Increase in Alberta education budget lags growth, rising costs, critics say

The Alberta government's budget pledges to increase education spending, but critics say it won't cover the ground Alberta students have lost after three years of stalled funding.

$8.4-billion budget includes new funds for charter school programs and construction

There's more money in the 2022-23 Alberta budget for schools, but critics say years of frozen budgets mean it's not nearly enough to catch up with growth and inflation. (James Arthur Gekiere/Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images)

The Alberta government's budget pledges to increase education spending, but critics say it won't cover the ground Alberta students have lost after three years of stalled funding.

The 2022-23 education budget will be $8.4 billion — a 1.7-percent increase in funding to help schools and boards grapple with rising costs, growing enrolment and continued pandemic measures.

But Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton Public School Board, says it's unlikely the one-year increase is enough to keep up with various pressures

"What we saw yesterday was hot oil prices temporarily thawing a frozen education budget," Estabrooks said.

The United Conservative Party government had intended to keep the kindergarten to Grade 12 education budget at $8.2 billion each year of its four-year mandate, but the pandemic interfered.

Updated provincial enrolment numbers are unavailable, but schools expected to add thousands of students each year before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Enrolment dipped in fall 2020, when some parents kept their children home. The federal government pitched in money to help schools run both online and in-person classes.

The division expects enrolment to rise by about 2.7 per cent next year. Alberta's budget anticipates an inflation rate of 3.2 per cent.

According to budget documents, Alberta schools will have 860 fewer teachers and about 1,400 fewer support workers employed in 2022 than three years earlier.

Where is the money going?

Next year's budget includes $59 million to start implementing the government's controversial new elementary school curriculum. That will cover teachers' professional development and new classroom resources.

Educators, academics and parents have said the proposed K-6 curriculum is eurocentric, age inappropriate, inaccurate and unsupported by research about how children learn.

The government should withdraw its contentious draft curriculum, said Brandi Rai, Alberta School Councils' Association president, in an email statement.

The money would be better spent helping schools catch up with enrolment growth, Rai said.

The budget will also include $30 million to help students with academic and mental health challenges.

Education property taxes are going up by 1.5 per cent after a two-year freeze, to help fund the increasing costs. The property tax covers about 30 per cent of education costs.

Transportation spending is going the opposite way, jumping 16 per cent in two years. Transportation funding is increasing by $9 million next year to help offset the rising cost of busing, said Katherine Stavropoulos, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.

The budget also includes $13 million — in federal funds — for ventilation projects, following pressure from school boards worried about COVID-19.

The government promised 15 new schools. An announcement will come later on which projects will receive funding.

The province also promised that students with disabilities who home school will now qualify for specialized support. But it hasn't assigned a dollar figure to that nor explained how that will work.

Rising gas and insurance prices prompted the government to give schools more funding for transportation to avoid passing that cost onto families. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Public education advocates criticize increased charter school funds

Budget documents say $25 million, over the next three years, will go toward fostering the creation of charters offering skills training and science, technology, education and math-focused programs.

The ministry has also allotted $47 million, also over three years, for construction and renovation costs for charter schools. Stavropoulos says the new money should help address lengthy wait lists.

Charters are considered part of Alberta's public education system, but some public education advocates are unhappy to see them receive more funding.

Estabrooks, of Edmonton Public School Board, described the boost as unprecedented, and said it erodes funding for public schools.

"We are here to serve everyone," she said. "Charters and [private schools] are not."

While the government frames the investment as giving families more "choice" in schooling, Estabrooks said there is plenty of choice already available within the public system.

Brad LaFortune, executive director of Public Interest Alberta, said public schools are capable of trying innovative education approaches, and that charters are unnecessary.

The chronic underfunding of the public system poses a larger risk, he said.

"We need to be thinking about how we're going to prepare our students for the future in a really fast-paced, changing world."

About 93 per cent of Alberta students are enrolled in the public, Catholic and francophone schools, which are overseen by elected school boards.


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.


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