History Repeated: Inequitable Cuts to Education for Immigrant and Ethnocultural Students

The Coalition for Equal Access to Education (CEAE) was formed in 1993 in response to deep cuts to education by the Klein government targeting programs that directly or indirectly supported English as a second language (ESL) learners.*  The affected programs never fully recovered. The current round of budget cuts by the Alberta government similarly has consequences for ESL students that cumulatively affect the longitudinal educational outcomes for the growing numbers of ESL students all across Alberta. The CEAE finds itself once again in a position of advocating for those least able to advocate for themselves.

In 1993, ESL funding and kindergarten programs were both drastically reduced as a consequence of the provincial budget. In addition, local jurisdictions’ taxation powers over education spending were removed, with the education taxes taken directly by the province and reallocated at their discretion. Local taxes had provided some 50% of the funding for ESL programs by matching the provincial ESL allocations. As a result of all of these cuts, ESL in the Calgary Board of Education suffered an 80% reduction, and kindergarten programs – critical for getting young learners off to a good start, were essentially eliminated. Interestingly, the local English speaking parent communities of youngsters of kindergarten age were vocal enough in their immediate response to the cuts that partial rededication of funding to kindergarten was soon returned.  The immigrant community, however, was much easier to ignore and ESL funding was much slower to be restored. By 2000, seven years after the initial teacher salary roll backs, followed by years of ‘frozen’ salaries, ESL programming was no more than a mere shadow of its former existence. The Ministry commissioned Howard Report (2006), available on the Alberta Education website, documents these losses in detail. The ESL population, meanwhile has grown from 3% of the general population in 1993, to currently over 25% of the general population in major urban school boards such as the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) and the Calgary Catholic Board (CSSD). In several of the Charter schools, the concentration of ESL learners is much higher (Almadina, 100%: Foundations for the Future, 60 – 70%; Westmount, over 50% of the incoming kindergarten cohort). The current budget cut once again targets ESL programming, and also eliminates Alberta Initiatives for School Improvement (AISI) funding which was often used by local schools to study and enhance classroom practices promoting the development of academic literacy. Once again, ESL learners suffer an unfair burden of the budget cuts.

To put a few dollar figures to the above information consider the following:

  • ESL students generate the usual Base Instruction Funding as all students do: $6561.68 per student.  In addition, they generate a supplementary ESL grant of $1178.10. Assuming approximately 26,000 coded ESL learners in the CBE alone, this amounts to some $31 million annually. Reducing the allowable support time from 7 to 5 years will cost the CBE millions of dollars and countless teaching positions. The 2013 budget for ESL is reported at $24 million (Cuthbertson, 2013), representing a 20% reduction in ESL funding, and clearly, a disproportionate burden for the most vulnerable students in the school system.
  • AISI funding, begun in 1999, allocated close to $1 billion in school based, collaborative projects over its first 4 (3 year) cycles (some $80 million annually, of which the CBE would have claimed perhaps $14 million annually). Cycle 5 (2011) saw a significant cut, before the complete elimination of the program in the current budget. While the network of AISI partners had legitimate concerns over the accountability for both the allocation of the funds and the lack of tangible impact on student achievement, the funds nevertheless often did offer various types of supports to ESL learners. The removal of AISI funding will again, cost the CBE enormously and will certainly translate into countless teaching positions lost, many of them directly benefiting ESL learners. The impact on the Equity Opportunity Fund ($107 million: at $156 per student, the CBE’s share would be approximately $17 million annually), intended to mitigate the devastating cuts to AISI in 2011, is not clear. Tinkering with this program will pose potential further reductions in learning supports for ESL students.

Making sense of the funding trail is not straightforward math, particularly when a disproportionate (and increasing) sum may be going toward administration costs. The money that is available must go first and foremost to classroom level supports. It becomes clear, however, that the current budget and the removal of targeted programs will simply exacerbate already glaring inequities in the educational outcomes of ESL learners by removing front line workers from the classroom. ‘Action on inclusion’ (Alberta Education, 2012) is not the panacea for addressing the complex learning needs of some 25% of the school going population.

Various longitudinal studies conducted in Alberta have found distinct inequities in the educational outcomes of ESL learners, increasingly the Canadian born children of immigrants who do not speak English at home. Despite their demographic profile of bright, determined, motivated and hard-working youngsters whose parents were strategically recruited and selected to immigrate to Canada for their ability to contribute to the human resource needs of a booming economy, these children generally do not achieve commensurate with their potential nor with their native English speaking academic counterparts. While their graduation rates from high school match those of their native speaking classmates at around 76%, a more refined understanding of their lag in English language proficiency as reflected in English diploma outcomes explains their academic struggles in post-secondary settings. The k – 12 system fails to prepare these students for the academic literacy demands of advanced studies, visible in the transcript data in high school (English 30-1 diploma examination results) as well as in achievement outcomes in faculties across university campus: the favored ones including Engineering, Business and Sciences. Strengths these students demonstrate in mathematics and science, therefore, do not mitigate their weaknesses in academic literacy: proficiency in reading and writing at advanced levels is crucial to understanding textbook information and lecture materials, undertaking independent research, making presentations and proposals, and participating in collaborative/group work that requires problem solving and critical thinking abilities. Again, while their graduation rates from university are impressive, the transcript data indicate only marginal achievement. This places them once again in a vulnerable position as they seek employment. Under-employment among these students represents a loss of educational and intellectual capital that Canada needs to sustain a competitive economy.

Sooner or later, Alberta (and Canada) will pay for this short sighted strategy of balancing the budget by cutting funding for ESL:  ESL learners will be unable to contribute to an economy that is predicated on high levels of literacy and the ‘soft’ communication skills required to engage in the business of business.

The CEAE urges the Alberta government to reconsider the current budget cuts, and to restore funding targeted at enhancing the English language proficiency at all levels, but especially among the youngest learners.  Research consistently tells us that early identification and intervention provides potential lifelong benefits.  Ideas for specific funding targets include:

1)      Reduced class sizes for areas of high concentration of ESL learners. Elementary classes of 29 youngsters, of whom perhaps only 4 are even basically proficient in English is unacceptable. Such class sizes are common in large, urban boards.

2)      Monitoring and revamping of achievement outcomes in the grades 3, 6 and 9 Provincial Achievement Tests and the grade 12 Diploma outcomes to identify patterns of inequitable outcomes.

3)      Targeting professional development and embedded classroom level research that gives teachers feedback on their instructional practices. This research, however, needs to be rigorous, systematic and disseminated for others to benefit and learn from, somewhat along the lines of the former AISI program, but with much stronger accountability measures in place and supports for understanding data.

4)      Enhanced kindergarten programming with a strong language learning focus.

5)       Pilot projects in bilingual schooling in areas where there is a critical mass of students, strong parental support, qualified staff, and appropriate learning resources. Research strongly supports educating youngsters in their first language, transitioning them later into English. The benefit of such programming would be that Alberta would have linguistic resources available for interacting with trade partners in the Pacific Rim. The Chinese bilingual program in the Edmonton Public School Board may act as a model that can be adapted by other major boards.

6)      Accrediting course work at the high school level for ‘boosting’ academic literacy among ESL students who continue to lag too far behind their grade cohort. Curriculum for such intervention already is developed by the University of Calgary, and simply needs the support for implementation.

7)      Ongoing supports of children of refugee class immigrants who may not arrive with literacy and schooling experiences in place for smooth integration into the Alberta context.

8)      Required course work in Faculties of Education to prepare all teacher candidates for the challenges of working with linguistically diverse learners. Recent cuts to university budgets has eliminated the U of C’s first efforts to make course work in ESL mandatory for all BEd students.

9)      Provide additional funding to the Charter schools that carry a disproportionate number of ESL learners. These schools need the flexibility to hire someone with ESL expertise to assist in program development, staff professional development, school based research projects. It is worth pondering the question why so many immigrant families are leaving the CBE and seeking alternative placements for their children.

Alberta is fast becoming a culturally and linguistically diverse province, increasingly dependent on highly skilled and academically credentialed workers.  To prepare for the community and work life of our future generations we must invest in the education of our young: both in the k – 12 system and beyond, in universities and technical programs. We urge the Government of Alberta to reconsider its education spending priorities and to reinvest in the needs of our immigrant youth.

*Students whose first language is not English are currently referred to as English Language Learners (ELL) rather than as students of English as a Second Language (ESL).

Selected references:

Alberta Education. Q& A about AISI funding (2012).  http://education.alberta.ca/media/6673437/q&a_cycle_5_funding.pdf

Alberta Education. Payments to school authorities 2013-2014: http://education.alberta.ca/media/6858012/part81schooljurisdictionrates.pdf

Alberta Education. Action on inclusion (2012). http://education.alberta.ca/department/ipr/settingthedirection.aspx

Alberta Education (2006). Review of ESL k – 12 ESL program. Howard Research. http://education.alberta.ca/media/353509/review_of_esl_full_report.pdf

Cuthbertson, R. (April 16, 2013). CBE eyeing budget cuts. Calgary Herald, April 16, 2013, B1

Roessingh, H. & Douglas, S. (2012). English Language Learners’ transitional needs from high school to university: An exploratory study. Journal of International Migration and Integration, 13(3), 285-301. http://www.springerlink.com/content/n62629705u6jv66q/

Roessingh, H. & Douglas, S. (2012). Educational outcomes of English language learners at university. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 42(1), 82 – 97. http://ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/cjhe/index

Roessingh, H. (2012). The Grade 3 Provincial Achievement Tests: In need of revamping? Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 58 (3), 425- 443. http://ajer.synergiesprairies.ca/ajer/index.php/ajer/article/view/1057


Hetty Roessingh, PhD

May 2013

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