Alberta’s new education minister is pledging to work with the province’s teachers to improve public education.
“It is very important to me that I get to know you, the people on the front lines. You’ve contributed so much to Alberta’s education system and I look forward to working with you to continue to bring quality education to Alberta’s students,” said Adriana LaGrange while addressing delegates of the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s Annual Representative Assembly on Saturday, May 18.
The former Catholic school trustee is now a first-time MLA representing Red Deer-North in the United Conservative Party government. In her role as minister, she said it’s very important that she listen to teachers.
“I want to hear from each and every one of you about other areas that can be improved upon in our education system,” LaGrange said. “I believe that listening is one of my most important jobs and I will keep the lines of communication open.”
LaGrange said that among her priorities are to conduct an audit on class sizes, pause a rushed implementation of new curriculum and proclaim the Education Act.
This legislative move would replace the School Act, which contains a number of protections for sexual and gender minority students and staff, including making it illegal to “out” students who participate in gay-straight alliances.
ATA president Greg Jeffery said the issue is a concern for teachers.
“Teachers’ primary concern is always safety of students,” he said.
In comments to media following her speech, LaGrange stressed that the UCP government will take care of gender and sexual minorities.
“As far as my government and myself, there is no question that we will have some of the strongest GSA-QSA inclusive education, inclusive clubs available to students. We are looking at protecting every student in our jurisdictions so I disagree with that analysis,” LaGrange said.
Jeffery stressed that education funding is the top issue on teachers’ minds.
“We’re hearing rumours of cuts. Boards are making announcements of million-dollar reductions in their budgets but it’s all speculation at this point,” he said. “We hope that we can change that before the provincial budget comes out in September.”
Funding plans questioned
When asked about education funding, LaGrange repeated the UCP’s campaign promise to maintain current levels or increase funding by improving efficiency.
“I am committed, as the minister of education, [to] providing the best possible education for our students and that means putting teachers in front of students,” LaGrange said.
“I know there’s always apprehension when a new government comes into play but right now we are going to do the absolute best because we believe in having a strong, quality education for every single one of our students.”
When pressed, LaGrange would not commit to funding for enrolment growth.
“We are currently reviewing all of the education funding and at this point in time I’m not at liberty to say any more than that,” she said. “I am very committed and my government’s very committed to ensuring that we have adequate resources.”
NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman was on hand and questioned the government’s fiscal prudence.
“When the government campaigned on bringing forward this big corporate tax cut, and they still didn’t plan on balancing the budget any earlier than we would have, they have to find that money somewhere and of course the usual targets are health care and education,” Hoffman said.
The government plans to reduce the corporate tax rate from the current 12 per cent to eight per cent by 2020. The first in a planned series of tax cuts will take effect July 1.
Hoffman said her priority is to advocate for reasonable class sizes, adequate supports for students with learning disabilities and “that parents aren’t asked to pay exorbitant school fees.”
“These are some of the things that we’re nervous will be coming given the kinds of promises that have been made by the government,” she said.