Alberta has begun easing restrictions following coronavirus shutdowns. As Premier Jason Kenney has noted, the hard-hit province has been affected by more than the pandemic. Oil prices and sales have plummeted and remain well below government budgetary projections.
But in the face of these mounting crises, some of the premier’s decisions have made things even worse for Albertans.
As education scholars with expertise in kindergarten to Grade 12 education, counselling psychology and adult learning, we believe the decision to target educational assistants through funding cuts is one troubling example.
In late March, while Alberta families scrambled to figure out how to make the most of at-home education, the Kenney government cut provincial funding normally covering as many as 25,000 EAs, substitute teachers and other support workers, putting jobs at risk.
Kenney’s acrimony toward critics, public sector workers and federal Liberals seems to have underpinned some of his policy decisions.
‘Redirected’ to COVID-19
But the cuts are not just a response to the immediate crisis. They are in line with a larger political agenda of diminishing the public sector, including public education.
As well, at a time when Canadians are being told that “we’re all in this together,” the cuts seem to exacerbate provincial and federal tensions by effectively forcing the federal government to shoulder provincial education costs.
In one statement, a ministry of education spokesperson said that “any staff who are affected by this temporary funding adjustment are encouraged to apply for the federal government’s enhanced employment insurance program as well as other support programs for Canadian workers.”
The cuts turned education workers into handy pawns in Kenney’s larger feud with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals.
Cuts to vital educational assistants
When school shutdowns were announced in mid-March, LaGrange guaranteed that school authorities would “receive their full allotment of funding for the 2019-20 school year.” The later cutbacks were justified by claims that EAs and other support workers were “not being utilized in an at-home learning environment.”
Although it’s clear that some workers, such as bus drivers, could not continue in their jobs, EAs were wrongly targeted.
While teachers have had to find space to continue their jobs from home, teaching is not a desk job. Teaching involves regular contact and relationships with students.
The relationships that teachers, EAs, and other support staff develop with students matter.
Crucial for equitable schooling
In inclusive classrooms, “all children are welcomed and valued … [and] contribute to regular schooling and classroom-learning activities,” notes inclusive education scholar Tim Loreman. Loreman’s review of 57 scholarly articles confirms that effective inclusion requires both specialized staff and revised curriculum and teaching. Loreman also finds that such education benefits all students.
Successive Alberta governments, including this one, have set procedures for assessing students’ special needs. If a student has an assessment that determines instructional support, like being paired with an EA, is warranted, access to such support is a right.
If anything, EAs are even more important now.
Already vulnerable children and families, especially those dealing with special learning needs, are most at-risk without the support of EAs. Teachers who suddenly have become online educators, often using unfamiliar platforms, lack time for individualized work with students. On top of supporting students with special needs, many EAs can provide vital technical support for teachers.
Impact on workers
For workers targeted by the cutbacks, the implications exceed losing a job and a salary. Psychiatric research into the links between employment and mental health establishes that work contributes to people’s well-being, particularly if workplace conditions are favourable. The benefits of work are “most apparent when compared with the well-documented detrimental mental health effects of unemployment.”
In effect, these cutbacks traded off spending on education now for increased spending on mental health down the road.
Layoffs are counter-productive
When Trudeau introduced the wage subsidy program for businesses impacted by COVID-19, he explained that these financial measures were designed “to keep businesses and workers connected” and help “businesses not just stay afloat … but be ready to gear back up when things get better” and to avoid layoffs.
Although public schools are not businesses and school boards can’t access that program, the logic is the same: Organizations, including schools, will be better able to resume normal operations more quickly, smoothly and effectively if they retain as many workers as possible.
Kenney’s effort to terminate thousands of educators flies in the face of that logic.
Chipping away at public education
Kenney’s negative relationship with public sector workers, including teachers, precedes the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether by cutting funding to education, excluding teachers from a curriculum redesign project or transferring the management of their pensions over their objections, Kenney and the United Conservative Party government have steadily refused to consult with teachers or respect their expertise.
This is consistent with an agenda to diminish the public sector, including public education. In September 2019, the government ordered school boards with the word “public” in their names to remove it. Again, there was no consultation or explanation.
Political scientist Duane Bratt explained why so many were concerned about the removal:
“ … there has been suspicion of the Kenney government toward public education for a while. He is closely aligned with private schools, with homeschoolers.”
Kenney himself attended private secondary schools.
Lessons to be learned
So, what are some lessons here? First, experts, including professionals, bring vital knowledge to policy discussions and sound decision making.
Second, public policies and services are interlinked. Education policy is also economic, public and mental health, social and workplace policy.
The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) trimmed facility and administrative costs and laid off higher-paid psychologists. The CBE was able to retain “school-based staff that provide the most direct support for student learning,” including EAs and substitute teachers.
Fourth, ideologically based opposition to the public sector should not overtake crucial services and respect for workers. That holds especially true during a full-blown crisis.
Finally, even in a time of crisis and turbulence, thoughtful policy that respects citizens’ well-being is the ultimate evidence of a meaningfully democratic system.