With the continued decline of students in rural Alberta communities, the challenges in providing a sufficient education keep growing.
Whether it is having multiple grades in one class, the lack of facilities and equipment to offer certain programs, a funding shortfall to provide other services, or trials with regards to busing, the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) believes the province must to do more to ensure equitable education for students regardless of where they live.
“The ASBA believes every child deserves the opportunity to achieve their full potential, and this potential is best achieved within a strong public education system served by locally-elected school boards, whether they be metro, urban or rural,” explained ASBA president Lorrie Jess, who is also a trustee with Wolf Creek Public Schools.
The issues with rural students came out of a document produced by Alberta Education to further discussion with school divisions and other partners on determining the outline for a 2019-2022 business plan and priorities.
One of the biggest topics that needs to be addressed, according to the ASBA, is the current funding model of funding school on a per student basis.
“Alberta Education should undertake a comprehensive review of its funding framework — in consultation with school boards — to ensure dollars for public, separate and francophone school students in Alberta are distributed equitably and fairly,” Jess stated.
In response, Alberta Education Minister David Eggen noted that everyone deserves equitable access to education.
“Our Government values Alberta’s small and rural communities and recognizes the importance of equitable access to education, regardless of location,” Eggen said.
Funding is allocated to school authorities based on certain information.
“The funding allocation takes into account that rural school authorities often face unique challenges beyond their control, such as declining enrolment, long distances and the operation of small schools.”
Meanwhile, Jess added that small, rural schools are crucial to the areas they serve, and without them, there would be greater costs for transportation.
“(These) schools, strategically located in their communities, are an important component of the social infrastructure that is necessary to achieve economic diversification, spur growth in Alberta’s agriculture industry and improve the quality of life in rural Alberta,” she noted.
One way the government could help school boards is by excluding these small schools when measuring a division’s student occupancy rate.
Another challenge is busing for these small schools and the ASBA feels each division should be treated fairly and equitably in its funding.
“Funding should not be reduced for jurisdictions with declining numbers of students transported, but who have fixed transportation costs,” Jess stated.
“The provincial government should undertake a comprehensive independent review of the student transportation system to ensure that all boards are fairly and equitably funded for student transportation.”
Jess added that rural students should have access to the specialized programs in nearby schools, without being restricted to courses requiring special facilities and equipment.
Meanwhile, Harvey added the current busing model does recognize sparse rural populations and that the government is working on funding alternative learning strategies with a focus on ensuring students have no barriers in core learning.