A new session of the Alberta legislature got under way on March 8 when Lt. Gov. Lois Mitchell delivered the speech from the throne.
The throne speech, which sets out government’s agenda for the new session, focuses on diversifying energy markets; pursuing a coherent and effective economic strategy; investing in a greener, more sustainable economy; taking a responsible approach to public finances; and making democratic reforms to ensure accountability.
Mitchell vowed that, in taking a responsible approach to public finances, government would protect education services.
“The collapse of the price of oil and therefore of public resource revenues has gone directly to our province’s bottom line. In these circumstances the government of Alberta cannot meet current deficit targets because the commodity price crash has proved to be deeper and of longer duration than projected. Alberta’s fiscal plans must therefore be revisited as part of the prudent, balanced approach my government will set out in its budget later this spring,” Mitchell said.
“We will protect health care and education services. In the circumstances we face, we will also ensure that all public spending, including on these services, is carefully and efficiently managed and that all possible economies are found.”
Mitchell also vowed that government would continue to invest in infrastructure, including schools.
“Alberta is investing $34 billion into our provincial capital plan to help build the roads, transit, schools and other facilities our province needs to support the economy and create jobs,” she said.
Here are highlights of some of the education and public sector-related issues raised in question period.
Student learning assessments
March 14 — Mark Smith (W—Drayton Valley–Devon) cited an Alberta Teachers’ Association survey showing that almost three-quarters of Grade 3 teachers believe that the student learning assessment (SLA) pilot is of little benefit to students. Suggesting that parents have not received information about their child’s achievement relative to expected outcomes for two years, he asked Minister of Education David Eggen whether he would listen to teachers and cancel the failed pilot.
“I’m open to looking for ways to more effectively use the student learning assessment tool so that it is diagnostic and it helps our kids to learn and parents to understand what they are learning,” Eggen replied.
Smith asked Eggen whether he would reinstate provincial achievement tests (PATs) until the issues surrounding the student learning assessments have been resolved. Eggen pointed out that Grade 3 students are very young.
“It’s very important that we design diagnostic tools that will help the teachers be able to build a program for kids but not make it onerous on seven-year-olds, putting in PATs,” he said.
Smith asked Eggen to explain why he is ignoring teachers, parents and education experts who are telling him that the pilots are a waste of time and money that do little to improve student learning.
“I’m listening very carefully to teachers,” Eggen replied. “I know as a teacher myself that the best tool that we have to determine the outcomes for students is to maintain the professionalism of teachers and the integrity of their capacity to analyze where their kids should go. We will give them any assistance along the way to do so, diagnostic tools such as SLAs, other ways to make sure that kids learn and get the best education possible.”
Public service compensation
March 14 — Wildrose leader Brian Jean reported that his caucus has been recommending that government negotiate a wage freeze with public sector workers. He also reported that Alberta Health Services has been offering raises to its employees for 2016 and 2017. He asked Premier Rachel Notley whether government’s policy is to offer raises on all new public sector contracts.
Notley replied that the negotiations to which Jean was referring were begun by the previous government and that, as a result, her government is somewhat bound by them.
“But let me be very clear,” she said. “Going forward, that set of negotiations will not form the pattern for new negotiations.”
Jean asked Notley why government is offering raises to public sector workers when private sector workers are taking massive pay cuts. Notley reiterated that the negotiations to which Jean was referring were begun 12 to 18 months earlier.
“We are bound by the positions that were taken, to some extent, at that point,” she said. “We will, however, take an exceptionally prudent approach going forward. These negotiations do not in any way shape or form the pattern for future negotiations going forward,” she said.
Job creation and retention
March 9 — Karen McPherson (ND—Calgary-Mackay–Nose Hill) asked Minister of Economic Development and Trade Deron Bilous why, given the state of the province’s economy, government is not looking at making further cuts to spending, especially in high-cost areas such as health care and education.
“Quite frankly, we’re not going to make a bad situation worse,” Bilous replied. “Now, I recognize that the opposition would love to believe that firing nurses, doctors, teachers, front-line staff is the way to help the economy rebound, but quite frankly it’s clear that Albertans want an economy that’s resilient to energy price swings, which is why we’re focusing on building on our strengths in the agriculture and forestry sectors, in clean tech, partnering with tourism and leveraging what we’re already doing well.” ❚