The good ol’ boom-bust cycle is a way of life in Alberta, it seems. You’d hardly know we’re a landlocked province: we’ve been riding an up and down economic wave like pro surfers since the oil sands became our bread and butter in the 70s. Though the whole world has been grappling with the impact of the recent recession, which has caused some wild fluctuations in markets and caused tremendous global economic and political instability, Alberta is pretty much used to a roller coaster economy. We like the money we make when times are good, so we put up with the uncertainty and say things like, “You have to take the good with the bad.”
Even former Premier Stelmach publicly acknowledged the issue. “Alberta has the most volatile economy in North America,” he said. “60% of our economy is based on exports and 90% of those exports go through a pipe.” He didn’t say government was prepared to do anything about this situation, though. In fact, I submit that the “we just have to put up with it” attitude has been has been propagated by government and adopted by the masses. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I want to you ask a question: did you attend school during a boom, or a bust? Or both? Or maybe your kids or grandkids did/do. Have you ever wondered how the boom/bust economy may have impacted your education (or that of your offspring)? Think about it: when times are good, money is spent building schools, hiring teachers, developing good programs and support mechanisms and making sure a top-quality education is available. But then – dunh dunh dunh – things dry up, oil prices plummet and we all know what that means: cut backs. But, whatareyagonnado? Times is tough, bills gots ta be paid, etc. (I like how Andrew Coyne puts it: “the deficit made me do it” ) Lord help you if your child needs special help when we’re in a bust – or if you’re a teacher for that matter.
When bust time comes, schools feel the pinch in a big way. Teachers are laid off, programs are cut, extra support becomes scarce. There can be no doubt that all of that has a direct impact on the education that children receive. And we’re choosing to live this way. Should we really be basing our ability to deliver quality education on the price of oil?
Our education system is really pretty good over all. We have fantastic teachers, solid curriculum and aspirations to be the best in the world. But it feels like every time our education system gains any momentum, boom! Or rather, bust. Slash and burn – choppity chop. Time for austerity measures. In the most prosperous province in the country, why are we okay with submitting the education of our children to the whim of fortune?
But then, really, you could cut and paste this into many other scenarios: health care, senior care, social programs… the list goes on. Stable, predictable funding? In Alberta? Isn’t that just the stuff wishes-upon-a-star are made of?
But we can. We can have stable, predictable funding, in education, health… all of it. Though ups and down are to some extent part of every economy, the intensity of the Alberta pendulum swings could be greatly mitigated though wise, courageous government policy. A meaningful focus on economic diversification, a commitment to living within our means and a smart long-term savings strategy would be good places to start. Nothing happens in a silo. Once we shed our collective psyche of the false belief that economic instability can’t be helped, we’ll stop tolerating it and all its ramifications.
If education really is the key to a prosperous future – and I believe it is – then we owe it to this generation and all future generations to get this right.
Tell me what you think.