In the coming months, many emergent issues will require diligent attention and advocacy on the part of Alberta teachers, says ATA president Jason Schilling.
Following the holiday break, ATA president Jason Schilling sat down with the ATA News to share his thoughts on education issues that emerged in 2019 and look ahead to 2020.
For you, what was the biggest education story since you too k office last July?
Several stories garnered a lot of attention, the biggest of which was the budget and its implications, specifically the $275 million shortfall and the transfer of pension funds from ATRF to AIMCo. The resulting advocacy by the ATA, teachers, school leaders and retired teachers was extraordinary. Nearly 34,000 emails were generated by 22,000 individuals around the pension issue (Bill 22), hundreds of teachers met with their MLAs, and yet they were ignored.
We also saw impacts of the shortfall of the budget across the province — teachers lost their jobs, expenditures at schools were frozen and professional development opportunities were limited. Teachers raised their concerns and fears about the budget, but these fell on deaf ears.
As we begin the new year, what do you see as the top emergent issues within public education?
There are several issues that we will continue to work on from last year, such as the pension issue, but there are also several upcoming issues that have the potential to greatly affect teachers and their classrooms. The main ones that I have in mind are arbitration, curriculum, school choice, the provincial budget and our own contract negotiations.
Can you elaborate on each of these?
The arbitration decision that was just handed down is still fresh and is included in a 36-page report. I am working with the ATA’s other political leaders and Association staff to conduct a more thorough analysis of the decision, and we will be considering our options for further response. Teachers will hear more from us shortly on this subject. At first glance, what the decision does is increase the pressure on the next round of negotiations, which begins in March.
The Curriculum Advisory Panel report was due to the minister on Dec. 20 but has not been released to the public, nor has the ministry mentioned the report yet. We need to see what the recommendations are, how they will impact the rollout of the K–4 curriculum, and how they will influence the development of the 5–9 and 10–12 curricula. The minister indicated that a new ministerial order would be forthcoming as well. Teachers will recall that the minister dissolved the memorandum of understanding that listed the ATA as full partners in curriculum development and created the advisory panel with no active teachers on it — two very troubling developments that happened in August 2019.
The Choice in Education Act solicited survey submissions from the public around choice in education. Nearly 41,000 people completed the survey, which was flawed by design. I am eagerly waiting to see a report come from the data, though government has not indicated that a report will be coming.
In our consultation meeting, I asked “what is the problem you are trying to fix?” The government response was a desire to provide additional support and protection for independent schools and parental rights. I am worried that this endeavour will lead to increased funding for private schools and an increase in charter schools, both of which could erode our public education system.
Budget 2020 is of major concern. The budget last fall created a $275 million shortfall to school boards, which for the most part boards were able to cover, but just for this year. Most, if not all, boards indicated that they would not be able to sustain more cuts. I worry that we will see teachers lose jobs, class sizes grow even larger, along with a deterioration of supports for special needs and English language learners.
The government indicated that the education budget would remain flat for the next three years even though 15,000 new students will be added to the system each budget year. Teachers cannot continue to do more with less. Coupled with the budget, the government has indicated that it is working on a new funding formula but has not indicated what that would look like.
Central Table Bargaining will begin later on in the spring as our current contract is set to expire in August 2020. There are many outstanding issues from the last round of bargaining that still need to be addressed.
What work is the Alberta Teachers’ Association doing to address its concerns on the issues that you’ve identified?
The ATA does a lot of work that is quite visible, such as sharing information via our website, the ATA News, social media and media commentary, but there is also a significant amount of work done behind the scenes. The ATA continues to do representation work with various panels and committees, such as the curriculum panel, where members of the ATA advocated for teachers, school leaders and students.
Personally, I meet with the minister roughly once a month. We talk about teachers’ concerns and present solutions to these (we are not always successful). The ATA also meets regularly with other education stakeholders and with other union leaders to develop a cohesive approach to our advocacy work.
At its meetings, Provincial Executive Council looks at the issues in a strategic manner and Council members, in turn, work with ATA locals. The locals have been developing excellent and creative advocacy plans around the issues that are significant to their context. Addressing the concerns we see in education must involve every teacher in some manner. It is exciting to see ideas on all levels develop as teachers engage in the issues. Everyone is working hard, but we still need to work on engaging our members.
How do you feel this government is doing in terms of consulting with teachers?
I think the government is failing in this regard and that they could do better. Take the Curriculum Advisory Panel, for example. Not having one active teacher on the panel is ridiculous to me. Teachers bring curriculum to life and they deserve to have their voices heard.
I would also note the government’s failure to listen to teachers’ concerns around Bill 22 (pension).
The ATA is world-renowned for its work in professional development, inclusive policy and research. The government could benefit greatly from listening to teachers and their professional organization.
I am grateful that the minister meets regularly with me, but there needs to be more authentic consultation with teachers by the government. Recently we have seen evidence of the government trying to drive a wedge between teachers and the ATA. We cannot get distracted from the major issues that concern teachers no matter how hard others try to spin issues.
Overall, how would you describe the mood of teachers in Alberta?
For very good reasons, teachers and school leaders are angry and frustrated. They have many legitimate concerns about policies that are eroding our classrooms and education as a whole. As frustrated, angry and worried as teachers are, they continue to do amazing work with their students. Teachers are respected professionals and continue to show their professionalism even when they are continually asked to do more with less. ❚