While teachers were winding down the school year, Alberta’s new government was gearing up for a summer of change. The UCP hit the ground running with plans to review, repeal and rewrite the way public education operates in our province.
Delayed wage arbitration
Early July saw the Jason Kenney government pass Bill 9, The Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act, which sought to delay arbitrated decisions that were mandated with several public sector collective agreements.
The government cited “fiscal responsibility” as the reason for the bill, stating it needed to hear from its blue ribbon panel on the province’s financial health before discussing wages.
Affected unions felt the bill undermined their constitutional right to collective bargaining and a number of them took legal action. The Alberta Teachers’ Association filed a legal challenge with the provincial courts, questioning the constitutionality of the bill.
“Teachers expect the government to honour the agreements it reaches,” said ATA president Jason Schilling.
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) filed a successful injunction against the bill to maintain its original bargaining dates. The presiding judge said by unilaterally amending the terms of an agreement it had entered, the Government of Alberta caused irreparable harm to the bargaining relationship and the ability of unions to enter into agreements.
“This is an important victory for all public sector employees in Alberta,” said Schilling. “Bill 9 erodes trust in the process and infringes on our right to have collective bargaining.”
While the AUPE decision does not directly affect the ATA’s case, Schilling feels it sends a clear message to the Kenney government about the validity and legality of the bill. Court dates have not yet been scheduled to hear the ATA’s challenge.
Return of standardized testing
In late June, Grade 3 teachers learned that they may soon be forced to administer standardized tests again as the government confirmed that Student Learning Assessments (SLAs) will be administered at the discretion of individual schools for the upcoming year. In 2020/21, however, SLAs will become mandatory for all Grade 3 students until the curriculum rewrite is complete and the tests are replaced by Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs).
The amended Education Act was proclaimed on June 3, promising a modernization of the education system. It replaced the School Act and all the bills associated with it, including Bill 24, which guaranteed protections for gender minority teachers and students. Protests were staged throughout the province, but Bill 8 received royal assent on July 18 and is in effect as of Sept. 1, 2019.
The new school year also begins under a fog of uncertain funding. The Kenney government declined to present a spring budget in its first sitting, which would have provided school boards with the funding information needed to plan the upcoming year.
Though Finance Minister Travis Toews publicly committed to fund enrolment growth, school boards were left unsure as to exactly how it would be implemented. That uncertainty provoked many school boards to take a cautious and conservative approach to their budgets, an unfortunate tactic that resulted in many temporary teaching positions being left in limbo, Schilling said.
Schilling pointed out that school boards won’t have the hard numbers on their funding until two or three months into the school year.
“And who’s caught in the middle of all this? Teachers … in their classrooms … and that’s unfair,” he said.
The government is expected to deliver its first budget in October. ❚