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Highlights from the legislature

March 24, 2015 Shelley Svidal, ATA News Staff

Education minister pledges “fiscally prudent” education funding, stresses “difficult choices will have to be made”

The legislature reconvened March 10 for its spring sitting. While the sitting is scheduled to run until June 4, it is widely expected that the legislature will be dissolved when the writ is dropped for a provincial general election.

Here are highlights of some of the education issues raised in question period between March 10 and
March 12.

Government policies

March 10 — In a series of questions on the province’s fiscal situation, interim Liberal leader David Swann suggested that 2,500 teachers would be cut.

Education Minister Gordon Dirks responded, “We have no intention of cutting 2,500 teachers … that’s an absurd thought.”

March 10 — New Democrat leader Rachel Notley asked Premier Jim Prentice to admit that his threatened cuts to front-line services, including education, would make things worse.

“I have not suggested cuts to front-line services,” replied Prentice. “This government intends on maintaining the quality of front-line services, health care, education, how we take care of our senior citizens and so on.”

Gay-straight alliances in schools

March 12 — Acknowledging that the parental notification provisions of the Alberta Human Rights Act had been repealed by Bill 10, An Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect Our Children, Alberta Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman asked Dirks to confirm that the parental notification provisions of the School Act and the unproclaimed Education Act apply only to instructional materials, programs and courses of study and not to student groups, including gay-straight alliances.

“The member opposite is correct,” replied Dirks.

Noting that the LIFE framework developed by the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta references the parental notification provisions of the Alberta Human Rights Act, Blakeman asked Dirks how government would ensure “that we don’t end up with more homeless LGBT kids that have been kicked out [of] or left their homes.”

Dirks replied that Bill 10 does not require parental notification or consent for students to participate in gay-straight alliances. Blakeman asked Dirks how government would deal with school administrations that use “strong persuasion” to discourage students from starting gay-straight alliances and/or calling them gay-straight alliances.

“We expect that our professional staff in schools will act professionally, in the best interest of children. They have the duty of care for those children, and I would anticipate that they would follow that duty-of-care expectation,” replied Dirks.

Full-day kindergarten

March 10 — Citing government’s broken promise to implement full-day kindergarten, Swann asked Dirks why government continues “to stop Martha’s and Henry’s kids from getting the head start they need, especially kids most at risk.”

Dirks replied that school boards have the option of offering full-day kindergarten. Swann pointed out that boards cannot afford to offer full-day kindergarten. Dirks responded that government provides them with millions of dollars every day.

“Boards make those final determinations based on what they deem to be in the best interests of their students,” he said.

Swann asked Dirks how a nine per cent cut would help boards offer full-day kindergarten.

“We have every intention of ensuring that we provide the funds that are necessary to protect our very important and crucial front-line education services,” replied Dirks. “Stay tuned for the budget.”

March 12 — Noting that an early childhood mapping project had concluded that more than half of the province’s kindergarten-aged children lag behind on at least one developmental milestone, Swann asked Dirks why he is “passing the buck on to school boards for the lack of full-day kindergarten when . . . it was your government that promised the funding and has never delivered.”

Dirks replied that government supports and intends to continue the early childhood mapping project. Swann asked Dirks why government plans to shut down the project at the end of the year and not act on its recommendations.

“I’m not shutting down anything,” replied Dirks.

Swann pointed out that Alberta provides $11.6 billion more in tax breaks than any other province but does not fund full-day kindergarten.

“We are very proud of the tax system we have,” responded Robin Campbell, president of Treasury Board and minister of finance. “The last thing we want to do is raise taxes on hard-working Albertans.”

Sexual health education curriculum content

March 11 — Blakeman asked Dirks whether he would commit to including the teaching of consent in the sexual education curriculum.

“Teachers already have the flexibility to discuss topics related to sexual health, including sexual consent,” replied Dirks.

He invited school boards, parents and other education stakeholders to share their perspectives on consent through the curriculum review. Blakeman asked Dirks whether he believes that a curriculum “about healthy and respectful relationships” empowers students “to know their rights and to keep predators away.”

Dirks responded by suggesting that “healthy lifestyles, relationships and wellness include issues pertaining to sexuality, and that’s why we have some of those elements in our curriculum.” Blakeman asked Dirks whether government would allow consent to be taught as part of sexual education. Dirks responded by again inviting boards, parents and other education stakeholders, as well as Blakeman herself, to share their perspectives on consent through the curriculum review.

Education funding

March 12 — PC MLA Cathy Olesen asked Dirks whether he could assure her constituents that the education system would remain well funded in light of the province’s fiscal situation.

“We’re committed to funding education services in a fiscally prudent manner,” replied Dirks. “In light of the current economic situation, obviously, difficult choices will have to be made by school boards and by government.”

Olesen asked Dirks whether government would address school boards’ need for stable and predictable funding.

“I have been tasked with implementing a plan for long-term, stable, predictable funding,” replied Dirks. “School authorities have asked for stable funding, and we will do our best to deliver, of course, within available resources.”

Olesen asked Dirks what steps government would take to ensure that education funding reaches “those that matter the most, our students.”

Dirks replied that school boards are in the best position to allocate resources based on student needs and local priorities.

School construction

March 12 — Interim Wildrose leader Heather Forsyth asked Dirks to define “construction,” given that photos of the 38 schools he said are being built are photos of empty fields.

“Once a contract is awarded, for the purposes of our recordkeeping, that is in construction phase,” replied Infrastructure Minister Manmeet Bhullar.

Forsyth asked Dirks to admit that the schools would not open in 2016.

“They will open, the vast majority of them, as described from day one, in 2016 as planned,” replied Bhullar. Forsyth again asked Dirks to admit that the schools would not open in 2016. “The fact remains that 108 schools will be open in 2016 as committed to,” replied Bhullar. ❚

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