Heartbreak and anger: Public school trustees take aim at funding changes to special needs program

Supporters of young children with special needs are slamming the Alberta government over a decision to change the funding for a program that helps prepare them to enter school.

Funding decision has 'decimated our ability to provide early intervention,' says trustee

Edmonton Public School Board trustees slammed the government's decision to cut funding for the per-unit funding (PUF) program.

Some Edmonton Public School Board trustees say they've been left heartbroken over the Alberta government's decision to change the funding for a program that helps prepare young children with special needs to enter school.

At a Tuesday school board meeting, Ward B trustee Michelle Draper didn't mince words, calling cuts to the per-unit funding (PUF) program devastating, frustrating and disappointing.

"We know that the more we invest in the younger years, when the brain is developing, the more likely that those students will do better later on and get the supports that they need," said Draper.

The funding program supports early education for children aged two years, eight months to four years, eight months who have medical needs, learning or cognitive disabilities.

The program is intended to give those students a chance to keep pace alongside their peers by grade one.

In February, the government made changes resulting in a 76 per cent drop in PUF for the school board, from $39 million this year to just $9.5 million moving forward.

Additionally, where some 1,040 pre-kindergarten children were once served by the program, only 600 are now eligible to apply, a decrease of 42 per cent. The program was also reduced to two years from a three-year model.

'Worst moment I've had as a trustee'

Trustee Shelagh Dunn said it was shortsighted to de-fund early intervention.

"I think it was the worst moment I've had as a trustee to actually just read that the funding for PUF is reduced by 76 per cent," said Dunn.

"This decision by this provincial government has decimated our ability to provide early intervention and it's quite upsetting actually."

The changes mean the EPSB will also be suspending all 22 satellite locations that were servicing pre-kindergarten students as of September 2020.

In addition, the pre-kindergarten programming will now be offered at just six physical hubs, down from a previous 10.

"It makes me think of that phrase that we judge a society by how we treat the most vulnerable among us," said Dunn. "And I have to say, reading this I'm quite ashamed of the decisions that were made."

Trustee Bridget Stirling said that cutting millions from programs like PUF will lead to job losses, specifically in the form of educational assistants who were supporting many students with special needs. 

"The worst part of this is, it's not an evidence-based decision. It is not a decision grounded in what is the most effective way to provide education," she said. "It is purely a decision made to balance books now at the cost of student lives for years to come." 

'Government does not have our backs'

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman called on the province's education minister to reverse the cuts. 

"Parents don't deserve this. Children with complex needs don't deserve this," said Hoffman.

"The minister must apologize, do the job Albertans elected her to do, which includes reversing these cuts, and fully fund Alberta schools and students." 

Sarah Doll, who has two children with complex needs, was at Wednesday's news conference with the NDP. She says cuts to the PUF program are devastating to her family, and many others.

"These cuts will affect the future of Alberta. These cuts violate the rights of thousands of disabled children. The parents, families, and friends of these children will never be able to forgive or forget this," said Doll.

Consistent support

The government is assuring parents PUF eligibility remains the same, and students diagnosed with severe disabilities or language delays remain eligible for funding.

In an emailed statement, Colin Aitchison, press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said his government's funding model continues to protect the province's  most vulnerable children.

"Under the old model, there was a significant drop in supports for students entering Grade 1," said Aitchison.

"The new funding model closes that gap by providing a consistent level of support for K-12 students through the new Specialized Learning Supports Grant, while continuing to prioritize early intervention for pre-K students through Program Unit Funding." 

EPSB Superintendent Darrel Robertson says it's not entirely clear how the new model stacks up to existing supports, but says the board is currently looking to maximize those supports in their upcoming budget.

"We've gone ahead and held aside $6.5 million for us to look at intervention in kindergarten for children that were formally PUF kids that require specialized supports," he told trustees on Tuesday.


Alicia Asquith


Alicia Asquith is the host and producer of the CBC Alberta television news. She's previously worked as a reporter and video journalist in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Venezuela.