Cuts to education subject of weekend protest

TC Media
Published on June 9, 2014

The provincial government needs to stop looking at budget numbers and teacher-student ratios and turn their attention towards the needs of Island students, says the president of the P.E.I. Teachers’ Federation.

Gilles Arsenault spoke on behalf of teachers in front of a crowd of more than 100 during a protest rally at province house Sunday.

The rally was organized by a group calling itself Islanders Against 2014 Cuts to Education and was in response to the 32 full-time teaching positions being lost across P.E.I. for the coming school year.

While Arsenault acknowledged declining enrollment and economic challenges, he said the government needs to re-instate those positions.

“This government needs to establish and follow a staffing model that meets the needs of our children,” he said. “It needs to stop hiding behind numbers that have little or no meaning and needs to stop trying to balance the budget on the backs of teachers and students.

“We need to stop cutting teachers and it needs to stop now.”

Patty van Diepen, a spokesperson for the group, said the cuts will mean some smaller schools will lose the Reading Recovery program, which was implemented to strengthen literacy skills in Grade 1 students.

Van Diepen said the group’s goal is to lose the “antiquated” student-teacher ratio that fails to reflect the needs of classrooms.

“It’s a model that just isn’t working and we want our government to develop policies that will support excellence in student achievement,” she said, urging those at the rally to contact their school board and local MLAS. “We can no longer withstand any further cuts. The negative impact in our children is showing in assessments and our children need us now.”

Arsenault said enrollment, class size and student-teacher ratios indicate very little about the needs of an education system.

“The numbers do not tell you that P.E.I. now has more students than ever that do not speak English as a first language,” said Arsenault, who also pointed towards an increase of students diagnosed with learning difficulties. “But support and teaching training are not keeping pace… Islanders deserve an accurate picture of today’s classrooms and Island students deserve the same level of support that is provided in other provinces.”

The day also saw speeches from English Language School Board chair Fred Osborne, leaders of the provincial New Democratic Party and Progressive Conservative Party as well as  Education Minister Alan McIsaac.

McIsaac said while the Programme for International Student Assessment results taken from P.E.I. test scores in 2012 were low, there has been continued support to the education system.

He said the department’s budget has grown from $170 million to $231.9 million since 2007, which included adding the Early Years program, full-day Kindergarten and later year assessments.

McIsaac also spoke on the loss of teaching positions and said that during a 15-year period, from 2001 to 2016, there will have been 71 teachers added to the system as well as 106 positions removed.

That makes for a total loss of 35 full-time positions during that period, he said.

“But over that period of time our student enrollment will have dropped by over 5,000 students,” said McIsaac.

He said the province is also trying to deal with a discrepancy in numbers, with many schools near Charlottetown and Summerside “bursting at the seams” compared to the smaller classrooms in rural areas.

There are 63 classrooms in P.E.I. with 16 or fewer students, with most of those being in rural schools.

“If we had all our students in a cookie cutter area and we could split them up evenly we’d have plenty of resources,” he said. “We’re trying to deal with the fact that there is a discrepancy in numbers… but we are dealing with that.”

McIsaac said he valued input from the group and also invited members to continue cooperating with himself, teachers and the school board to solve the issue.

“Nothing is corrected and improved overnight, it’s a big job,” he said. ““We just need to work together…. I know we’re going to have one of the best education systems in the country very soon because of some of the investments we’ve made.”