'A step backwards': Parent advocates say changes to PUF will lead to segregation of special needs kids

Parents and advocates for students with disabilities and learning delays say they fear changes to Program Unit Funding — otherwise known as PUF funding — will mean some kids are left behind.

The changes to PUF were announced earlier this week as part of the provincial budget.

“All of our PUF students — the Program Unit Funding students, for those with the most needs — every single student is funded,” said Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.

But her new funding model does mean changes to PUF funding allocations.

Specialized Learning Support Grant

PUF funding, which follows children through early education, will no longer apply to kindergarten students.

Instead, the funding will be rolled into the new Specialized Learning Support Grant, which allocates money in a general envelope for the entire school.

“Under the old funding model, school divisions often requested more funding for students than the services they required cost. They used this as a revenue tool, but that additional revenue did not help the students,” tweeted Colin Aitchison, press secretary for the education minister.

“PUF now treats kindergarten students the same as those in Grades 1 to 12 and provides funding based on the hours of instruction needed for our earliest learners who require additional support.”

‘Kind of a step backwards’

Autism advocate Jenn Thompson said the new model, and the allocation of the funds to a general envelope for the school, flies in the face of what PUF is meant to do.

“It helped kids like my son who need individualized transitional supports to join their community schools rather than have to remain in segregated programs,” she said. “So these changes will likely limit those opportunities for kids like my son.”

Thompson said without the individualized transitional support in kindergarten to help kids learn how to participate and be included in their community schools, she fears that a lot more kids will remain in specialized programs — instead of  having the opportunity to attend regular school. 

“And we all know that a really inclusive society is built on playgrounds and in schools. So it’s kind of a step backwards when it comes to actualizing inclusion in Alberta schoolhouses,” she said.

Fears of pooling of funds

Aitchison said that under the old funding model, school divisions often requested more funding for students than the cost of the services required.

“They used this as a revenue tool, but that additional revenue did not help the students,” he tweeted. “The new model matches services and supports to the student, ensuring each student receives the service they require. Those with more serious delays, who require the most attention, will continue to receive the highest amount of PUF funding.”

Aitchison said any savings made by matching the services to students’ needs will be redirected for other specialized education supports throughout their K-12 studies.

But parent advocate Shantel Sherwood said these changes heighten issues of fund pooling that already existed with PUF.

“All it does is gives the schools more power to pool the funding, when the funding is meant to follow the [individual] child,” she said. “What my son’s needs are, are not necessarily what ‘Suzy’ next door to him is going to need. It has to be individualized.”

And she wonders how the government plans to hold schools accountable for how the funding is spent.

“There has to be a model where we can hold them accountable to the funding following the child,” she said. “So that I know that my son’s money is actually going to the services he needs, it’s actually paying for the aid he needs. It’s hard to trust anybody.”

Aitchison said students with severe learning delays will continue to receive services at a similar level as they do today.

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