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Education ‘a personal priority’ for new premier

September 23, 2014 Shelley Svidal, ATA News Staff

Jim Prentice is sworn in as Alberta’s 16th premier at Government House in Edmonton Sept. 15.

Jim Prentice pledges to provide vigilant oversight of education portfolio

Alberta’s 16th premier has vowed to make education “a personal priority.”

Jim Prentice, who was sworn in as premier Sept. 15, issued a mandate letter to new Education Minister Gordon Dirks the same day.

In the letter, Prentice pledges to develop strategies for higher student achievement, revisit curriculum changes, implement a plan for long-term stable funding and address Alberta’s school shortage.

These commitments echo the education platform he laid out in a speech to a breakfast event in Edmonton on June 26.

At that time he vowed that a Prentice government would “move forward with pace and with purpose” to address the urgent need for classroom space. While promising to uphold the previous administration’s commitment to build 50 schools and modernize 70 others, he pointed out that 40 to 50 more schools may be required.

“Under my leadership, we will reprioritize the capital infrastructure plan. We will allocate the necessary dollars. We will work in partnership with municipalities, school boards and others. We will welcome innovative thinking and new approaches to construction. We will get shovels in the ground as quickly as possible,” he said.

Prentice also committed to slow the pace of curriculum reform, identifying it as an issue about which Albertans hold conflicting views.

“Let me be clear about my own view. As premier, I will be governed at all times by what is in the best interests of our children. And although I have consulted broadly—and will continue to do so, speaking with teachers, and trustees, and more—it is my belief that the people who truly know what is in the best interests of school children are their parents,” he said.

“Accordingly, there will be no major overhauls of curriculum until I am satisfied that those changes are in the best interests of our students. In that regard, I will seek the advice and opinion of parents as well as educators as to whether such major changes have merit and are workable.”

He suggested that the report of the Task Force for Teaching Excellence, which the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) describes as an assault on teachers, lacks parental support.

“I have met, at this point, thousands of parents in my travels across Alberta, and I have yet to have a single parent approach me who is preoccupied with changing how the profession operates or the disciplining of teachers in the classroom. Not one parent,” he said.

He pledged that a Prentice government would “work in a respectful way with teachers and the ATA” on the issues identified in the task force’s report. “Three of my four sisters are schoolteachers—and I would never question the integrity and commitment of those who dedicate their lives to our children,” he said.

He also pledged to entrust the education portfolio “to a senior minister. I will oversee that minister’s work with vigour and vigilance, to the point of being a real pain in the neck,” he said. (Prentice has since named former Calgary trustee Gordon Dirks to the post.)

At the same time, Prentice did not commit to removing section 11.1 of the Alberta Human Rights Act, which requires school boards to notify parents in advance when “courses of study, educational programs or instructional materials, or instruction or exercises, prescribed under [the School Act] include subject-matter that deals primarily and explicitly with religion, human sexuality or sexual orientation.”

“From my perspective ... this is an area where parents are responsible,” he told the Calgary Herald June 13. “Governments should not be interfering with parental choice.” ❚

Education mandate

Premier Jim Prentice issued mandate letters to all the ministers within his new cabinet, as announced Sept. 15. Here are the "specific areas that require dedicated effort and focus" that he prescribed to the education minister:

  • Develop a strategy for higher student achievement in a world-class education system that includes coherent grading acceptable to Albertans; the basics (reading, writing, arithmetic); and incorporates 21st century competencies such as innovation, communication and critical thinking that are applied in all subjects.
  • Revisit curriculum changes to ensure that the Alberta school curriculum includes coherent grading acceptable to Albertans; the basics (reading, writing, arithmetic); and incorporates 21st century competencies.
  • Implement a plan for long-term, stable and predictable funding.
  • Move quickly with Alberta Infrastructure to address Alberta’s school shortage.
  • Work with communities to ensure infrastructure, schools, classrooms and resources anticipate, plan for and meet student needs.
  • Develop a plan to improve Albertans’ quality of life by becoming innovators in education, having a regard for the basics.
  • Promote safe, dignified and respectful education environments.

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