Alberta’s politicians versus the Enlightenment

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Calgary Herald

In his 1996 book, Against the Gods-—The Remarkable Story of Risk, Peter Bernstein offers a reason why the ancient Greeks never progressed in mathematical understanding. It was, he observes, due to a lack of interest in testing their theories against the actual world. That process would have refined their ideas, given them testable hypotheses, and allowed them to properly link cause and effect.

“They appear never to have considered the idea of reproducing a certain phenomenon often enough to prove a hypothesis,” wrote Bernstein, “presumably because they admitted no possibility of regularity in earth’s events.”

I recount Bernstein’s observation because some politicians are in danger of forgetting the Enlightenment-era discoveries which allowed us to get beyond Greek conjecture, and thus also what makes for personal and societal success: the ability to refine ideas long enough to be precise about the nature of a problem.

Enter Alberta’s politicians and the many errant claims about Alberta’s education budget.

In her PC leadership campaign brochure, Alison Redford promises to “immediately restore funding to school boards so they can bring back teachers who were laid off.” By using the word “restore” and linking them to layoffs this year, Redford implies there have been cuts in the current education budget.

This past Thursday, the other two candidates in the PC leadership race, Doug Horner and Gary Mar, made similar comments.

Redford, Horner and Mar are incorrect but hardly alone.

Wildrose Alliance Calgary candidate Corrie Adolph wrote the Calgary Herald in August to take a slightly different tack but she too missed the problem of how dollars are being allocated in education.

Adolph blamed the education bureaucracy, not budget cuts, for larger class sizes and layoffs: “Hundreds of millions of these dollars are wasted on an inefficient and ineffective bureaucracy, resulting in less money for teachers,” wrote Adolph.

It is possible Alberta Education could do with a few less bodies, but all the rhetorical churning ignores one testable hypothesis: Is the education budget up or down? Answer: Up, to almost $6.2 billion in 2011/12 from just under $6 billion last year. That includes a rise in operating expenses of $250 million.

So why have teachers and other education staff been laid off this fall?  Answer: Pay and pension changes that have squeezed both the education and the overall provincial budget.

On the pay side, according to Alberta Education, the five-year pay deal with Alberta’s teachers will have led to an effective 21 per cent raise by 2012 (this after the 2007 pension deal removed a deduction for pre-1992 pension liabilities from teachers’ paycheques). That’s twice the estimated rate of inflation.

On the pension deal, when the province assumed the remaining teachers' share of a pre-1992 unfunded liability in the Teachers' Pension Plan, taxpayers assumed an expensive new annual cost: $451 million this year alone (paid directly out of the Finance ministry). The province will also fund $299 million for post-1992 pension commitments (from the education budget).

Consider this scenario: If instead of assuming the entire pre-1992 pension liability in 2007, what if the province had bit off only half and required teachers to fund the rest? Ask yourself what $225.5 million (half of $451 million) might have done for class sizes and teacher staffing in 2011.  Or what if the five-year raise in salaries had been more modest?

At the root of opposition to fact-based policy discussions is reticence, ancient Greek-style, to engage in hard measurements and refine initial, errant claims.

Thus, it’s no surprise that a candidate who wrongly assigns bulging classrooms to mythical “cuts”  (despite an overall bigger Education budget) instead of to a costly pay and  pension deal, also opposes provincial achievement tests in grades three and six—Redford’s stated position.

The point of measuring “stuff” or people—widgets, budgets, students or school progress—is investigation and comparability. Then, and only then, can you discuss the reasons for the results and arrive at solutions. Without that, you’re adrift on a sea of conjecture.

Political disdain for measurement is in opposition to several basic principles that grew out of the Enlightenment: Testable claims that allow us to refine and identify the problem to then get to a remedy, for one.

Or let’s put it this way: to ignore the financial facts of what put Alberta’s education system into this tight fiscal squeeze won’t make it go away.

In the long-term, it will instead lead to more of the same. In the short-term, the misdirected chatter reveals how some politicians unwittingly denigrate the Enlightenment principle of testing their claims for possible error. Instead, they prefer to identify non-existent causes or engage in myth-making.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.