Springtime means education politics are heating up
It’s rare that you get a March day in Edmonton when the temperature hits 20 degrees. But such was the case last Saturday when hundreds of teachers met for the Association’s annual political engagement seminar. Pursuading delegates to leave the sunny downtown patio overlooking the river valley in favour of the hotel ballroom was challenging but not impossible. After all, for political geeks, the program was captivating.
The premiere morning event was an all-party forum on public education, which was followed by an all-star panel of political commentators, including political science professor Duane Bratt, pollster Janet Brown and Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons.
The all-party panel featured Alberta Liberal Party interim leader David Swann, Alberta New Democratic Party education critic Deron Bilous and Wild-
rose Party candidate Sharon Smith. The Progressive Conservative party declined to send a representative to the event, which was livestreamed online and promoted heavily to teachers. (You can view the archive footage by visiting the ATA website atwww.teachers.ab.caa.)
Should teachers be concerned that the governing party would choose to ignore such an important opportunity to connect with teachers and discuss issues in public education? Brown and Simons suggested not. Brown told delegates that the first sign of an imminent election is that the PCs start avoiding political forums. Simons tweeted that she understands why the PCs avoid forums like this one: “little strategic upside for them. Still …”
Nobody is really expecting a terribly competitive provincial election this spring. Expect the PCs to take a cautious and measured approach to their campaign: avoid embarrassment, don’t get trapped on contentious issues and focus on the leader. A two-hour political forum where the opposition parties have the opportunity to land a number of body shots against a less-experienced minister doesn’t fit with that strategy. In this case, anger over worsening classroom conditions and recent talk of unsustainable salaries from the premier could have made for a problematic audience.
But, still …
It is fundamentally important, in spite of this political environment, that teachers engage in this provincial election.
Bratt suggested at the forum that turnout for this election could be the worst that Alberta has ever seen. While a competitive election drew 54 per cent of eligible voters to polls in 2012, that number was a blip in a 15-year trend of declining turnout that bottomed out at 40 per cent in 2008. Bratt estimated that turnout this year would likely dip below 40 per cent and could get close to 30.
This is a significant and troubling problem for democracy in Alberta, but it is also an opportunity. As voting turnout declines, each individual vote increases in relative value. Our ability to get teachers engaged in the election and out to the polls will help ensure that the interests of teachers and public education are well represented in the next legislature.
Engaging parents and other supporters of public education is also important, as our public opinion polling shows that those with a connection to education — parents, family of teachers, other school employees — are likely to feel the same way as teachers in a wide variety of policy areas.
Even if the outcome of the election or your local race seems predetermined, that doesn’t mean that the activity of teachers and their supporters will not have an effect. The more engaged, active and vocal we are during the campaign period, the more education will stick as an issue that matters in the minds of the winning candidates.
The Association takes a non-partisan approach that’s designed to position education as an important issue and the interests of teachers favourably in the minds of candidates. Ideally, candidates should feel that they won, in part, because they were seen to be helpful to the cause of education and supportive of teachers.
This is important because it means that, as the new legislature is assembled, the governing party will want to ensure it lands on the right side of educational decisions going forward and opposition parties will hold up education as an important issue to hold the government to account.
The Association and its locals will be engaging in a number of activities designed to engage teachers and promote public education in the upcoming election. You will be asked to help. We hope you will join us. The future of public education and your own well-being depend on it. ❚
I welcome your comments — contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.