Mother of child with autism says funding cuts will hurt all students

A Red Deer mother is worried about the future of her special needs daughter after funding for the program that provides support for her in the classroom was cut.

Jessica Schurman's  eight-year-old daughter, Matea, has autism.

She's in an inclusive Grade 2 classroom with students of all abilities.

Until last year, she was nonverbal.

But that changed after a year in her school with supports from speech and language pathologists, and occupational health therapists.

Those services are provided through the Central Alberta Regional Collaborative Service Delivery (RCSD), which coordinates health and human services for students in the classroom.

"Because of the amazing services that we have received at school and other ones that are provided at home, she is now considered an emerging speaker, so she does have some functional language," said Schurman.

But the most recent provincial budget ended three years of transition funding of $1 million per year for the Central Alberta RCSD.

Schurman is worried that will result in longer wait times for Matea to see her therapists.

She's also concerned that teachers will be expected to fill in that gap with Matea.

"How do you make a teacher into an occupational therapist?" she said. "How do you make a teacher into a psychologist? How do you make a teacher into a speech language pathologist?"

"You're really minimizing what they do and what they specialize in when you just say, 'Boom. You — you're now a speech pathologist for somebody who's nonverbal.'"

Complex needs in classrooms

It's a concern shared by Stu Henry, superintendent for the Red Deer Public School District.

"Today's classroom is a much more complex classroom than the one you and I grew up in and experienced as children," he said. "There's a lot of complex needs in those classrooms and we really lean on our partners in Alberta Health and Human Services to help us with some of those complex students."

Henry acknowledged the RCSD knew that the transition funding was only meant to last three years.

"Our feeling is that we were so under-funded to start with that we needed it more than bridge funding," he said. "We needed it to do the regular business of helping those vulnerable kids."

Alberta Education told CBC in a written statement that although the three-year transition funding has ended, "we're pleased to be providing stable support for the program overall."

It said the government is investing over $12 million more this year for inclusive education, and for building and modernizing dozens of schools across the province.

That's not going to help students like Matea, said Henry.

"Any of the increases they're talking about are in the buildings that they're erecting around the province," he said. "Our actual per-people grant has been the same for years. So what they call stable is a zero-per-cent increase over the last number of years."

All students could be hurt by the cut

Schurman wants people to know that the loss in funding will affect all the students in the classroom, not just Matea.

She said mental health services for students will also be reduced by the funding cut.

"Maybe you have a child in the classroom who has debilitating anxiety," she said. "They may go talk to one of the individuals that's paid for out of this mental-health pot. What now happens to the classroom when there isn't anyone for that child to talk to? What does that look like for all 30 kids in that classroom?

"It doesn't look good."