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Long, hot summer for public education

We need to remain engaged, informed and unified as changes unfold


September 3, 2019 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

Weather and news reports say that the summer of 2019 has been one of the coolest and wettest on record in Alberta.

But on the education front, it was quite the opposite. In the world of public education, summer 2019 has been one of those long, hot ones like you see in a Tennessee Williams’ play.

Things first started heating up in late May as school boards were drawing up their budgets for the fall. The new UCP government had announced there would be no spring budget, which left many boards uncertain about what level of funding they would receive.

With a dearth of reliable information, school boards reacted with caution. In some cases, temporary contracts were not renewed and probationary teachers were let go. Elsewhere, school officials talked about tough choices, including program cuts and service reductions.

The biggest question — whether the government would even fund for student enrolment growth — remained unanswered until the finance minister committed to do so in question period. However, no official announcement was ever made to school boards and so the uncertainty remains. The status of classroom improvement and school nutrition funding is also still very much in limbo.

By the start of June, the heat started emanating from the legislature when Bill 8, the Education Amendment Act, was introduced. Bill 8 tweaked the Education Act, passed in 2012, to prepare it for final enactment. The most controversial piece of this all-encompassing legislation, of course, related to laws affecting gay– and queer–straight alliances (GSAs/QSAs) in schools.

Because Bill 8 does not bring in changes made by a previous NDP bill, student privacy around participation in GSAs is no longer explicitly protected. This has the potential to put teachers in a difficult position if parents demand to know whether their child is attending GSA activities.

Bill 8 was followed by Bill 9, the Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act, which rewrote terms of collective agreements in order to delay previously agreed to timelines for salary arbitration with teachers and other public sector workers.

Bill 9 was jammed through the legislature with late-night and overnight sittings. The metaphorical temperature soared when Premier Jason Kenney was seen distributing ear plugs to UCP MLAs during one of the bill’s debate sessions. Since the bill was passed, there have been protests, pickets and court challenges. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees won a court injunction that allowed their in-progress arbitration to continue, and now the government is appealing that decision. This matter is far from settled.

Before the school year was out, Grade 3 testing found its way onto the hot stove when the government announced that Provincial Achievement Tests would be coming back for seven and eight year olds. In the meantime, Student Learning Assessments were set to become mandatory for all third graders.

Teachers and parents, along with the help of school superintendents, by the way, successfully pushed back, and the government was forced to retreat somewhat in the days that followed: SLA participation will now be optional at the school level.

The heat didn’t subside when schools let out and the legislature closed up for the summer, either. By the end of July, the gove rnment announced that it was going to pause the curriculum rewrite, and in mid-August it announced an end to the partnership with the Alberta Teachers’ Association on that project.

Still in August, a new panel was struck to review the curriculum work done so far and to advise on how to move it forward. The panel was conspicuously absent of current K–12 teachers.

These are not small-potatoes issues for teachers: school funding, inclusive spaces for students, salary arbitration, Grade 3 testing and curriculum renewal are all issues that can get teachers fired up. With the exception of salary arbitrations, they all matter significantly to the learning experiences of students in schools.

Which is likely why teachers became quite incensed, when the education minister added fuel to the fire by saying, “the ATA, their focus is on teachers, and my focus is on student learning and improving student learning.”

Colleagues, the forecast calls for more heat ahead. The budget is still to come; the government’s approach to arbitration is still uncertain; the Choice in Education Act is on the horizon; and the curriculum file will remain active.

If we are to be successful, and if public education is to remain strong, we need to remain engaged, informed and unified. Stay tuned.

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