Source: Government of Alberta

The cuts 

On March 28, the United Conservative Party (UCP) of Alberta announced a series of so-called “adjustments” to education funding following the province’s move to discontinue all in-person classes on March 15. 

These thinly veiled cuts include eliminating funding for substitute teachers, bus drivers, custodians, and perhaps most criminal of all, educational assistants (EAs). Adriana LaGrange, UCP Minister of Education, cites these positions as not being utilized during at-home instruction, and is cutting 14 per cent of the base instruction grant and 51 per cent of transportation funding. 

Impacts on workers 

School boards are being advised to immediately draw up notices for an estimated 26,000 “non-essential staff and educational assistants” with the expectation that they will not continue work after April. This amounts to approximately one per cent of the province’s workforce, and is the largest layoff by a single organization in Canadian history. Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan describes the move as “cowardly, cold-hearted, dishonest and irresponsible.” 

In their release, the UCP claims workers affected by these cuts will qualify for federal Employment Insurance, hardly a consolation considering the million-plus other Canadians who have flooded to the program in the past two weeks. This claim made by the UCP is one they have no way of seeing through. 

Many support staff who will be laid off are employed on precarious contracts, work fewer than 40 hours per week, and make barely above minimum wage. To say that all staff will be eligible for EI is simply not true, although one can’t imagine that Kenney’s government is keeping track of their lies and broken promises to workers at this point. 

The impact of laying off thousands of educational workers will be felt long after this crisis is over. Rory Gill, president of CUPE, emphasizes that “you can’t just fire thousands of Educational Assistants and expect them to all run back to the system in the fall.” 

The UCP is sending a message, loud and clear, that these workers do not contribute to the success of students. This sentiment is one that will not be easily forgotten. Through blatant insults and broken promises of maintaining funding, on top of the cuts laid out in the 2020 Alberta Budget, Kenney is setting the education system up for an anemic future. 

Impacts on students 

In an almost laughably tone-deaf and assanine statement from LaGrange following the announcement, she assured Albertans that the cuts will “not impact the at-home learning of our students.”

In case LaGrange isn’t aware, EAs are hired to fill specific academic, behavioural, emotional, and medical needs within a school. Many of these support staff are completely dedicated to the needs of a single child who requires extra support to thrive in a classroom. 

Over the spring break, EAs have worked tirelessly alongside teachers to ensure the transition to online classes goes as smoothly as possible. 

The job of an EA is not simply restricted to teaching, however. They are a friendly face, a familiar presence, a cheerleader for children who desperately need one. 

Dr. Wanda Polzin, Clinical Director of Little Warriors, a treatment center for survivors of child sexual abuse, warns that the closure of schools puts vulnerable children at an increased risk for abuse. The stress and isolation caused by COVID-19 creates the perfect breeding ground for abuse with children spending the majority of their time in the home, potentially unsupervised with other children or unsafe adults. 

School serves as a safe environment with stable routines and caring adults. Without the ability to physically attend school, maintaining ties to support staff and teachers is a small taste of normalcy for at-risk adolescents and youth during this crisis. 

The result of cutting support staff will be catastrophic for students. LaGrange’s assurance that education will not be impacted is another promise the UCP cannot keep. 

Blindsided 

In the same, almost predictable fashion the UCP announced school closures, they released their plan to cut education funding; at the eleventh hour, lacking detail or planned contingency, and with no consultation with workers, unions, or school boards. 

School districts, who were promised less than two weeks ago that they would “receive their full allotment of funding for the 2019-2020 school year,” are left scrambling in the final days of spring break, just two days before staff are expected to have at-home programming ready for students. 

Shandro

While the UCP is no stranger to making seemingly nonsensical decisions based on no material reality (a budget built on dreams of oil selling for $60/barrel comes to mind), it is clear that the most recent attacks on education workers were announced to take the heat off UCP Health Minister Tyler Shandro. 

Shandro recently found himself in a bit of a sticky situation when he and his wife harassed a neighbour who shared a meme about Shandro on Facebook.

Shandro has connections to Vital Partners, a company co-founded by his wife and sister-in-law in which he holds shares! The company is a supplementary health care provider, which offers services that have been delisted or will be delisted by his own ministry. 

While the ethics commissioner deemed Shandro’s ties to Vital Partners unworthy of investigation, this textbook conflict of interest combined with the minister’s toddler-like tantrum over a meme have left the UCP drowning in calls for his resignation and dismissal. 

It is no coincidence that Kenney’s government announced their ramshackle education cuts less than two days after Shandro’s embarrassing meltdown. The announcement was released without a press conference as a four-paragraph webpage, buried deep within the Alberta government’s website. 

The lack of information, the vague claims, the shameless backpedalling on prior statements, the quiet weekend release days before online classes are set to begin—it all points to the UCP playing hot potato with its ministers’ bad behaviour. Instead of dismissing Shandro from his position, Kenney is attempting to distract Albertans by giving them something even more horrifying to focus their attention on. 

Pinching pennies 

LaGrange promises that any savings from these cuts, an estimated $128 million, will be reallocated to support Alberta’s COVID-19 response. This is yet another way for the UCP to make their inhumane and short-sighted maneuvering seem palatable, if not fiscally responsible and measured, to Albertans. 

In reality, Kenney’s administration is desperately reaching into workers’ pockets and flipping their couch cushions in an attempt to find any spare change that can be handed over to those they believe are the real victims of COVID-19: oil and gas corporations. 

The release makes no mention of which section of the COVID-19 response plan these funds will be allocated to. The $128 million ripped from the hands of working Albertans could easily land into the outstretched hands of oil bosses. 

Alberta’s response plan committed $500 million to limit the impacts of COVID-19, of which more than $200 million is earmarked for glorified bailouts of the energy sector. 

It’s hardly surprising that 40 per cent of the response plan was spoken for long before support for workers or a moratorium on evictions was announced. 

The UCP’s 2020 budget was crafted with wishful thinking and fairy dust, basing its revenue projections on $58/barrel average oil prices. With Western Canadian crude hovering between $4 and $13 over the last two weeks, Albertans are left footing the bill for the UCP’s poor planning. 

In addition to funnelling taxpayer money into the energy sector, Kenney has assembled his own dream team of industry leaders in his Economic Recovery Panel. 

Stephen Harper, CEOs and founders of WestJet, Western Canadian Bank, ATCO, ARC Resources, and Telus Home Solutions are among those hand-selected to help see Alberta through this crisis. The priorities of the UCP could not be any more clear. 

If the UCP was so concerned about funding their COVID-19 reponse, why not suspend operations of their $30 million “energy war room”? Or make tough decisions about their own non-essential, grossly overpaid UCP political staffers? 

No to bailouts! No to cuts! 

Instead of laying off thousands trained in education, sanitation, and transportation, these workers should be deployed where they are most needed. Students on school lunch programs still need food. They still need specialized support. They still need to have schools that are maintained for when they return. 

Surely, the expertise and time of support staff could be better used than by waiting in line for EI. 

While the government claims these are temporary measures and will be recalled once school is back in session, it’s a bit hard to believe given their track record of lies and hypocrisy. Attacks on the public sector laid out in the 2020 budget can only be expected to deepen in the coming months as the crisis unfolds. 

Workers must stand together against brutal austerity today and tomorrow, and demand that our children’s education be put over corporate profits.