said. "It's not a good time to be collaborating with AHS because their focus is obviously on our community healthcare."

In a statement to CBC News, the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) chose to use funds from its Alberta Education allocation to support a transition plan.

"To ensure that students previously served by the RCSD funding continue to have supports necessary to succeed," it said.

But, the CBE said the majority of speech language supports provided to CBE students in Grades 1 to 12 were provided by AHS, and were separate from the RCSD-funded supports.

In an email to CBC News, AHS said no one was available for an interview on the matter, but said due to the changes made to Alberta Education's provincial funding model, AHS is refining the way it provides services for children and youth.

"With a focus on early intervention and child and family readiness," it said, and pointed CBC to its website for Pediatric Rehabilitation for more information.

Alberta Education said budget 2020 provided $556 million in funding to the school districts for the Specialized Learning Support grant for K to 12 students in the 2020/21 school year.

This funding is to assist school boards in fulfilling their responsibilities, which include providing a continuum of supports and services that is consistent with the principles of inclusive education, among other things.

About the Author

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

With files from Jordan Omstead

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