Thousands more Alberta students should be eligible for school bussing within the next two years, as the province changes its requirements.
The province has proposed boosting next year’s school transportation funding by 24 per cent from their expected expense this year, while requiring schools to offer busing to students who live closer to their buildings.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said school boards, parents, teachers and students have said the current limit of 2.4 kilometers was too far for children to walk — especially when they had to cross expressways or busy roads to get to class.
“Parents were concerned for safety, as were all of us,” LaGrange said at a news conference in Calgary on Thursday.
The proposed education budget allots nearly $421 million for student transportation in the 2023-24 school year. Elementary school students who live more than one kilometer from school would now qualify for school busing. Grade 7 to 12 students who live more than two kilometers away would also qualify for subsidized transportation.
The province also requires schools to provide alternative programs, such as French immersion. For the first time, private schools would receive funding for transportation — 70 cents for every dollar per student that public schools receive.
Alberta Education estimates about 47,000 students who already use buses will now have lower fees. Schools will need to recruit an estimated 250 more bus drivers, officials said.
That could be tricky, as school bus drivers are scarce. The budget proposes to give schools more funding to help train new drivers.
NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the proposed increases neglect to fully address the rising costs of moving students around. She said funding isn’t keeping up with the rising costs of insurance, fuel, and staff recruitment, and that schools may be forced to pass those costs onto parents with higher fees.
New kindergarten homeschool pilot
The details of how Alberta schools will be funded, the distribution and how much, were made public Thursday in the government’s 2023-24 school funding manual. It is based on a provincial budget that has yet to be approved by the legislature.
Next year, for the first time, the province will pilot funding for homeschooling parents and supervising schools who are educating kindergarten students. It will cost $2 million.
Only students who are registered with and supervised by a public or private school will be eligible for the kindergarten funding. The school authority would get $901 per student, half of which would be passed on to the family for instructional materials, such as books, software, or math tools.
Judy Arnall, president of the Alberta Homeschooling Association, said her organization has been asking for years for the province to fund kindergarten.
“We’re quite thrilled with this development,” she said Thursday. “It was a bit of a surprise to us.”
The cost of supplies is often a barrier for people wanting to choose homeschooling, Arnall said. Although kindergarten is optional in Alberta, it’s included in the curriculum, and the government should emphasize its importance, Arnall said.
A new $42-million fund planned to help with increasingly complex classrooms must be used at least 80 per cent on staff working with students, the government says.
Should the budget pass, schools will also have access to $47 million next year for ongoing adoption of a new elementary school curriculum.
The proposed curriculum changes have been controversial. In response to pushback from educators, academics, and parents, the province is revamping its proposed social studies and fine arts curriculum.
The new K-3 math and English language arts and K-6 physical education and wellness programs were mandatory in Alberta schools this year, and some schools were piloting new science, French immersion and francophone programs.
In an interview, LaGrange said the new math and English programs for grades 4 to 6 will also become mandatory next year.
Finalized curriculum in science, fine arts and French are supposed to be released in April. LaGrange said an announcement about that, the next steps for social studies, and when these new subjects would become mandatory, are coming soon.
With Alberta school enrolment expected to rise by 2.5 per cent next year, and inflation driving up costs, the government is promising to increase the value of several school grants. It comes after the province frozen education funding for three years to rein in costs.
Hoffman said he suspects the increases will not keep pace with how much school division costs have escalated over the past four years.
Funding enrollment growth is the bare minimum a government should be doing when more students enrol, he said.