Participants share a rare moment of levity during a sometimes contentious all-party forum on public education held at Barnett House on March 2.
Money, curriculum and the future of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
Those were among the topics of discussion during a political forum hosted by the ATA on Saturday.
“We have to understand that the NDP’s reckless tax and borrow and spend policies have placed future governments in a very difficult position,” said Mark Smith, education critic for the United Conservative Party.
“We’re going to have to grow an economy to make sure that it can provide the revenue to pay for schools and teachers and aides and inclusion support,” he continued. “The United Conservative Party is going to be willing to hold the line on the budget. We’re going to maintain current funding.”
Representing the NDP government, Education Minister David Eggen emphasized the government’s track record of funding for enrolment growth, which is expected to be 15,000 students in each of the next two years. He attacked the UCP’s promise to “freeze” spending at current levels.
“A freeze is a cut. That means that 650 teachers would not be hired for those students,” Eggen said. “Our government will be there to make sure there will be funds for enrolment.”
The forum was part of a political engagement seminar that took place at Barnett House, in
Edmonton. Also appearing during the 90-minute forum were Alberta Party leader Stephen Mandel, Alberta Liberal Party leader David Khan and Freedom Conservative Party candidate Jeff Rout.
Khan attacked the government’s position of only funding for enrolment growth.
“Minister Eggen talks about properly funding enrolment but a 1.8 per cent increase in funding is a cut when there’s a 3.5 per cent increase in population growth plus inflation, so let’s talk about reality and not about platitudes here,” Khan said.
All the representatives agreed that class sizes and complexity were real issues that need to be addressed. Mandel said there may have to be spending reductions in other areas in order to allow education issues to be properly funded.
“The reality is we are in financial challenges but that doesn’t change the fact that we have to have priorities,” he said. “Our priority is education … not necessarily balanced budgets.”
Rout, the Freedom Conservative Party’s candidate in Leduc–Beaumont, pitched a Sweden-inspired approach that would enable the private sector to invest in school infrastructure, freeing up public money for operational spending.
“We want to keep funding the operating costs but allow more money from the private sphere to enter for the capital costs,” Rout said.
“That way there’s more teachers, there’s fewer students per class and more opportunities for all Albertans.”
The representatives were asked to outline their party’s stance on the curriculum rewrite that is currently taking place. All five agreed that the rewrite was long overdue.
The UCP’s Smith said his party has heard from principled experts who have stopped working with the curriculum working groups because they felt there were serious problems.
“Those are the people that we’ve been talking to; those are the people we’ve listened to,” Smith said.
He said the UCP is not convinced that the curriculum is as balanced as it needs to be but leader Jason Kenney does not intend to scrap it entirely if the UCP forms government.
“Mr. Kenney has said that if we find that this is an overly ideological curriculum then we’re going to make changes,” Smith said.
Several of the reps criticized the UCP for playing politics with curriculum.
“What’s not normal about this whole process is that the UCP, Jason Kenney chose to use the curriculum as a political tool to score cheap political points,” said Eggen.
“When somebody is running for the highest office in the land, and they’re willing to try to deceive people for the sake of gaining political points, that tells you about somebody’s character.”
“We see no reason to scrap it, unlike Mr. Smith’s leader, who says alternately that he’ll scrap it, then not scrap it,” said Khan.
Mandel challenged Smith to provide examples where the curriculum is falling short.
“Give me a couple of those things that he says are so damaging that we need to know.”
Mandel said the Alberta Party supports the new curriculum, but more time may be necessary to roll it out effectively.
“Nothing is more important that getting this correct. If it takes more time, let’s just do it,” he said.
The FCP would like the curriculum to focus on core elements like literacy, numeracy, finance, voting process and government, said Rout.
“Every year these things should be tweaked a little bit so we’re going to be constantly monitoring it.”
Parties support dual-function ATA
All the party representatives expressed support for the ATA as a dual-role organization with both union and professional functions. This included the UCP, even though a policy was passed at its AGM last year suggesting that the ATA should be split into two separate and independent organizations.
Smith said his party has other priorities.
“Our members have consistently told us that their highest priority is fixing the economy of Alberta. If we don’t get the economy going and moving properly, we will not have the capacity to pay for all of the things that we want to do in education,” Smith began.
“Splitting the ATA into two separate functions is not going to be in our platform. It’s not something that we’ll place a priority on as a government,” he added.
“We look forward and we are committed to working with the ATA from day one in a constructive way to solve the problems in education.” ❚
“This is my first forum so it was great to hear what they had to say live, and get the reaction that they had to each other’s questions.
It solidifies my thoughts and feelings on issues and which party I think would best support education.”
“I don’t think it’s in the media enough what their views are on education. That’s why I wanted to come to this … [Education] is one of the biggest budget items for any government, so it should be one of the forefront issues that they’re discussing.”
- Renée Shevalier-Lavin, Edmonton Catholic Local No. 54
“I would recommend to anyone if they could get out to listen to these candidates face to face, to do it, to really form a solid opinion for themselves.”
“My opinions haven’t changed, just perhaps a little clearer.”
- Randy Morrow, Foothills Local No. 16
“It did touch on more general issues that everyone has. I work with a Catholic board so one of the issues that we wished was more discussed was their stand on whether or not they want to keep Catholic education. We were able to talk to a couple of party members about that, so it was good to have that opportunity afterward.
- Jennifer Parkin, Christ the Redeemer Local No. 29