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Inclusive schooling not on the radar of all Alberta political parties

The Calgary Board of Education is hoping whichever party comes into power after the April 16 election has more funding for students with special needs, but Inclusion Alberta warns that the problem is much more complex.

In the days leading up to the election, the CBE put forward its concerns about funding shortfalls it’s facing.

CBE vice chair Marilyn Dennis said for students with complex needs alone, the board is facing an $70 million gap between the funding they receive and the funding they spend.

She said for special needs classroom services in the 2017-2018 school year, the shortfall was $58 million, but transportation expenses for those students faced a shortfall of another $12 million.

“These are students that have physical challenges,” said Dennis. “Obviously there are wheelchairs. Some kids are going to and from school in hospital beds.”

Dennis said as a larger city, Calgary is a magnet for families who want the best for their children. She said the CBE’s population of students with complex learning needs has jumped 67 Per cent in the past five years.

“In order to cover that gap, we’re actually taking that money from the per-student grant across the board. So we’re asking the government to close the gap.”

However Inclusion Alberta CEO Trish Bowman said her organization doesn’t see it a funding shortfall in the same way as the CBE.

Bowman said for too long, families have been told there isn’t enough money for their kids to go to school.

“When we do that, we’re really basically blaming the students for the funding shortfall,” she said. “We say that they cost too much. And we think that that’s an unfair sort of representation in some ways.”

She noted that other school boards in the province aren’t having the same funding problems as the CBE. Alberta Education has one funding formula to allocate all school districts’ money.

“There’s a base allocation that every student gets, and that includes students with disabilities,” said Bowman. “And then there’s a percentage allocation for inclusive education that’s not based on individual students. It’s representative. It’s a percentage that’s based on how many students in that district historically (…) have disabilities.”

She said with the same funding formula, some school districts are being fully inclusive, and don’t talk about shortfalls.

Bowman noted that Inclusion Alberta would like to see a focus on inclusive schools – which means making sure all students can go to their regular community school, regardless of disabilities.

“The Calgary Board of Education has chosen to build some special schools for kids with disabilities,” said Bowman. “So that that’s an expensive model. And now, you’re also going to be busing kids to those schools.”

Bowman said she’s seen commitments to inclusive education in the Alberta Party and the Liberal party platforms.

The Alberta Party has committed to doubling the number of educational assistants in the province’s schools, while the Alberta Liberal party platform is promising to create “true” inclusive education by increasing funding for students with extra needs by 50 per cent.

The NDP platform does not speak directly to inclusive education, but does promise to create a classroom improvement fund which would “ensure every student has the support they need.”

The UCP platform also promises to maintain or increase student funding, but it’s the promise of enshrining parental choice of education in legislation that caught Bowman’s interest.

“We would assume that that extends to all parents,” she said. “So for parents choosing an inclusive education, that they have a right to that choice, and it’s honoured. And it’s a quality education.”