Premier weighs in on education debate

School groups lobbying for an more education funding are misleading the public through “voodoo math,” says Premier Dennis Fentie.

School groups lobbying for an more education funding are misleading the public through “voodoo math,” says Premier Dennis Fentie.

His remarks come on the heels of information there’s a $14.8 million gap in Yukon education funding. That shortfall was noted by the Whitehorse Elementary School council. It was relayed through council chair Keith Halliday.

The Yukon Party government has challenged the volunteer council’s budget analysis three times since last Wednesday.

Its last response came Monday, during a news conference called by Fentie to discuss a recent junket to Anchorage.

But the education funding issue was bothering him.

During his news conference, he brandished a newspaper bearing the headline, “Premier at odds with parents,” and then tossed it on the table behind him in disgust.

“This is absolute nonsense,” he said.

“We’re not at odds with parents, we’re at odds with Mr. Halliday who is misleading parents.”

He ordered reporters to take notes.

Education funding has increased even though there are 1,000 fewer Yukon students in schools, he said.

The Yukon has one of the lowest student/teacher ratios in the country and the number of teachers has increased by 15.

There are also 47 new “executive assistants,” said Fentie.

“(Halliday) mentioned dropout rates, but he conveniently failed to mention the Individual Learning Centre, which today has 110 students in it,” he said.

“These are dropouts that are now back in school.”

Last year, 30 of centre’s students earned their Grade 12 diploma.

“His voodoo math is suggesting that our investment in education has not kept up with the rest of government,” said Fentie.

“His information here, as misleading as it is, can only be from two places: ignorance of the facts or he’s politically motivated.

“And I would remind you that Mr. Halliday is a former, major adviser and part of what is undoubtedly the worst government in the history of the Yukon — the Duncan Liberal government,” he continued. (Halliday served in Duncan’s government for a few months after its election in 2000.)

“Under their watch there was a decrease in the investment in education.”

“This is parentally motivated,” Halliday said Tuesday.

“I’m a parent with four kids in the school system, the rest of our council, who unanimously supported our raising this issue, all have kids in the school system and we were supported by a parent council representing the parents of over 2,200 kids.”

Neither Fentie nor Education Minister Patrick Rouble has produced anything that contradicts the council’s math, he said.

“They’ve talked about different time periods and raising funding,” said Halliday.

“We always said that they raised funding, we just pointed out that they had given priority to almost every other government department.”

Since 2004, the Yukon government’s budget has risen by $217 million.

Of that, $8 million has been invested in public schools.

“We’re not saying that Education has to grow faster than any other government priority,” said Halliday, a graduate of the London School of Economics. “What we are saying is that it shouldn’t be near the bottom of the list, where it is now.”

“There aren’t many departments that grew as slowly as Education in the last three years,” he continued.

“The premier has an opportunity to put his money where his mouth is in his upcoming budget where we hope he will address this public school deficit that has emerged.”

The average YTG department funding grew by 9.4 per cent since 2004.

Meanwhile education funding increased only 3.6 per cent.

Inflation in Whitehorse over the same period was four per cent.

If education had grown at the same rate as other departments, there would be $14.8 million more in funding, said Halliday.

Halliday is asking government to reconcile these differences.

The notion that education has increased slower than inflation is “entirely false,” said Fentie.

“It’s probably a significant increase over what the inflation numbers in Canada have been because the Bank of Canada won’t let inflation rates go over two per cent,” said Fentie.

“Halliday’s numbers ignore that devolution takes place, which of course changes the ratio,” said Fentie.

However, the school council’s analysis starts from fiscal year 2004/05.

Devolution took place in April 2003.

“So the transfer happened before the time period we covered and would not have affected the numbers,” said Halliday.

According to Statistics Canada, only 60 per cent of the territory’s students graduate from high school.

 The Yukon’s graduation rate was 18 points below the national average.

“The Individual Learning Centre is a good initiative,” said Halliday.

“But think of how much more those people could be doing with more resources.”

Halliday acknowledged that there is decreasing student enrollment.

“Over the last three or four years, the number of students has been going down by roughly 1.5 per cent a year,” he said.

“But given the challenges on absenteeism, dropouts and schools where the (Yukon Achievement Test) average on Math 6 is below 30 per cent, I don’t think that justifies a clampdown on education spending.”

“Helping those kids succeed should be a major priority,” he added.

Increased education funding could go toward focused literacy programs for kids entering high school and who are struggling to read, said Halliday.

Math and literacy support for kids in early grades could also be improved.

And there is a range of social and behavioural issues that needs to be dealt with.

“Mr. Halliday is doing a disservice to the Yukon, its public, and indeed the parents and children in our education system,” said Fentie.

“That said, you can take these as your facts, the public accounts as audited,” he said patting a foot-high stack of Yukon government financial documents he brought to the conference.

“Or Mr. Halliday’s letter and little graph, which can be constructed on any computer and made to look like anything you want.”

 Contact Chris Oke at chriso@yukon-news.com

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