Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A wretchedly bad series of education cuts

The Liberal government's education cuts get failing grades on every count. Politically, they make little sense. Parents vote. Hurt their children's education and they'll be angry.
Practically, they're bad public policy. They hurt the students who most need help learning and developing the skills to succeed in the world.
In the last two weeks, the government has announced three cuts to education funding. None seems sensible.
Leave aside the discussion about core school funding and the problems created by per-pupil grants. These are cuts outside of that envelope.
The biggest is the elimination of $110 million in funding that districts had expected for maintaining schools this year. The annual grants provide for upkeep and capital improvements - wheelchair ramps, classroom renovations and all the standard maintenance needed to keep buildings functional and safe.
Five months into the fiscal year, Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid cancelled the grant program without notice or consultation. Some districts had set aside money each year to build reserves for major projects; they could raid that money to cover needed work, she said.
So prudence is punished. Districts that did maintenance work over the summer, counting on the grants, have to cut spending to balance the budget as required by law. And economic stimulus is abandoned.
Next, MacDiarmid was sent out to defend a decision to eliminate the government's entire $130,000 contribution to B.C. School Sports, almost 30 per cent of its budget. The organization helps support and manage all the regional and provincial sports events for schools in the province.
It's a great resource and a little money produces big results, since teachers, coaches and parents donate time and energy. It gives kids inspiring opportunities to take part in all kinds of sports. (I'm writing as a parent; my daughter learned and grew a lot from the opportunities that remarkable coaches and B.C. School Sports provided.)
And the government cut it adrift, despite all the talk about the goal of improving kids' fitness and health.
Then came the most perverse cut.
At a staged event to highlight $500,000 being sent to schools for Olympic programming - about four times the amount saved by cutting the sports funding - MacDiarmid revealed the grants to parent advisory councils would be cut in half. (Also without warning or consultation.)
They had received $20 per student. This year, it would be $10. The government would save $7.6 million, at the expense of parent councils at schools across the province.
Again, it's wrongheaded. The parent volunteers made good use of the money for books, computers and field trips the students would otherwise be denied because of funding shortfalls.
And it's especially bad policy because the funding, from gambling profits, delivered the greatest benefit to the schools where the need was greatest.
In the neighbourhoods where my kids went to school -- and where Liberal cabinet ministers' children go to school -- parent advisory councils have less trouble raising money. They can get great donations for a raffle or silent auction. Affluent families can be generous and stay-at-home parents can contribute time.
But in an Island town with a shutdown mill, or a poor city neighbourhood, it's tougher for the small parent advisory council.
The gambling grants levelled the playing field, a little. By cutting every school's grant by 50 per cent, the government undermined that. Poor schools are in a deep hole.
Finally - at least so far - the Education Ministry eliminated almost all its funding for the CommunityLINK program. It provides meals for hungry children and counselling to keep struggling students on track. The program will still be funded, but with gambling profits that had been dedicated to supporting charitable organizations across the province.
Meanwhile, the education ministry has reduced its target for better graduation rates.
OK, times are tough. But surely a deficit is worthwhile if it means continued basic opportunities for children, the province's future, and all that.
Politically dumb and bad for the people of B.C. That's poor decision-making by a government.
Footnote: MacDiarmid is a star Liberal rookie -- a doctor and former president of the B.C. Medical Association -- rewarded with a posting to a big cabinet job. So far, it hasn't gone well, whether in spite of -- or, perhaps, because of -- the coaching and direction she has received.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Children, families left behind by budget

Three years ago, then finance minister Carole Taylor said the provincial budget was “for the little ones.”
The Liberal government’s cost-cutting and mismanagement of support for children and families had just been set out in Ted Hughes’ report.
Children would now be the focus, said Taylor.
But this is a short-attention span government. It’s no different when it comes to children in B.C.
The new budget freezes the children and families ministry budget for this year — and the next two years.
Costs, obviously, are increasing, despite a planned wage freeze.
Demand for services and support is rising. That’s normal in a recession. Families who have been getting by can be pushed over the edge when jobs vanish.
And the ministry’s performance at current funding levels, by its own measurements, has not been satisfactory.
Each ministry releases service plans as part of the budget process. They’re one of those great ideas to increase openness, accountability and performance that the Liberals introduced after the 2001 election and have been edging away from ever since.
The plans initially included a large number of performance targets — measurable goals that would allow the public to monitor progress.
Now, there are just a half dozen measurements per ministry and they tend to be vague and useless.
Even given that weakness, the performance reports point to more problems than successes.
The ministry plans to fund fewer child care spaces this year than it did last year, with no expansion forecast for the next two years. Bad news for parents on long waiting lists for care (although full-day kindergarten might help some).
Its efforts to see more at-risk children placed with extended family, rather than in foster care, faltered last year. The number of children supported in this way fell from 761 to 724. The ministry hopes to increase that to 800 in each of the next two years.
The ministry also failed to meet its targets for the academic performance of children in continuing care. The goal was to have 82.5 per cent of the children performing at the appropriate grade level for their age. It fell short, at 79 per cent.
It’s the same for another performance measure that looks at how well the ministry is doing in working with families to prevent future neglect or abuse of children.
That’s important. Apprehending children is a necessary last resort; far better to provide skills and support for parents.
The ministry’s performance target for last year was to keep recurrences of abuse or neglect within 12 months to 19.4 per cent of cases. It missed that.
The ministry also missed the target for finding adoptive homes for children during the last fiscal year.
Yet despite all that, the ministry budget is based on reducing the number of children in care from 9,100 to 8,800 this year, with no clear indication of how or why that will happen.
It’s not surprising some targets would be missed. Circumstances change, priorities shift, problems prove more.
But given evidence that the ministry is not achieving it goals, a budget that provides no more resources and reduced staff levels seems inappropriate.
It’s not just a problem within the children’s ministry.
The Education Ministry’s performance targets include goals for improving the high school graduation rate for aboriginal and non-aboriginal children. It missed both targets for the year just completed. The aboriginal rate was 48 per cent — unchanged from two years ago and 10 points below the ministry’s performance standard.
The response was to cut the target for this year from 60 per cent to 50 per cent.
Taken together, the performance plans and budget are discouraging. There is little evidence of progress,
And there is less evidence in the budget of real plans to do better. Resources are frozen or cut. Welfare and minimum wage levels are frozen. There are no targets or plans to deal with B.C.’s six-year record as the worst province in Canada for child poverty.
The 2006 budget might have been “for the little ones.”
This one sure wasn’t.
Footnote: Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the province’s independent Representative for Children and Youth, panned the budget. Looking at education, the children’s ministry, housing and frozen income assistance rates, she concluded the province is going backwards in its support for children and families.