Funding cuts fail students

Anne Milton knows all about inadequate public education funding. Her dyslexic son had trouble learning to read because he processed information…

Anne Milton knows all about inadequate public education funding.

Her dyslexic son had trouble learning to read because he processed information differently than other kids.

And resources for children with learning disabilities at Whitehorse Elementary School were stretched thin.

Milton had to go outside the school for extra help.

At Whitehorse Elementary, there are 2.5 learning assistants for 350 kids.

The people who are there do a good job but they need more help, said Milton.

“The school says it doesn’t have enough resources and I believe them,” she said.

“The funding for children with reading disabilities isn’t there.”

The $400-per-month cost of after-school tutoring came out of Milton’s pocketbook.

The extra help worked, and her son has reached a reading level on par with his classmates.

Many parents are facing similar situations, but some can’t afford the extra tutoring and the schools can’t provide for children’s learning needs.

The Yukon Party has cut public school funding by $500 per child, according to the Whitehorse Elementary School council.

The 2.7 per cent decrease in public school spending, estimated in the recently released 2008-09 budget forecast, works out to a $2.4-million cut.

Follow the money and you’ll find that the government isn’t taking public education seriously, said council chair Keith Halliday.

“A government shows its priorities by where its chequebook is.”

And it’s not writing the cheques necessary for public education to be properly funded, he said.

Milton is a spokesperson for an emerging parental literacy-advocacy group. The group has representation from several Yukon schools.

They’re asking for more resources for children with learning disabilities.

But those resources are scarce.

From the previous year forecast of $81.227 million for operations and maintenance of public schools, the government estimates it will spend $81.16 million in the upcoming year.

Over the same time period, the government will cut the capital budget by 36 per cent, from $7.8 million to $4.98 million.

In 2006-07, the government spent $15.3 million, which included the Carmacks Tantalus School project.

With $108 million sitting in the bank, spending decreases don’t make sense, said Halliday.

“I don’t understand why they would choose this time to cut public school funding,” he said.

Funding cuts don’t make sense because investing in learning programs will save money down the road, said Milton.

“Children who can’t read develop low self-esteem, some drop out of school and you’ll see them on the streets,” she said.

“That’s extra costs for Justice, for Health and Social Services.

“I’m shocked there’s no money dedicated to getting kids the remedial tutoring they need.”

Earlier this month, Halliday released his calculations on public school spending in the Yukon.

Using government numbers, he found that as a percentage of overall spending, public school education has received a smaller portion in successive years.

It barely kept up with inflation.

The government contended that it is spending more money on education than ever before.

True, said Halliday, but education is receiving a smaller portion of the pie.

In the 2008-09 estimates, the Education department is expected to spend $121.8 million in the upcoming year, down from $124.5 the previous year.

The first four pages of Premier Dennis Fentie’s budget speech focused on education; that should be a sign of how seriously the government views education, said Education Minister Patrick Rouble.

But the numbers are an even better indication, he added.

In 2006-07, the government spent $14,565 per student on operations and maintenance.

That number should increase to more than $16,000 in 2008-09, said Rouble.

The $121.8-million estimate will rise over the year, he added.

“When other needs arise and other funding avenues are opened, those figures will go up,” said Rouble.

The operations and maintenance numbers are misleading because $8.5 million was taken out of the Education budget this year and put into the Property Management Agency.

Funding would actually be higher this year if that money remained in the department, said Rouble.

Twelve departments are “prioritized over public schools” for operations and maintenance spending, said Halliday.

All 12, including Community Services, Health and Social Services, Environment, Justice and the Legislative Assembly received increases or did not have funding cut.

On capital spending, 14 departments received higher priority, said Halliday.

Only four departments — Executive Council Office, Environment, the Public Service Commission and the Women’s Directorate — received bigger cuts than public schools.

The other departments received increases or smaller cuts.

After all the bluster about increasing funding, the government is cutting overall funding, said Halliday.

“They said they were spending more, and three weeks ago that was true, but that’s not the case now,” he said.

“This should be a major priority for our society in the Yukon. It should be number 1, not 13.”

Rouble didn’t address Halliday’s specific numbers.

He did mention that literacy has been a focus of government programming.

Initiatives like the Wilson reading program and training centre help promote literacy in the Yukon, said Rouble.

Parents like Milton are becoming more aware of public school funding problems, said Liberal education critic Eric Fairclough.

“We’re getting more calls from student councils concerned with the budgets,” he said.

 The government raised expectations about improved education with the education reform project but the spending doesn’t reflect that, said Fairclough.

“There are no big changes in the department — there’s nothing exciting that says there’s a priority on public school education,” he said.

“There are some planning initiatives, but that’s all, just planning.”

More emphasis should be put on curriculum development and working with school councils, said Fairclough.

Projects like the FH Collins replacement are on hold because of the lack of funding, he added.

“Yet, the government isn’t broke,” said Fairclough.