Government to work on essential services legislation — labour minister
Education attracted a fair amount of attention as the legislature continued its spring sitting.
On March 16, Minister of Education Gordon Dirks introduced Bill 19, the Education Amendment Act, 2015. The government bill, which has received third reading, makes largely administrative amendments to the Education Act with the purpose of providing clarity and accuracy, and ensuring alignment with other legislation, including the recently amended Local Authorities Election Act, and with Alberta Education’s regulatory review.
That same day, PC MLA Mary Anne Jablonski introduced Bill 206, the Childhood Comprehensive Eye Examination Act. The private member’s bill, which awaits second reading and would die on the order paper if the legislature is dissolved for a provincial general election, requires every child to receive a comprehensive eye examination before starting Grade 1.
On March 23, Minister of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Ric McIver introduced Bill 24, the Public Sector Services Continuation Repeal Act. The government bill, which has received third reading, repeals the unproclaimed Public Sector Services Continuation Act. Otherwise known as Bill 45 of 2013, the Public Sector Services Continuation Act would have increased significantly the penalties that could be applied in the case of an illegal strike or the threat of an illegal strike. It would have applied only to unions and workers who are not permitted to strike under the Labour Relations Code and Public Service Employee Relations Act. It would not have applied to teachers working in the public education system.
Here are highlights of some of the education issues raised in question period between March 16 and March 26 when the legislature adjourned, ostensibly until April 13:
March 25 — Noting that 80,000 people are expected to move to Alberta in 2015, New Democrat MLA Deron Bilous asked Dirks to explain how the government could hold the line on spending and still provide the teachers and support staff necessary for student success. Dirks replied that Alberta has one of the best education systems in the world both because government invests $38 million per day in education and because the province has “very high-quality teachers.”
Citing large class sizes and staff shortages, Bilous asked Dirks to explain how government would staff new schools with “a hold-the-line budget.” Dirks replied that government is making “great progress” on building new schools.
Citing a lack of support for students with special needs, Bilous asked Dirks to explain how government would support the children of 80,000 new Albertans. “One of the strengths of Alberta is our education system. That’s one of the reasons why people move to this province,” replied Dirks. “We do value every student, and we particularly value those who have special needs. We provide school boards with $38 million a day. We trust them to make wise judgments about how they’re going to allocate those dollars so that all of our special-needs children are going to be appropriately educated.”
Public service right to strike
March 17 — Noting that the Supreme Court of Canada had recently concluded that the right to strike is a fundamental freedom, New Democrat David Eggen asked McIver whether government would repeal Bill 45 of 2013. The bill, which does not apply to teachers working in the public education system, increases significantly the penalties that can be applied when there is an illegal strike or the threat of an illegal strike.
“We are going to go ahead and work on essential services legislation,” replied McIver. “If the topic of Bill 45 comes up, we will listen to what our employees’ and their representatives’ concerns are, and we will take those seriously.”
Eggen asked McIver whether government is prepared to pay $1 million per day for “unjust and unconstitutional laws that remain on the books.” McIver replied that his ministry would study the Supreme Court’s decision. Eggen asked McIver to affirm that he would not enforce Bill 45. McIver replied that government cannot enforce legislation that has not been proclaimed.
March 16 — Alberta Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman asked Dirks whether he would eliminate school fees — a “regressive school tax.” Dirks replied that school boards are responsible for setting school fees, which cannot be used to fund “basic education services.”
Noting that Albertans pay an average of $286 per student in school fees, Blakeman asked Dirks why government allows boards to tax parents at four to five times the national average. Dirks replied that Alberta leads or is “almost at the top” in Canada in terms of the amount of government funding boards receive. He added that boards have the right to augment that funding for “nonbasic educational activities.”
Blakeman suggested that government does not provide boards with sufficient funding, given that average school fees amount to $286 per student. Dirks replied that government spends $38 million per day on education and is “at the high end” in Canada in terms of per-student spending.
March 25 — Noting that government had fired the board of trustees of Northland School Division in 2010 “because of poor student attendance and a lack of progress . . . in educating our kids,” Alberta Liberal Kent Hehr pointed out that, according to a recent auditor general’s report, as many as one-third of the division’s students are chronically absent. He asked Dirks why his ministry has not made any progress on the file. “It’s a matter of deep concern to me that a report has come forward indicating that there is a significant number of children who are not regularly in attendance at school,” replied Dirks. “I’ve met with the auditor. We’ve had a good discussion on this matter, and we have every intention of working with the official trustee to ensure that we are putting a good plan in place to ameliorate this attendance problem.” He added that he is moving in the direction of an elected board, which will provide “solid governance.”
Inspiring Education and curriculum design
March 24 — PC MLA Sandra Jansen reported that a constituent had recently expressed concern about a “zones of regulation concept” being taught at her son’s school. According to www.zonesofregulation.com, “the Zones curriculum provides strategies to teach students to become more aware of, and independent in controlling their emotions and impulses, managing their sensory needs, and improving their ability to problem solve conflicts.”
Jansen asked Dirks whether Inspiring Education had initially been “subject to flexibility.” Dirks replied that zones of regulation is not part of Inspiring Education or the curriculum. “Resource decisions and pedagogy decisions like zones of regulation are made at the local level,” he said. Jansen asked Dirks whether government had reviewed the efficacy of Inspiring Education since its introduction in 2013.
“Alberta Education does not dictate teacher practices within the classroom. We respect our teaching professionals, and we value their hard work,” replied Dirks. “We continue to use this aspirational document [Inspiring Education] as we move forward in the development of a world-class education system.”
March 16 — Interim Liberal leader David Swann asked Premier Jim Prentice whether government favours mandatory school vaccinations. Minister of Health Stephen Mandel replied that, while government believes “deeply” in vaccinations, it also believes in the value of public consultation.
Swann asked Prentice how government could come up with a credible plan to ensure that children are immunized when Mandel and Dirks cannot agree. Mandel replied that he and Dirks do agree on the importance of both immunization and public consultation. Swann asked when government would put children’s health and safety ahead of politics.
“We always put the health of our children ahead of . . . politics and everything else,” replied Mandel. ❚