With the compounding effects of the pandemic, learning loss, and increasing child poverty, we must make sure that our most vulnerable and youngest children, especially the 51,540 children in poverty.
We must work together to advocate to restore funding to early learning, especially for the most vulnerable young people.
The UCP campaigned on a promise to "maintain or increase funding to education." Not only did they break that promise, but they targeted their cuts in a way that hurt the most vulnerable and youngest students.
One of the most-shortsighted, harmful, and difficult steps the UCP took was the $30 million cut to the PUF funding. The PUF program provides integrated early learning supports for children with medical needs, or learning or cognitive disabilities, beginning in pre-kindergarten to prepare them to enter kindergarten and learn alongside their peers.
As Elise Stolte wrote, we have a choice where we can "pay now or pay a lot more later. These kids won't magically catch up. The UCP cuts eliminate years of progress on early education.
Waiting to provide intervention once children enter school misses a critical developmental window, is less effective, and costs more for the system, both in terms of the financial impact of service provision and in social costs such as literacy levels and high school completion.
I've heard first hand from many educators who saw the enormous growth in student learning and the positive impact that early intervention had on helping students come to the next grade ready to learn. We know that if a student cannot read at grade level by grade 3, they are much less likely to complete high school. The costs of illiteracy and the lost human potential because we have collectively failed to prepare these children for life are morally and economically enormous.
One of my favourite metaphors for early learning is gardening. When we are growing a new plant and it is not successful, we never blame the plant. We look to see if it needs more sunlight, water, nutrition-- we improve the conditions to improve the plant and our entire garden.
As Trustee Dunn wrote in her May 2020 blog post:
this funding supports students with disabilities who need specialized supports in Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten programs, to receive wraparound supports from specialists including Occupational Therapists and Speech-Language Pathologists. The Government of Alberta’s cuts to this funding has meant that the funding we received was reduced by 76%, from $39.5 Million to $9 Million. The loss of this funding is significant and will mean that Edmonton Public Schools has to reduce the number of children enrolled in our Pre-Kindergarten programming from 1,040 to approximately 600. Our administration has made the difficult decision to close 22 of our satellite program sites in schools, and reduce the number of Pre-Kindergarten hub sites from 10 to 6. This means that programming that was available at 32 of our schools, will now only be accessible at 6 schools.
We know that early intervention has a significant impact on the learning trajectories of students. In our board meeting we heard that approximately 27% of students who receive early support will no longer require additional support as they enter school. The loss of this funding will impact families and it will mean a net loss for school boards who will now be racing to provide intervention to children when they enter kindergarten, without the dedicated funding that PUF provided. If only looking at the financial consequences of this decision, it is one that will cost our system significantly, as the return on investment for early intervention is great. However, we know that the loss of this program is more than just numbers in a spreadsheet, it will impact students and families directly. I am hoping that this decision will be reversed, and our board will be exploring further advocacy efforts."
We have many outstanding questions for the Minister about the plan to support those vulnerable students cut across Alberta. We've yet to hear a plan to ensure that all students can access the early intervention that they need, especially those that were cut from PUF funding. We have yet to hear more about additional support for our classrooms for the students who are not receiving early intervention in order to bring them up to grade level.
Pay now or pay way more later is exactly right.
As my colleague Michelle Draper said to the Edmonton Journal, “We know that the more we invest in the younger years, when the brain is developing, the more likely that those students will do better later on and get the supports that they need,” said Draper.
As my colleague Trisha Estabrooks said her concerns were for those students not yet in the program. She said the full impact in the funding change won’t be known for a few years until students have entered the later grades.
Trustee Shelagh Dunn said reading the report was the worst moment of her time on the school board. “I think it was the worst moment I’ve had as a trustee to actually just read that the funding for PUF is reduced by 76 per cent,” said Dunn. “This decision by this provincial government has decimated our ability to provide early intervention. and it’s quite upsetting.” "It makes me think of that phrase that we judge a society by how we treat the most vulnerable among us. And I have to say, reading this I'm quite ashamed of the decisions that were made."
Trustee Bridget Stirling said that cutting millions from programs like PUF will lead to job losses, specifically in the form of educational assistants who were supporting many students with special needs. "The worst part of this is, it's not an evidence-based decision. It is not a decision grounded in what is the most effective way to provide education," she said. "It is purely a decision made to balance books now at the cost of student lives for years to come."
NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman called on the province's education minister to reverse the cuts. "Parents don't deserve this. Children with complex needs don't deserve this," said Hoffman. "The minister must apologize, do the job Albertans elected her to do, which includes reversing these cuts, and fully fund Alberta schools and students."
Sarah Doll, who has two children with complex needs, was at Wednesday's news conference with the NDP. She says cuts to the PUF program are devastating to her family, and many others. "These cuts will affect the future of Alberta. These cuts violate the rights of thousands of disabled children. The parents, families, and friends of these children will never be able to forgive or forget this," said Doll.
Here's more information from a June 2020 EPSB Report written by Trustee Dunn on the cutbacks by Minister LaGrange:
Researchers and policy-makers have stressed that the timing of early intervention can be crucial for children who need extra supports, as evidence-based early interventions can significantly improve life outcomes for children (Shonkoff, 2010). In addition to providing individual and societal benefits, quality early intervention is also cost-effective over the long term and offers a high return on investment (Heckman, 2008), as later interventions are often less effective because they occur after the optimal ‘developmental window’ (OECD, 2017).
The report also details that as a result of the loss in funding, Edmonton Public Schools will need to end the current innovative hub-and-spoke model for provision of early childhood services, resulting in the closure of 22 Pre-Kindergarten satellite locations, an important means of accessing supports for families in or near the communities in which they live.
In addition, funding for family-oriented programming (FOPS) has been removed, which has resulted in the suspension of early intervention programming supports for families, an evidence-based method for providing early supports to children during critical developmental periods.
Our Division has had to quickly respond to dramatic changes in Program Unit Funding and make changes to the provision of Pre-Kindergarten programming. Yet there remain significant concerns about what the loss of these Pre-Kindergarten services for many children in Edmonton will mean when these children enter the school system in Kindergarten or Grade 1, and questions about the level of funding for intervention in Kindergarten.
Best practice research predicts that we will have missed a critical developmental window for the provision of early intervention, and that providing these services in Kindergarten or Grade 1 will become less effective and more costly.
Therefore, in order to make wise budgetary decisions, we need more information from the provincial government regarding plans for early intervention in the province.
- We need to know how many children to expect in Kindergarten or Grade 1 who will not have received early intervention as a result of the changes to PUF.
- We need to know if there is a plan to fund and deliver early intervention for children who will no longer be able to access PUF programming, either through a new program in the Ministry of Education or another Ministry.
- If there is no plan for a new delivery model, we need to know if the provincial government will provide additional funding for the more costly interventions and supports which will be required when these children enter our school system.
The impact of these cuts have been felt across Alberta by Public and Catholic School Boards. The Alberta School Boards in November 2020 voted to reinstate funding cut by the UCP to 2018 levels.
As reported by CBC:
Morine Rossi, program lead with Autism Edmonton, said she knows personally — from experience with her now 10-year-old son — how kids can benefit from PUF when administered how it previously was.
She said that because of PUF, through pre-school and kindergarten, her son was able to access well-rounded supports that he needed in order to keep on track with his peers.
"He was involved with speech, behaviour, OT and PT. They made visits to him in order to cover all of the bases and give recommendations to those kindergarten teachers to help support him in the classroom, as well as to his EA," she said.
"He had full, one-to-one support from an EA with the help of PUF funding so that he could have that hand holding in the early years. And at this point now, when he went into Grade 3 and now into Grade 4 and 5, he went completely unsupported because he had that early access to therapy and to help."
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