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All power to the principal

Dave Hancock, our minister of education, was on CBC Radio the other day talking about special needs students.

Dave Hancock, our minister of education, was on CBC Radio the other day talking about special needs students. It was a timely interview as his department is once again tightening the reins on which students are eligible for special education student grants as part of the ongoing government budgetary exercise.

Special student funding isn’t a new issue for the ministry. School boards are allocated extra funds for students with mild to moderate learning disabilities. These funds are used according to local school board policies. For those students with more complex problems, Alberta Education has a fund that schools can apply to annually for extra assistance. Demand always exceeds supply. So each year, the ministry tries to prioritize who will be eligible. In the most recent past, children diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder or autism and those who are severely physically or mentally challenged have been funded so long as the diagnosis has been made. Restrictions have traditionally been applied to those children who have behavioural difficulties. Over the past 20 years, the criteria have been changed to the point that the only children who will now be funded are those diagnosed with severe emotional disturbances. These are children who for the most part are a persistent physical danger to themselves and others in the school setting.

Hancock’s recent musings on CBC suggest a bit of panic is setting in. In a cost-cutting mood, he proposed the schoolteacher should be the one to decide what was wrong with children who aren’t coping. He wants individual psycho-educational and behavioural testing cut back. He reckoned learning disorders and cognitive delays can be accurately assessed by teachers without the need for individually standardized testing or support by psychologists, speech therapists or occupational therapists. He was silent on who should evaluate the impact of contributory family, social and medical factors. I guess he thinks that these have no impact in the classroom.

Lord knows what was on the minister’s mind that day. Of course he used to be a lawyer so he could be perhaps forgiven if he got lost it in a Denny Crane moment. In any event, I thought it might be helpful to review what is going on south of the border, particularly as one of his predecessors, Lyle Oberg, committed Alberta to the United States of America-inspired provincial achievement testing (PAT) system.

Evaluating schools based solely on PAT results doesn’t work as special needs and learning disordered students are most often excused from these examinations.

Analyses show that education funding by state or school-based operating expenditure is not correlated with student performance. The U.S. national operating expenditure is $9,666 per student annually with an overall inclusive expenditure of about $16,000. In Alberta, the Ministry of Education’s annual budget of $6.l billion works out to $11,000. We are in the same spending ballpark as our southern neighbours.

The latest idea in the States is to look at who decides where the money goes. The model being favoured by the American Association of School Administrators is Edmonton, which is ranked by that organization as among the best if not the best public school system in North America.

The state of Hawaii, which has almost the same budget per student as Alberta, is introducing the Edmonton model. Giving power to the school principal, they have increased the per student fund to each school. At the same time they reduced centralized funding for special needs children, the Hawaiian language immersion and history programs, Tele-school budget for homebound students and the budget to address homeless students. Of course they cut more than they allocated to the school principals.

Hawaii has a state-wide elected school board. Three past state governors have proposed an appointed board reporting directly to the governor. No local school boards. Just like Alberta Health Services. Think about it.

Alan Murdock is a local pediatrician.