‘We can’t wait for a balanced budget nor can we wait for the next election’
Education is our best investment. The slogan for the Prince Edward Island Teachers’ Federation rings true now more than ever. Smart political parties always make campaign promises that value education. During elections, politicians seem to understand just how important our children are, and that educating them well is the best investment our province can make to secure a bright future for not only students but also the province as a whole.
After elections, some governments live up to their party’s promises. We saw that with the first term Liberals who invested in education with the introduction of kindergarten in the public school system, as well as making improvements in the primary grades. Unfortunately, more recently, we have taken steps backwards.
It is a difficult time to be a teacher in Prince Edward Island. Cuts to the number of teachers are making their tough jobs even tougher. Yes, there are some small class sizes in the more rural schools, but most students attend larger more urban schools where class sizes are becoming unmanageable and counter-productive for teaching and learning.
It needs to be made clear how today’s classroom is much different than what most Islanders experienced when they were in school. P.E.I. has the highest percentage of students with needs in schools, yet supports for these students are not being provided or are being stripped from the system. According to Statistics Canada (2010-11), P.E.I. spends the least amount of money per student. This number may not be an issue if our students were performing at or above the national average, but we are now (since 2009) at the bottom of provincial results for PISA testing.
These are major issues when it comes to providing the best education for our children. Teachers want to be able to reach every student in their classes in a meaningful way and overcoming the hurdles to this will require the Government to invest more in education, not less.
All those who have a role in education need to research what has proven successful in general and in other places. Teachers are the number one factor influencing student achievement. In the top performing countries, teachers and their knowledge, experience, and training, are held in the highest regard. Finland, for example, is consistently at the top of educational ranking, yet constantly has one of the lowest amount of instructional time.
However, the time they spend with their students is quality time because the teachers have been provided adequate preparation periods to prepare lessons and collaborate with colleagues regarding their instructional methods. Being a teacher in Finland is also a rewarding career, in both benefits and public esteem. Many teachers in our system redirect their own children to explore careers in health, law, or other respected fields, due to a perceived lack of respect and heavy workload of the teaching profession.
It is understandable that tough economic times make for difficult decisions. What is not understandable is how our Government speaks of making gains, yet continues to undercut the progress that has been made since the Task Force on Student Achievement gave its recommendations in 2005. Decisions regarding the public education system need to be made with long-term thinking and use sound research. Those decisions must consider costs, but costs should not drive the decisions.
The P.E.I. Government is currently focusing on achieving a balanced budget by 2016. It is budgetary concerns that are driving teacher cuts and a lack of appropriate spending on education. This is the same strategy used by the recently defeated NDP Government in Nova Scotia. It cut teaching positions and funding to school boards, among many other cost cutting measures, to try and balance that province’s budget. The NDP was soundly defeated when it went to the polls, and it is very interesting to see that the newly elected Liberal Government in Nova Scotia has learned something.
In a recent meeting with teachers, the new Minister of Education, Karen Casey, sent a strong message that her Liberal Government understands the needs of the system. She made comments stating that it is not necessarily the number of students in the class, but the needs of the students in the class, that matters.
Despite declining enrollment, the Nova Scotia Government is putting more than 200 jobs back into the system and capping class sizes for K-3 students along with reinstating fully, the Reading Recovery program which the previous government cut. They are clearly taking a stand for education.
A strong education system breeds success and it needs leadership. If the Premier is serious about attracting and keeping immigrants, he must remember that when families want to locate to new areas, one of their first priorities is the education of their children. If we want to attract the best doctors, business people, workers, and companies, we need to provide an education system that supports students and supports learning.
It is easy for a government to say that it supports education, but our children and province need more than just words. They need a vision and a commitment. Education can move our province forward in so many ways. For the future of our children and our province, we must invest in education. We can’t wait for a balanced budget nor can we wait for the next election, we must do it now. Our students deserve it.
By Gilles Arsenault (guest opinion)
Gilles Arsenault is President, Prince Edward Island Teachers’ Federation