Are the government’s ideological ideas hurting Saskatchewan students?

Back To School | Gregory Beatty | Aug. 25, 2022

School days, school days
Dear old Golden Rule days
Austerity budgets that make you sick
Taught to the tune of the hick’ry stick

“School Days” was written by Will D. Cobb and Gus Edwards in 1907. Apologies to them, but the slightly altered first verse above is a decent summary of where Saskatchewan elementary and high schools are at as students head back to the classroom.

Alleged provincial financial difficulties driving “austerity budgets that make you sick” are a longstanding concern for Saskatchewan schools. And this August, that problem was joined by the Legacy Christian Academy scandal in Saskatoon where over 30 former students reported years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of school staff and administrators.

Legacy Christian is a private independent school, one of 25 in Saskatchewan that receive public funding. Historically that’s ranged from 50 to 80 per cent of the public school per student average. But in last March’s budget, Scott Moe’s Saskatchewan Party government committed to funding all private schools at 75 per cent. It also gave them a $2.6 million bump in funding to $17.5 million.

How’s that working out for everyone?

Saskatchewan’s public schools received a funding “bump”, too. But since the infamous Sask. Party austerity budget of 2017–2018, they’ve been playing catch-up, says Saskatchewan School Boards Association president Shawn Davidson.

“There’s been a number of challenges that school divisions have faced since that budget where they faced a $55 million cut, and there really hasn’t been any significant restoration of that funding or investment in education since then,” he says.

Add It Up

Davidson says there are three cost drivers for public schools. The largest is staff, which accounts for about 75 per cent of spending. Some collective agreements, such as with teachers, are bargained by the provincial government, while others are negotiated locally. And some years, he adds, the government hasn’t even covered the cost of the provincially negotiated agreements.

General operating costs are a second driver. To reduce heat and power consumption, schools are doing things like LED light and HVAC upgrades, and in July the government did provide an extra $20 million to help with the current inflation spike. But inflation is an ongoing problem, and each year tough decisions must be made.

The third cost driver for public schools is enrollment. Propelled mostly by immigration, Saskatchewan’s population has increased from 993,500 in 2005 to 1,186,300 today, and the government has plans to grow the population to 1.4 million by 2030.

“It’s great that the province wants to grow the population — there’s lots of economic opportunities associated with that — but there are also some social costs and education is one of them,” says Davidson.

“If we’re going to maintain the same ratio of teachers to pupils, and the same degree of support services to ensure all students can succeed regardless of their circumstances, we’ll need to hire additional staff,” he says.

Teachers and support staff are critical, because compared to the “days” Cobb and Edwards sang about, student diversity in today’s schools is much greater.

“We see more and more students in our schools that have special needs, and there is a wide variety of support services that are provided by school divisions,” Davidson says.

Some divisions have been working with government ministries outside Education, such as Health and Social Services, to develop pilot programs to better serve students with complex needs.

It’s a wise investment, says Davidson.

“There’s been lots of research that has shown that if we can provide early interventions to some of those challenged youth there is a dramatic payoff down the road in reduction in health services, correctional services and other areas,” he says.

Still, since the Sask. Party’s 2017–2018 austerity budget, school divisions have been in constant cost-cutting mode.

And the strain has long since begun to show.

“There are lots of areas where school divisions have looked to save money,” says Davidson. “Program changes is one, so that could be anything from early education, like pre-Kindergarten, up to some of the more complex high school electives. Obviously, delivery of core subjects is something we must do. But some of those additional class options have been lost.”

Especially in city schools, student/teacher ratios have risen, and school bus routes have been stretched so kids spend more time bussing to and from school.

“There’s also all kinds of professionals that work with our students like speech and language pathologists and educational psychologists,” says Davidson. “And we’ve seen divisions have to scale back those services. So there have been lots of cutbacks in recent years that have impacted on student outcomes.”

Scrooge McWhat?

The Moe government’s standard response to school division pleas for proper funding is to say they should draw on their “ample reserves”. Some divisions, such as Regina Public, do have reserves ($61 million in Regina Public’s case, and it is running a $2.5 million deficit in 2022–2023). But many other school divisions don’t have reserves, says Davidson.

A second problem with the government’s argument is that it’s misleading. It paints school divisions as wallowing, Scrooge McDuck-like, in piles of cash. But it’s much more nuanced than that.

Reserves are largely used to manage cash flow, says Davidson. School divisions are funded in 12 monthly installments. July and August are months where they bank cash to prepare for the next school year. Division finances get reported on Aug. 31. That’s peak bank account for them, so it’s not an accurate reflection of their true financial health.

Another nuance, says Davidson, is that some reserves are restricted for one-time expenditures, like school bus fleet renewal or upgrades to IT infrastructure. Others are externally restricted by the Ministry for things like building maintenance and renewal.

Again, no Scrooge McDuck.

Longtime political watchers will remember that in 2009 the Brad Wall government ended the ability of school divisions to set their own local taxation level.

“When that happened, the government accepted a responsibility to adequately fund education,” says Davidson. “For the first few years, they took that duty seriously. But that all changed in 2017–2018, and since then we’ve been facing a lot of challenges.

“That’s something we’ve been talking to the government about, and speaking very publicly on,” says Davidson. “We need to have a conversation about education and how it’s funded. We hope that society as a whole, along with the government, will start seeing education as an investment in our youth and our future rather than another cost item on the financial statement.”

Now, more on the Legacy Christian story.

Grooming Students For God (And Conservatives)

Speaking in tongues. Paddling student bottoms so hard they were left bruised and limping. Grown adults swarming an LGBTQ+ youth in their home to conduct an exorcism. The allegations leveled against Legacy Christian Academy by former students were certainly shocking.

Less horrific, but still disturbing, were allegations that students were pressured to campaign for Saskatoon politicians such as former mayor Don Atchison and former Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott who were in Legacy Christian’s “good book”. That’s in direct contravention of Legacy Christian’s charitable status with Canada Revenue Agency, which prohibits partisan political activity.

When the scandal broke, Sask. Party Education minister Dustin Duncan didn’t exactly take a “hick’ry stick” to Legacy Christian. So far, the government has refused to freeze funding for the school while police investigate, and it was only after days of public pressure that Duncan agreed to appoint a supervisor for Legacy Christian and two other schools (Grace Christian in Saskatoon, Regent Academy in Prince Albert) where some teachers named in Legacy Christian allegations now work.

Given the strong budget support the Moe government gave independent schools in March, it’s not surprising they’ve been reluctant to act. They’re obviously fans of private schools, and that fits their ideology to a tee, says Simon Enoch, Saskatchewan head for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“Conservatives have been hostile to public education almost since its inception. They have a longstanding idea that public schools are engaged in social engineering,” Enoch says.

“Lately, it seems to have become much more of a flashpoint,” he adds. “Things like school choice, vouchers, independent schools, attacking teachers, banning books, fights over curriculum, they are all ways for conservatives to exert control over a public system that they believe is propagandizing their children.”

We’re seeing an explosion of this south of the border, with Christian/Republican mobs raging about scholastic bogeypersons such as critical race theory and woke culture.

Meanwhile, according to stats from the National Center for Science Education, the proportion of U.S. biology teachers who taught evolution in their class in 2019 was two-thirds. Not good, but at least that’s up from 50 per cent in a 2007 survey.

“That’s where I think conservatives win in undermining the public school curriculum, by creating so much controversy that even something like evolution, which is considered pretty settled science, is off-limits,” says Enoch. “But the consequence of that is that a basic scientific principle is not being communicated to students.”

Climate change is another area where conservatives regularly sacrifice facts to ideology.

In Texas, a curriculum review committee recently proposed “involuntary relocation” as a grade two social studies term to describe slavery. Yes, Africans were “involuntarily relocated” to the Americas. But what about the centuries of exploitation and abuse they subsequently endured? Fortunately, the committee’s proposal was rejected.

Lest Canadians be too smug, the new Alberta UCP draft curriculum has been criticized for having a Christian/European bias and poor representation of other cultures and religions. The Grade six draft, for instance, requires students to learn about the Sermon on the Mount, heaven and hell, and the Holy Trinity. Really?

Back in the U.S., Ron DeSantis’ Florida government now requires teachers to attend bootcamps that promote Christian nationalist values and an “originalist” interpretation of the constitution that the U.S. Supreme Court recently endorsed in its Dobbs (Roe v. Wade) ruling — a ruling that, legal scholars say, could open the floodgates to civil rights rollbacks targeting women, LGBTQ+ people, visible minorities and more.

Even before the Legacy Christian scandal, the Saskatchewan School Boards Association had concerns about government spending on private schools, says Shawn Davidson. Not all of the schools are religion-based. Some are in the traditional privatization vein, where choice slices of a public service are hived off for private profit.

“One thing that’s become a big challenge in the U.S. is they have developed a two-tier system where those who can afford a private school are getting an enhanced education,” says Davidson. “It’s potentially a slippery slope, and we do share our concerns with the government where we wouldn’t want to see our education system go the way of many U.S. states.”

Enoch wonders what impact, if any, the Legacy Christian scandal will have on the Sask. Party’s commitment to private education.

“With the measures in the last budget, the government was really betting on the idea of expanding independent schools,” he says. “This scandal came at the absolute worst time. It shows how little regulation and oversight there is of independent schools and the people who teach in them.”

But will the scandal deter the government? Enoch is doubtful.

“I think for the Sask. Party’s base, and activists in the party who want more school choice, they won’t want the government to change course on promoting independent schools as an alternative to the public system.” ■