2021 budget has no new money to prepare Alberta teachers for change in curriculum

Alberta’s proposed budget contains no new money for implementing a new kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school curriculum, even as the start of classroom testing looms later this year.

Teachers' association concerned money will be diverted from classrooms

Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling (left) said he is concerned about a lack of new money for implementing a new K-12 curriculum in Alberta's proposed budget. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange (right) says the cost of developing resources, tests and training teachers will not come from school divisions, but it's unclear where the money is being diverted from in the flat education budget. (Jordan Mesiatowsky and Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Alberta's proposed budget contains no new money for implementing a new kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school curriculum, even as the start of classroom testing looms later this year.

Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling says a lot of preparation work is required after the ink is dry on any new curriculum documents.

He said it's extremely important the provincial government set aside new money for professional development to prepare the province's 46,000 teachers to deliver the new material in every subject and grade.

"They need to ensure that this is funded properly, and it can't be on the backs of school boards and teachers," he said in an interview on Monday.

The government and teachers will also need to develop or find resources to teach the new material. This includes textbooks, videos and the myriad sources teachers use to bring their lessons to life.

The education ministry will also have to develop new provincial exams. The ministry's business plan says it intends to both reform provincial exams to better identify student strengths and deficits and modernize the exams by bringing more of them online.

The budget documents say the government will "invest the necessary resources to support teacher learning and build English and French resources aligned to the new curriculum." It does not provide an amount, and the minister's office did not provide an amount when asked.

But provincial education funding is frozen at $8.25 billion a year until 2023 — all while enrolment is predicted to rise and inflation drives up costs.

Education department budget rising

In an interview last week, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said any funding for curriculum resource development and implementation will come out of Alberta Education's budget.

"I am not taking any money away from school divisions for that," she said.

The department's budget is slated to rise by $26 million over three years to $114 million by 2023, which is a 30 per cent increase.

The amount of provincial money being transferred to school boards, charter schools and independent schools is also dropping by $26 million over that same time period.

And, the money allotted for instruction of students from pre-kindergarten to Grade 12 is slated to drop by $117 million, or 1.7 per cent, by 2023, according to education budget documents.

LaGrange's press secretary, Justin Marshall, says the drop in public classroom funding can be attributed to school divisions pulling less money out of their savings accounts, decreased insurance costs, and money diverted to growing private schools, among other things.

He did not answer a question about why the education department's budget is rising by 30 per cent or how much of the increase is related to curriculum.

He says the cost of curriculum field testing will be borne by Alberta Education, not school boards.

All elementary schools are expected to begin teaching the new K-6 curriculum in 2022, with junior high and high school transitioning in the following years.

Source of curriculum funding unknown

Schilling says he can't get clarity from the government on where the curriculum implementation money is coming from. 

Drafts of the social studies and fine arts curriculum that leaked late last year were also prescriptive about which books students should read, architectural landmarks they should study, songs they should sing and artwork they should interpret.

If recommendations that prescriptive stand, the province is going to need to provide that material to schools across the province, Schilling said.

An absence of additional funding for curriculum shows the government is more interested in checking the accomplishment off their to-do list than ensuring the new material is going to work for teachers and students, said Sarah Hoffman, NDP education critic and deputy Opposition leader.

"Money shouldn't be coming out of classrooms to pay for that," she said. "We want students to be able to learn the best material today and tomorrow, and we want them to be able to have the best educational supports."

NDP Education critic Sarah Hoffman says further eroding school budgets while enrolment and inflation rise is a disservice to Alberta students. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

The risk of diverting money from school budgets to curriculum implementation could include larger class sizes, fewer support staff to help students who are struggling or have disabilities, more school buildings falling into disrepair, longer school bus rides and fewer enriching and hands-on learning opportunities for students, she said.

A comparison of the 2020 and 2021 budget documents also shows that 1,907 fewer educational support workers and 310 fewer certified teachers worked in Alberta's public sector this year compared to last year.

LaGrange said those staffing decisions lie with school boards.

In an interview last week, Canadian Union of Public Employees Alberta president Rory Gill said some of the support workers who were supposed to be laid off temporarily last year during the pandemic were never recalled to work. The union represents about 8,000 school support workers.

Gill said he's "disgusted" by the staff reductions. The lack of access to educational assistants will hit kids especially hard when many are already struggling during the pandemic, he said.

"It's stretching an already-stretched system to the limit," he said.

Increased private school enrolment diverts funding

One proposed increase in the education budget is the funding for private schools and early childhood learning centres. If the budget is approved as written, private schools will receive $10 million more next year, and private pre-kindergartens and kindergartens will also receive a $10-million boost.

Marshall said the funding increase reflects growing enrolment in private schools, and that funding rates remain the same. Independent schools receive 70 per cent of the funding a public school board would receive for a student, which is the highest rate in Canada.

As schools re-opened last September during the COVID-19 pandemic, a decade-long trend of significant growth in Alberta schools had a jolt when an estimated 9,300 fewer pupils enrolled in school. Most of the reduction was in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten.

Although the government expects enrolment to rise next year, Marshall said it is "impossible" to predict enrolment given the complications of the pandemic.

Edmonton Public Schools is projecting a 2.3 per cent increase in enrolment next year.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

With files from Lucie Edwardson