The Losing Side of Choice

Over the past week the Calgary Board of Education(CBE) has held public meetings for parents at alternative programs affected by recent bell time and transportation changes. These were not public engagement sessions, they were information sessions. Opportunities for the CBE to inform families of the decisions made on behalf of families, affecting their children.

For years, the CBE has promoted programs of choice. As recently as last week the CBE announced a new program of choice an elite athletic program at Bowness High School. They have built an intricate system based on choice, what is really a system based on competition. Programs of choice also termed alternative programs compete for students from all across the city. These programs including the regular program compete for students and for funding.

The thing with competition is it’s great, while you’re winning. But eventually, in time, everyone loses.

Choice, is only a choice until it becomes unsustainable for the CBE to provide. And this has been happening all over the city for years.

Families have exercised their choice only to eventually have their children moved from one school to another, put in a school lottery, have programs and schools close, siblings separated due to boundary changes, bell times modified and fees increased.

These are only some of the changes to programs of choice that have happened over the years including:

  • Mandarin at King George moved to Highwood
  • French Immersion at Highwood moved to King George
  • Spanish bilingual students in NW redirected to W.O. Mitchell
  • Mandarín Jr High program in south closed
  • Langevin Science students in NE redirected due to boundary changes
  • Canyons Meadows Spanish bilingual redirection, also impacting Robert Warren
  • Closing of Canadian Studies program
  • Creation of dual track program schools
  • Most recently, ALL alternative programs are affected by bell time changes and the move of Middle and Junior High students to transit.

CBE is telling Calgarians these changes are a result of provincial legislation under Bill 1. Always stating the important reminder that the CBE is actually not obligated to get your child to school if you choose one of the programs they’ve been offering and selling to students and families. However, school boards are to a large degree autonomous. Many school boards across the province do not offer alternative programming at all and certainly not to the degree offered in Calgary. It is the obligation of Alberta Education to provide education equitably across the province.  It has been the CBE’s autonomous decision to continue to offer AND PROMOTE programs of choice in a manner it cannot sustain.

The past few years at the CBE have seen a year over year increase in school fees and financial burdens and barriers placed on families across Calgary. Just 7 years ago, bussed students did not pay noon supervision fees. Then, bussed students were required to pay that fee. Shortly thereafter, bussing fees increased from $300 to $335 per student per year with the elimination of the family cap. Now, the CBE will increase costs for some families to send children on city transit to schools up to $700 student per year. And when these fees increase, we are told those decisions are “operational” decisions not open for engagement to the public. Thereby creating an environment in which our children’s education is a consumer good rather than a public/civic responsibility.

You are told you have CHOICE:  Which is great until they decide to take it away from you.

Fees continue to increase:  It’s manageable until it’s not financially viable for your family anymore.

Transportation changes: Seem fine until you see multiple bus transfers, changes to bell times and separation of siblings and it just won’t work for your family.

This is not Public Education, this is PRIVATIZATION of our public system.

Students/Families have been sold an illusion. A choice that has fine print. *Available until such time as the provider deems fit.  Parameters subject to change at any time

What is the solution? Can CBE families find something agreeable and manageable for fall 2017? Should parents boycott all fees? Should families return to community schools? Should Calgarians collectively protest at the CBE? We, SOS Alberta are open to suggestions.

But we believe, that we should no longer be divided by programs, left to defend our choices, pitting one program against another, neighbour against neighbour and instead, collectively oppose these changes that threaten our communities. The implication in this plethora of choice is that some schools are better than others and a program of choice is superior to a regular program school.

Perhaps, we should be considering the longer term solution of emphasising the value of community schools and demand a rich and diverse curriculum in every public school that includes languages, includes arts, includes athletics, and includes science. Perhaps our kids shouldn’t have to choose. Perhaps public education should not come with an asterisk or fine print.  Perhaps we shouldn’t have to wonder every year what changes will make our children’s and families experience in the system more financially, logistically and emotionally difficult. Perhaps we shouldn’t let them lead us down this hole of privatization. Because the options before many of us today are not things we can buy our way out of, nor should we have to.

 

 

 

 

Funding Education or Funding Transportation?

The following blog post was written by a SOS Alberta member from Calgary in response to some recent announcements made this past week from the Calgary Board of Education(CBE). The CBE is one of the boards in the province that charges families school fees, including fees for yellow school bus transportation and students taking public transit pay for public transit as regular transit users do. The CBE is also a board that emphasizes school choice by offering a range of niche or alternative programming from traditional learning to language programs. We would love to know from people in other parts of the province what their expectations are for transportation fees for the next school year and how has choice impacted their school board?

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Earlier this week the CBE sent out notices of bell time changes, amendments to busing fees and bus service changes.

Calgary parents have been told over the years that transportation costs for CBE have been increasing, while funding for it, has not.

We have been told that if we want a certain level of transportation service, we will have to pay for it.  

We’ve been told we have the right to choose alternative programs, and the busing that gets our children to them.

Many of us choose alternative programs, programs that are then victims of their own success. Some programs have grown to over capacity, so students are then reallocated to other schools, other neighbourhoods, ones not of our initial choosing.

We’ve learned last week that for some students, 8:00 am bell times mean waking up at 6am to ride a bus for one hour. Surely, not the best start for a robust day of education for children of any age! We are told these modifications are to accommodate the changes to the bussing schedule and to save money.

This week we learned that financial hardship will continue and be extended to more families because instead of $335 yellow bus service, some families will now pay $700/school year for Calgary transit as they no longer qualify for the yellow school bus. There is also not a rebate for students travelling by transit inside 2.4 km limit and no students in Alternative programs qualify for transit rebate.

We’ve been told over and over again, that busing students across the city for specialized arts program, TLC, science program or language programs are costly.  We know in some instances, one child can be bused to a specific alternative program on the other side of the city from where they live. Busing for one student can’t be cheap.

Calgary parents also learned this week, that the CBE will add to its current spider web of transportation woes, by opening yet another niche/magnet school. The High Performance Athlete Development Pathway at Bowness High School. We learned this week that rather than trying to address current busing problems, CBE has chosen to add to them.

SOS Alberta believes adding yet another alternative program to a system with already unsustainable transportation issues is problematic for many reasons;

  1. In our 2016 Annual School Survey, 45% of respondents reported no specialist physical education teacher. Of those who do, 42% are assigned less than 1.0 FTE (part time) in the school represented. Many parents across the CBE have been told there simply aren’t enough funds for specialist phys ed teachers particularly at the elementary level and so their phys ed program runs without a specialist. Most elementary schools supplement their PE program and lack of phys ed specialist by fundraising thousands of dollars every year to bring in programming to compensate for this lack of quality programming. SOS Alberta affirms our position that the goal of public education is to provide rich curriculum that includes quality physical education programming for all its students.
  2. This niche high performance athlete program will have access to specialized coaches, sports therapists, and psychologists while many schools don’t have a specialized physical education teacher, much less on site dedicated expert mental health counsellors. Many students struggle to access proper resources for learning disabilities, physical accommodations and ever increasingly mental health resources. Is an elite athletic high performance program the best place to be diverting resources? It is, if you are concerned with competition but not if your priority is comprehensive education for the greater population.
  3. Busing continues to be a financial burden to the CBE. Calgarians have consistently been told by the CBE that transportation funding has significant shortfalls that they struggle to cover. This is why, Calgary parents are told, user fees are charged and increase year over year. However, rather than attempt to address the root issue, CBE adds to the problem by introducing more niche programming. Unless all elite athletes reside in the NW near Bowness, transportation will be required. And it will cost money, money they KNOW, as they have known for years now, ISN’T COMING. CBE is continually choosing to fund transportation OVER education.
  4. SOS Alberta’s position remains, that niche programs like the High Performance Athlete Development Pathway at Bowness High School arise as a direct result of competition. When private schools receive public funding, public schools are forced compete for those same dollars. It does not go unnoticed that the premise of this niche school is very similar to The Edge private school just west of Calgary. The CBE has chosen to compete with The Edge, by offering like programming instead of strengthening the system that affects the most Calgary students. All while many of our children, including students in the wider Bowness community itself, continue to NOT receive the necessary resources for physical education. Is a niche school, and what will ultimately become an exclusive program, the best place to be serving the wider public education population who are suffering because of space crunches, under resourcing, millions of dollars of deferred maintenance, long transportation times and ever increasing fees?
  5. SOS Alberta will also make the assumption, with a strong degree of confidence, that our most underprivileged students, those living in and around the poverty line, will be less likely to have been exposed to the type of extracurricular and costly activities that will qualify and prepare them for such a program. Particularly when they aren’t even introduced to sport in any meaningful way in elementary school. Again, our survey revealed many children are being left undiagnosed, untreated and under resourced because of financial constraints. We don’t see how this program will contribute to solving these existing issues.

SOS Alberta is calling upon the CBE to stop competing with the privatization model. It is not only never ending, but has served to create an enormous web of transportation challenges and diverts resources from community schools with more complex demands. We recognize this is issue is not isolated to the CBE. Our provincial funding model has created this system of competition by funding private and charter schools, something Alberta does more than any other province. Multiple years of chronic provincial underfunding has lead boards to find various ways to attract students. Certainly the fact that schools designated as “alternative programs” also allow for associated fees. This gives schools boards an additional source of income and is likely a factor in choosing to promote niche programs. However, Albertans are now witness to the effects of trying to compete has on public education. It’s most obvious results have been increased fees, longer bus routes and inconsistent year over year scheduling. We are placing an increasing financial burden on families and are impacting the educational experience of our children. We must start addressing the needs of Calgary students equitably by providing rich and diverse curriculum that INCLUDES music, arts, science, languages AND PHYSICAL EDUCATION, in or near communities to ALL schools. This is how we will address transportation issues. This is how we fund education over transportation.

To date, Calgarians have failed to hold the CBE to account.

Many parents did not speak up when noon supervision fees were implemented.  

Many said little when family caps were eliminated.

Many didn’t strongly oppose bus fees rising from $300 to $335

Many didn’t oppose the loss of subsidies for transit passes.

Where is the line?

For many, this year they will pay $700 instead of $335 for transportation. We urge you to consider, the line will be drawn when we as citizens draw it. Firmly. Because we have been shown the CBE, year over year, are more than willing to step right over it.