Sonia Furstenau

Sonia Furstenau column: Funds not there for students who need it

Our system of funding kids based on a small list of designations isn’t keeping up

By Mary Lowther

When talking with teachers, parents, and caregivers, I often hear about the struggles to support diverse learners, particularly students with a disability. The common message is that kids with disabilities are falling further behind every year.

Our system of funding kids based on a small list of designations isn’t keeping up with providing the supports diverse learners need.

One mom told a story about her child who was going into Grade 3. They were not able to read, and they were struggling both academically and socially. It was determined that an autism assessment would be beneficial, but the waitlist for the publicly funded assessment is between 1.5 to 2.5 years. After waiting for a publicly funded autism assessment that never came, the mom paid the $3,000 for a private autism assessment, which came back with an autism designation.

This mom made sure her school was aware of the designation before the school year started as she believed it meant there would be $20,000 in funding for the school district to support her child. The mom began the school year hopeful that her child would finally receive the classroom support they needed.

This was not the case.

Despite an autism diagnosis and clearly documented social and academic needs, very little support was provided. The school district cited a lack of provincial funding for educational assistants (EAs), a shortage of speech language therapists (SLPs), a stretched occupational therapist, lack of resource teacher hours and more.

In the classroom, the teacher was trying to manage students with diagnosed and undiagnosed needs. Without additional resources, the teacher was unable to give the extra support the child desperately needed.

The result: the child continued to fall further behind academically and act out in class. Instead of being curious about the child’s behaviour (what needs are not being met), the focus was on how to correct the behaviour.

I wish this was an isolated story, but it’s not.

We know that kids are struggling and not getting the support they need to reach their full potential. Too often a school has to wait until a child reaches a critical point before they can get the resources to support the child.

We know that by investing in children with disabilities today, we provide the framework for a stable and purposeful adulthood. If we don’t serve them today, we will further fan the fires of the homelessness, addiction, and underemployment crises in our province.

We know prevention is cheaper than treatment, yet our provincial government continues to underfund education for all.

I spoke with local parent advocates who provided a list of what they say is needed to help students with disabilities.

We need to increase funding for EAs. Many principals in B.C. will tell you they desperately need more EA support to ensure diverse learners don’t fall behind. This needs to be a clear line item in the Ministry of Education’s budget.

We need to protect funding for diverse learners. Right now, the funding kids with designations goes into a big pool and is not marked to support the child. This means some kids get no additional support, despite their needs.

Truly invest in mental health. Go beyond counselling and look at the other ways to support kids — including drama, library, music and other programs that support kids emotionally.

Stick to promises made. In the B.C. government’s restart plan in summer of 2020, it was stated kids with special needs will receive the same support they had pre-pandemic. This hasn’t been the case, with many schools seeing fewer EAs, resource teacher hours, counselling hours and cuts to other key supports. The result is more kids experiencing trauma and falling further behind.

We need an equal distribution of resources. We are seeing some schools getting excellent support while others have minimal support due to assumptions made (ex. French immersion, school of choice, or higher income neighbourhoods). There’s a history of diverse learners being pushed out of schools instead of supporting their needs. This causes stress on kids and families, and does not respect the need for diversity within schools and recognizing the gifts all students bring.

It’s time for the Ministry of Education to take a closer look at how to support students with disabilities. We need to invest in their future in a meaningful way.

Please contact mary_lowther@yahoo.ca with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.

Column