Alberta teachers 'hopeful' for more education funding under NDP

As hundreds of teachers gather in Edmonton to discuss the education in Alberta, many say they're buoyed by the hope a new NDP government will reinvest in education.

450 deglates from across province in Edmonton for ATA annual meeting

Teacher Thomas Holmes says it was a "powerful moment" when the province's school boards made a public plea for more funding in the run-up to the election. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC)

Teachers in the province say they are optimistic about what Alberta's new NDP government has in store for education funding.

Around 450 delegates from across the province are meeting in Edmonton this weekend for the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) annual assembly. Over the course of the two-day meeting, they discuss and debate policies to address issues facing students and staff in Alberta.

Education funding is an annual topic of discussion at the meetings. However, facing an NDP government that has promised increased money for social services, many say the mood of the assembly is much different than it was a year ago.

"The feeling in the room was anger … we were worried for the students," said Eric Coultier, a teacher at Edmonton's Ecole Publique Gabrielle-Roy.

"A year apart, 365 days, it's not the same feeling at all."

There's some uncertainty, but I would characterize it as hopeful.- Thomas Holmes, teacher

Coultier noted that Sarah Hoffman, the newly-elected NDP MLA in Edmonton-Glenora, received a standing ovation from the delegates after giving the opening remarks to the assembly Saturday morning.

In the speech, Hoffman — who stepped down as the chair of the Edmonton Public School Board to run in the election — restated her government's commitment to increased education funding.

During the campaign, NDP leader Rachel Notley pledged to freeze post-secondary tuition and reduce school fees. She also promised to dedicate $75 million specifically to reduce class sizes.

The party has not yet crafted a budget to put those promises into practice. While Coultier said teachers are still uncertain what the leadership change will mean for education, he said he was encouraged to hear the NDP talking about shrinking class sizes.

"The number of students in the classroom is biggest issue facing teachers," he said.

"When you've got 32 (or) 33 students in the class, it is very difficult."

'A powerful moment'

The ATA's president, Mark Ramsankar, said the organization is looking forward to working with Notley and the NDP party.

Education spending got attention during the campaign, particularly after an unprecedented public plea from the province's school boards.

In April, trustees representing 19 school boards across the province, held a press conference in Edmonton demanding the Progressive Conservative government increase funding to deal with higher enrolment.

The group, which included representatives from school boards in both Edmonton and Calgary, said "student success is at risk" without the funding.

The PC party's budget, which was unveiled shortly before the election, contained cuts to education spending. It also included no new money to deal with a projected 1.9 per cent increase in student enrolment across Alberta.

For Thomas Holmes, a teacher in the Sturgeon County school system, the announcement was a sign of how desperate schools have become. In a system that often sees teachers and school boards in disagreement, he said, it was "a powerful moment to see them come together."

"I don't think we can put a cost, both currently and generationally, on the lack of education funding we have in our classrooms. So we have to ensure we fix that," he said.

"There's some uncertainty, but I would characterize it as hopeful."

The ATA's annual assembly continues Sunday and will see debate on resolutions involving the province's curriculum and implementation of gay-straight alliances in Alberta schools.