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Janice MacKinnon, chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta’s Finances, speaks to the media about the MacKinnon Panel report on Alberta’s Finances in Calgary, Alta., Sept. 3, 2019.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

A report into ways the Alberta government can cut costs and reduce its growing deficit delved, unsurprisingly, into the operations of big-spending ministries such as health and education. But it’s potential changes in the latter file that may be the most politically fraught for Premier Jason Kenney’s administration.

The 26 recommendations made by the task force headed by Janice MacKinnon, the former Saskatchewan NDP finance minister, included a couple that would radically restructure the way funding for kindergarten-to-Grade 12 education in the province is administered. Specifically, the panel has counselled the government to consider tying funding to scholastic outcomes rather than simple enrolment numbers.

Tying anything to students’ actual performance in the classroom is generally loathed by teachers’ unions (and teachers). The rationale for this opposition boils down to many front-of-the-classroom educators believing it’s unfair to assess how their students are doing against same-grade counterparts elsewhere based solely on standardized testing.

Teachers argue, not unreasonably, that no two classroom environments are the same. Comparing the scores of children who come from an economically disadvantaged neighbourhood, for instance, against ones whose home life is more stable and conducive to better grades is pointless, they insist. Consequently, tying school funding to these results would be compounding a situation that is fundamentally inequitable and unjust.

There are others, however, who insist there needs to be some accountability built into the education system and that it’s too easy for teachers to blame “home environments” for lousy outcomes in their classrooms. And, at the end of the day, the government gets to decide how it hands out the money to fund basic programs such as K-12 education.

Ms. MacKinnon and her team relied on some pretty black-and-white numbers to justify their belief that there is money to be saved in the education system. Over the past 10 years, expenditures have grown 3.5 per cent, while relevant K-12 school age population has only increased by 1.5 per cent.

Alberta spends $11,121 for each K-12 student, while British Columbia spends $9,681. Quebec invests $12,325 per child, while Ontario is the most generous – or least disciplined – devoting $17,077 of taxpayer dollars for each student in the elementary and high-school system. In B.C., meantime, 83 cents of every dollar put into the education system is spent in the classroom, while the remainder is used for administration and support. Alberta only spends 75.4 cents of each education dollar in the classroom.

Ms. MacKinnon suggests that Alberta aim to align its spending ratio more with British Columbia.

The panel recommends other changes that would have an impact on teachers, particularly around the area of compensation. And perhaps most controversially, the task force suggests that, in some cases, wage levels be set through legislative fiat, rather than through negotiations with unions.

Maybe that is the most realistic way of making the kinds of spending cuts the panel is advocating. The teachers’ union in Alberta would never go along with the changes being advocated so negotiating would be fruitless. But Mr. Kenney and his cabinet would be advised to tread extremely carefully when it comes to this area.

Once upon a time, there was a fresh new premier in B.C. named Gordon Campbell, who won a massive landslide in 2001 on a mandate to slay the province’s rising debt situation. (Sound familiar?) And one of his government’s early targets was the education system.

Mr. Campbell’s Liberals introduced two bills in 2002 that effectively ripped up existing contracts and imposed changes in the classroom that affected size and composition language – language the teachers’ union had won through negotiation.

The teachers filed a grievance and the matter wound its way through the judicial system for the next several years. It eventually ended up in the lap of the Supreme Court of Canada, which took all of 20 minutes to decide B.C.’s teachers had a case; what the government did, and how it did it, were wrong.

The 2016 decision immediately restored clauses that the 2002 legislation had deleted from teachers’ contracts. And the Liberals were forced to hire hundreds of teachers and spend hundreds of millions of dollars more each year on education.

All of which is to say that Mr. Kenney needs to understand that altering existing agreements with its public sector unions should not be done lightly. While Ms. MacKinnon’s panel has certainly given the Premier political cover to introduce sweeping change, it hasn’t given him the power to simply do what he wants.

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