Leaders pledge to improve public education
Depending on which leader was speaking, either the NDP or the UCP has performed poorly for Alberta children, and improvements to public education depend on electing the other party.
This was the thrust of the messages delivered by Danielle Smith and Rachel Notley during a televised leadership debate held on Thursday, May 18.
Affordability, health care and the economy were the main topics of debate, as determined by polling data, but a “wild card” round consisting of viewer-submitted questions put education on the agenda. The first viewer question of the night came from Ray Laser in Calgary.
“How, specifically, is your party going to address the increased enrollment, teacher burnout, increased class sizes and complexity in Alberta school classrooms?” he asked.
In response, Smith said, “One of the first things I wanted to do is restore stability to the learning environment for our kids.”
She said she believes that mental health and social anxiety are the big issues in classrooms and spoke of the government’s recent investment to help with classroom complexity. Smith said the UCP will ensure “every school district has the funding it needs to make its own decisions about what the best mix in the classroom is so that they can meet the local needs.”
Notley responded by telling a story of a six-year-old child raising their hand in class and giving up on getting help. She then talked about funding.
“There have been profound funding cuts to our education system under the UCP. We now have the most crowded classrooms in the country,” Notley said.
Notley backed her claim by citing the layoffs of educational assistants during the pandemic. She also alleged that the UCP cut education funding “on the backs of vulnerable children with disabilities ages three to six, by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from PUF funding.”
Notley promised to restore the Program Unit Funding and “hire 4,000 teachers to try to catch up over the next four years and 3,000 more EAs.”
When it was Smith’s turn for rebuttal, she criticized the NDP for their reporting of the Class Size Initiative.
“The auditor general said it was so badly implemented they couldn't actually track whether it was successful or not and didn't actually know where the where the funding went,” Smith said.
The Class Size Initiative was started in 2004 by the Progressive Conservative government. In 2011, the Progressive Conservatives eliminated the reporting requirements. Smith added that under Notley, teachers had “no wage increases, zero per cent year after year. Under the UCP government, we gave them a much deserved 3.75 per cent wage increase.”
Smith ended the debate on education asserting there would be “more funding for mental health, more funding for complexity, more funding for transportation” and that locally elected school trustees should make the decision “about what ought to happen in the classroom.”
Albertans go to the polls on May 29th in what is expected to be a very close two-way race.