Question: What does the government Bill 85, the Students First Act, mean for teachers and the Alberta Teachers’ Association?
Answer: For the vast majority of teachers who are active members of the Association, the provisions of Bill 85 should have a minimal if any effect, although the bill does have the potential to change some limited aspects of the Association’s procedures around its professional regulatory and discipline function.
Before I go any further, I should note that while Association and government staff engaged in some very useful discussions while the legislation was in development (hey, collaboration—what a concept!), the actual bill was not provided to us in advance and, as this column is being written, we are still in the process of unpacking Bill 85 and coming to an understanding of all of its implications.
That said, taken as a whole, Bill 85 can be viewed as mainly an effort to address long standing deficiencies in the government’s own discipline processes for dealing with private and charter school teachers, central office administrators who have elected non-membership in the ATA, and school superintendents and their chief deputies who are excluded by statute from having active membership in the ATA. The bill will also establish processes for the College of Alberta School Superintendents which will be taking on regulatory responsibilities for its members.
The most notable differences in the way the Association and government handle discipline cases concerns the relative transparency of the two processes. While hearing reports of teachers who are brought before the Association’s Professional Conduct Committee are a matter of the public record and are released to anyone requesting them, the government’s parallel process is shrouded in secrecy and its findings and penalties have never been made public.
Similarly, while a decision of the Association’s Professional Conduct Committee to suspend or cancel a teacher’s membership (and the ability to teach in a public, separate or francophone) is public, the minister’s decision on a recommendation that the teacher’s certificate be suspended or cancelled (a matter solely within the minister’s control) has not previously been made public.
Bill 85 makes provisions to address these issues through the creation of an online public database that would record the certification status of all teachers and also record whether they had ever had their certificates suspended or cancelled with a report of the circumstances under which that occurred.
I’ll note here another difference between the Association and the government’s processes that gives rise to confusion. When the Association suspends a teacher’s membership for a set period of time, once the term of the suspension has concluded, the teacher remains on suspension but may then make application through a fairly exacting and onerous process, including an additional hearing, to be reinstated to membership. This has happened exceptionally rarely and usually when the issue is the failure to pay a fine that was part of the penalty.
Effectively this means that the Association’s suspension of membership is functionally not much different from a cancellation. In contrast, it appears that suspensions of certification by the minister are time-certain, with the certificate being restored, effectively automatically, once the suspension has expired.
But the most significant and positive change enabled by Bill 85 is the facilitation of additional front-end approaches to managing complaints that may avoid the need to undertake a full investigation when one is not required and provide additional alternatives to proceeding to a professional conduct hearing. Currently our process is a lot like a judicial proceeding (and sometimes even more exacting). Every complaint must be investigated thoroughly and the process that leads to a hearing, and potential appeal, is very lengthy and resource intensive. Oftentimes, it does not satisfy either the complainant or the respondent.
Bill 85 will open up the possibility of developing and implementing new approaches that might better respond to members and the public while enhancing confidence in the Association’s commitment and ability to uphold high standards of professional conduct and practice. ❚
Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at email@example.com.