Special needs students hardest hit by Quebec budget shortfalls, educators say

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Special needs students hardest hit by Quebec budget shortfalls, educators say

Leslie Sklavounos has seen a lot of changes in the 19 years since she started teaching elementary school — mainly in the form of cuts in student services.

"The classes are enormous," said Sklavounos, a cycle-one teacher at John F. Kennedy School in the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board. "There have been cutbacks in support."

She said the lack of support has especially affected students with difficulties express themselves or learning to read, who might have profited from assistive technology, for example, "to help them get their thoughts into words."

Those vulnerable students just starting out in school are the ones that the Quebec government is aiming to target in the coming year. 

In the 2017 budget tabled Tuesday, Quebec has set aside an additional $170 million this year for primary and secondary education.

More than half of that increase — $94 million — is being allocated to preschool and first-grade programs.

"It shows that the ministry in this government is listening to the community," said Jennifer Maccarone, the chair of the Laurier board and president of the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA).

"What we're very much wanting to focus on is early intervention and literacy, so programs like Headstart are great places for them to invest."

Costs covered for 1st time in years

Maccarone stresses, however, that there are many, many priorities, and the school system "is still recovering from the damage of the cuts in the past — still playing catch-up."

This year's total injection of some $600 million, she said, marks "the first time in years our system costs have been covered."

Still, Maccarone said, the fact that the government has recognized education as a priority in this year's budget is a good step forward.

Union leaders in the education sector are more vocal in their criticism.

"It's only $170 million," said Pierre-Antoine Harvey, an economist with the CSQ labour federation, Tuesday. "We're talking about $800 million in cuts in the last seven years of Liberal governments."

Sébastien Joly, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT), echoed first-grade teacher Sklavounos's observation that students with special needs have suffered.

"The ones who are paying the price, who are not getting the service, are the students with the learning disabilities or the learning difficulties, and they are accumulating academic delays," Joly said.

He said children with dyslexia or attention-deficit disorders might make it through the first few years of elementary school, but by the time it becomes clear to teachers and parents that something is wrong, it's too late.

And for too many years, he said, there's been a dire lack of resources at the school board level to assess the needs of such students.

"The parents, if they can afford it, need to go private and eventually get some service but the harm is done," Joly said.

'The system can now plan'

On CBC Montreal's Daybreak Wednesday, Finance Minister Carlos Leitao defended the cuts to education in the first years of his government's mandate as necessary.

"We did what we had to do," Leitao said. With this budget, he said, educators can now count on five years of steady increases.

"The system can now plan appropriately — and count on sufficient resources to be able to function properly."

The money has been allocated for 1,500 new staff positions, to be hired by September.

"This could translate into 150 new direct service positions in the English sector," said QESBA's Maccarone.

But union leaders wonder if trained specialists such as speech therapists and psychologists will even be ready to fill those roles.

"Wages are still very far from the income they can make in private practice, and the working conditions are appalling," said Michel Mayrand, president of the education professionals union in Montreal, the SPPMEM–CSQ.

​As for Sklavounos, she still loves what she does after two decades of teaching, and her hope is that the money being directed at children with learning challenges who are just starting their school journey will follow them once they move on from first grade.

Those supports are more necessary than ever.

"In Grade 1, you're learning to read," she said. "But in grades two, three, four, five and six, you're reading to learn."