What does Alberta's budget mean for education in the province?
By Bill Moore-Kilgannon, Public Interest Alberta, published in Vue WeeklyAll of the government and rightwing spin about the provincial deficit reminds me of those magic tricks where you are told to watch the one waving hand while the other one is busy slipping something up its sleeve.The government and some opposition parties, along with much of the media, has everyone focused on the deficit without explaining why in the wealthiest province in Canada we apparently do not have enough to even keep up with inflation and population growth in our overstretched education, environment, human services, culture and community supports.Yes, budgets do have to match revenues to expenditures, but when you look deeper into this year's budget you see the government's real priorities and who is getting the lion's share of the benefits. Here are two examples to keep in mind when you hear about cuts to essential public services.This year the "Energy Industry Drilling Stimulus Program" was supposed to have given back $732 million to the energy industry, but is now projected to give back a whopping $1660 million. That is an additional $900 million going to very profitable energy corporations, mostly multinational corporations.The Minister also proudly declared in the budget speech that if Alberta collected taxes equal to the next closest provincial tax system, we would have at least $11 billion dollars more a year. As we are the only province in Canada with a flat tax, very wealthy Albertans pay low taxes while middle income Albertans are actually paying more than they would if we had a progressive tax system like the rest of Canada. So if we got rid of the flat tax, we could easily eliminate the deliberately created deficit, while making sure the average Albertans taxes are actually the lowest in Canada.So what will this budget mean to you, your family and community?If you are planning to have children or already have young kids and need to find quality, affordable childcare, this will continue to be a challenge as the government has cancelled its childcare space creation program (even though the federal government is still giving Alberta $25 million a year to create more childcare).The education system will also be under further stress due to this budget. There is an increase in base instructional grant funding, but other grants are being cut that are going to have an impact on the quality of education. Once the school boards are done crunching the numbers, we are going to hear about teachers and other key staff people in the educational system being laid off, and some programs will be cancelled. The result for you and your kids: probably larger class sizes, more school fees and continuing pressure to close down community schools.If you, your kids or grandkids have plans to go on post-secondary education, this provincial budget is also going to make it more difficult to get into these programs as technical institutes, colleges and universities across the province are going to again be dealing with deficit budgets. While there is some additional support ($20 million) for hiring new faculty, this will not even address the cuts that happened last year at the U of A, let alone all of the other institutions across the province. There is no new infrastructure programs planned to help expand, even though Alberta still has the lowest post-secondary education participation rate in the county. Students will also further feel the bite as the new student financial aid package will be cutting $33 million by making sure support only goes to those students who complete their degrees. Ouch.We hope that Alberta follows the example of many other provinces in the development of comprehensive poverty reduction strategies. However, this budget is not good news for many individuals and families struggling to break out of the poverty cycle. The budget has cut income supports from $499 million to $467 million even though our income support programs are among the lowest in Canada. The ongoing commitment to the 10-year plan to eliminate homeless is commendable, but the rent subsidy program that helps prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place has taken yet another cut this year (down to $75.1 million from $144 million in 2008-09). Without an overall plan to address the poverty issues that lead to homelessness, this plan will not achieve its important goal.The further cuts to employment and training programs (from $195 million in 2009 to $176.5 million in 2010 to $162 million in 2011) will also mean that many people who are struggling to get a better job will remain in poverty. Immigration programs have also been cut 15 percent (from $60 to $51 million) and English as as second-language programs have been cut a huge 27 percent this year. This not only morally wrong, if we do not support new immigrants to Alberta, this ultimately will cost our economy and our communities more over the long run.Seniors and adults with developmental disabilities will also continue to struggle without enough trained professionals, as funding for homecare and disability service workers will not address the staffing crisis facing these sectors. While the additional six percent increase to the health care budget is certainly positive, with inflation and population growth this increase will not be able to fully resolve the shortage of acute care beds and crisis in mental health. Without a commitment to build more long-term care spaces (rather than the lodges and assisted-living facilities that are not equipped to support people with high medical needs), we will continue to have far too many seniors in our acute care hospitals and at home desperately waiting to get the medically necessary care and support they need.Finally, the Ministry of Culture and Community Supports was further cut back again this year, in particular with deep cuts to "Community and Voluntary Support Services” (from $142.4 million to $105.4 million). While cultural industries funding has managed to keep pace with inflation, many of Alberta's artists and arts groups are still struggling after dealing with 16 percent cuts from last year. The "I love Alberta Art" campaign coordinated by the Professional Arts Coalition of Edmonton will certainly need to keep ramping up the political pressure.So this budget is clearly not good news for our families and our communities. The question is what are we going to do about it? Do we just sit back while our essential services are being cut and let corporations cash in thanks to their financial backing of the Conservative and Wildrose Parties?It's time that Albertans see past the smoke and mirrors and make sure we are not going to be tricked out of the quality of life our families and our communities deserve, while a few take home the massive profits from the sell off our precious natural resources. VBill Moore-Kilgannon is the Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta. To learn more about PIA's public-interest advocacy campaigns, go to pialberta.org.This article was published in Vue Weekly on March 8, 2011. Read the full article on the Vue Weekly website.