New Democrat leadership hopefuls chat with delegates in separate event
It was intended as an opportunity for Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) leaders to dialogue with those who would be Alberta’s next premier, but in the end, only Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk made the trek to Banff on August 11 to participate in a candidates’ forum at the opening session of Summer Conference.
Conversing with blogger and consultant Ken Chapman, Lukaszuk told delegates that running for the leadership of his party had afforded him the first opportunity to be himself in his 14-year political career. "What I find particularly rewarding is that … I get to be Thomas, I get to be myself and I get to paint a picture of tomorrow in Alberta the way I would like to see it, the way I think Albertans would like to see it."
Contrasting the "good relationship" he enjoyed with the ATA during his seven-month stint as minister of education in 2011/12 with the "acrimonious relationship" of the past year, Lukaszuk suggested that, as premier, he would reconstruct the former relationship in a hurry. "We’ve wasted a lot of time, and that is time that we can’t afford to waste any further," he said. "Our kids’ education and their future are at stake."
When asked about the role of standardized testing, Lukaszuk recalled the "epic battles" he had had with the Fraser Institute as minister of education. "Using PAT scores to grade schools is simply the wrong thing to do," he said, and provincial achievement tests, if they continue, should be administered at the beginning of the school year so that teachers can use them as a diagnostic tool.
Drawing applause, he described the 50–50 split between the school-awarded percentage and the diploma examination percentage of diploma examination course results as "not the way to go," identifying 70–30 as a starting point for discussion. "I put much more credence in teachers’ individualized assessment … than simply one snippet in time on [an] exam," he said.
When asked about how to ensure stable, predictable and adequate funding for schools, Lukaszuk pointed to the unstable and cyclical nature of government revenue and said he could not necessarily promise education a five per cent increase every year. Government must first focus on diversifying the economy and generating new revenue streams to reduce its reliance on oil, he said.
Education, health care and advanced education would be the three priority ministries under a Lukaszuk government, and all stakeholders, including the ATA, would play an "instrumental and constructive role" in drafting the provincial budget to allow for cross-pollination of ideas and to avoid surprises on budget day. "We’re all in this together," he said. "If you fail, we fail, and the fact is, when we deal with education, we simply cannot afford to fail."
A Lukaszuk government would also re-examine the funding formulas for persons with disabilities—from preschool, through school, to the workforce. He noted that Program Unit Funding (PUF) "works exceptionally well" but ceases the moment the child turns six "as if that child somehow changed." Government must look at ways at extending PUF "throughout the entire life of a child," he said.
Meanwhile, a Lukaszuk government would push the reset button on the relationship between government and the ATA. The minister of education would be expected to have a respectful relationship with the ATA and to consult the organization before making decisions. "If the world recognizes the ATA as a leader, why wouldn’t we over here?" Lukaszuk asked.
A video recording of the session with Lukaszuk has been posted to the Association website.
In an opposition response panel following the candidates’ forum, Wildrose education critic Bruce McAllister described the Task Force for Teaching Excellence as disrespectful of the teaching profession and as an example of the Progressive Conservatives’ "command-and-control" style of governance. "If I needed to fix an engine in my car … wouldn’t I ask a mechanic about that? I mean wouldn’t you go to the experts in the field if you wanted to improve?" Noting that there was no evidence of a problem to warrant the task force, he suggested that the pressing need for school infrastructure, not the teaching profession, should be government’s focus.
Liberal education critic Kent Hehr pointed out that, while the task force’s report contains some good recommendations, its primary goal is to divest the ATA of its professional responsibilities. New Democrat education critic Deron Bilous concurred, arguing that the task force had been established in bad faith because it had excluded the ATA’s voice and hence the voice of teachers.
The three education critics basically agreed on the fundamental purpose of public education. For McAllister, that purpose is to prepare children to be bright, well-rounded, creative, cared-for, compassionate, forward-thinking adults; for Hehr, it is to prepare children to be full citizens in a democratic society; and for Bilous, it is to prepare children to be citizens in life, regardless of the path they choose.
However, they disagreed on the role of choice in education. McAllister argued that choice strengthens the education system, pointing out that not all of the 160 to 170 private schools in the province are Webber academies. Hehr told delegates that, while his party welcomes choice within the public education system, parents who choose to send their children to private schools should bear the full cost of the privilege themselves. Bilous concurred, pointing out that public education should be publicly funded and publicly delivered and that private schools that serve niche markets should become part of the public system.
Later in the week, the three candidates for leadership of the Alberta New Democratic Party attended a social event and met with teacher delegates. David Eggen, Rod Loyola and Rachel Notley discussed education issues for over two hours and stuck around to record video interviews on education which will be posted to the Association’s website. PC leadership candidate Ric McIver also found time in his schedule to mingle with teachers at breakfast on Friday. ❚