First elected in 2015 in Chestermere-Rocky View, Leela Aheer is the newest education shadow minister for the Wildrose Party, taking over from Mark Smith on Dec. 16.
A trained musician with experience in performance and providing private training, Aheer has also been involved in a number of family-owned businesses over the years, including property investment, a car wash and a gas station. Born in Edmonton, she completed her grade school years in Chestermere and graduated from Chestermere High School.
Wildrose shadow minister shares her views on public education
Can you briefly describe your educational background and your career prior to 2015, when you made the decision to run for provincial office?
I completed high school in Chestermere in 1988, then travelled for a year to India and Europe, where I studied French. Then I moved to India for about 10 months, experiencing the deep, deep heat of summer and mango season at its best, which was something else. I have family spread across the entire continent, so I travelled across the country all by myself. It was probably the best educational experience I’ve had in my entire life. I came home and missed my first year of university because I had contracted hepatitis, and I was in quarantine for at least a month.
When I returned to school, I studied political science with the intention of working for the United Nations as a translator. This was during the Kuwait war, and I quickly became disillusioned. I ended up taking a year off and then went into music and earned a bachelor degree.
I then got married and moved to Winnipeg to follow a music teacher. The music culture in Winnipeg was absolutely fantastic. Following that, I opened up a music studio in Chestermere, teaching there for 22 years, where I had five choirs and 29 music students. I was also hired as a private consultant to do music with special needs kids. It was a wonderful, beautiful experience having the privilege of dealing with parents, and I think it has prepared me well for this role.
Looking back on your experiences in elementary and secondary school, which teacher would you say had the most influence on you and why?
My Grade 2 teacher in Bonavista, Ms. Sathers, was so kind. We were in a large portable that had wooden stairs going down to a muddy playground, and it didn’t matter how high her heels were or how pretty a dress she was in, she came out and kicked soccer balls around with us. I remember her reading us Charlotte’s Web, and that changed my life.
What do you see as the strengths of Alberta’s public education system, and how do you intend to use your role as education critic to build on those strengths?
I’m a child of public education, so I love the fact that we have so much choice in this province for education. Choice in education is [so] important…. Edmonton Public schools have some really magnificent ways that they’ve managed to incorporate some diversity into their public system. Public education provides education to all children and in every community, and there is just something incredible about building those kinds of communities.
Schools are like that — they’re mini-communities. There’s a lot of diversity now, whether that [be] language barriers or kids who are refugees or who have experienced all sorts of trauma or who have special needs. You’re bringing all of these wonderful communities together. It’s humbling to see 690,000 public students all in 61 school authorities, as a person just looking at the whole thing. I’m very proud to participate in the portfolio and to be able to support public schools.
What do you see as the biggest issues facing Alberta’s public education system?
My top concern is, are the dollars getting into the classroom and making it to teachers and supports for the teachers in the classroom? The second concern is clarity, including assessments, teacher supports, the Education Act. We’ve asked a lot of questions about Bill 1, An Act to Reduce School Fees, because it looks great on paper, but you have to make sure there’s clarity around what that’s actually going to do.
The curriculum rewrite has also been a concern for us because it’s the largest one we’ve ever seen, and the entire K–12 is being done over six years. When curriculum rewrites have been done in the past, they were elongated for a reason, because you have to have a couple of years sometimes for teachers to have supports and the PD required to learn how to bring the new curriculum to life. So I would love more clarity about the rollout of the curriculum, and an understanding of who’s involved with it, and I think Albertans are wanting to know.
Another concern I have is around complex learning needs. Teachers will rise to the occasion on almost any level, but I just don’t know if they always have the supports in the classroom to be able to do that.
What are you hearing from parents, teachers and other constituents about class size this school year?
We’ve seen that where class sizes should probably be their smallest is where they are their largest, as in elementary. That’s where it’s really, really important that they have small class sizes. That’s when the kids are really connecting and their brains are just sponges and they want to participate.
What is your view of the state of education funding in Alberta?
We hear all the time about predictable, sustainable funding. What that means for me is that we have clarity about getting the dollars into the classroom. You can have whatever budget you want over here on the left side, and there’s so many things that will contribute to what your budget looks like. If you have clarity and the system understands what you’re dealing with, those people are going to rally around. These are educators; they care about the children. These are school boards; they care about their teachers. There is a community of people. But you have to be able to look at a budget and understand how that gets into the classroom, or … does it go into infrastructure? These are questions we ask on a regular basis. We don’t have line items in this budget to even know what is going where.
What would the Wildrose’s budget for Alberta Education have looked like this year?
What we would focus on is trying to understand what that budget actually looks like. For me it’s not necessarily the number that’s over here because you’re getting your funding through enrolment, or funding based on property tax, all of those kinds of things. Now it’s a matter of how do those dollars go from there to here? So that would be my focus, and I wish I had more information about budget, but it’s very unclear how that all breaks down.
Do you believe that inclusive education is working in Alberta? Why or why not? How would a Wildrose government ensure that the necessary supports are in place to facilitate inclusive education?
I have a very personal perspective on this. It could be a buzzword if the school community doesn’t actually believe in it. Leadership is important. If children come from having their first teacher being their parent or guardian, and if the school systems show leadership in inclusion, I believe with all my heart that children will follow that. You see some schools that are just phenomenal in this aspect — they are just beautiful places to look at to see how they have worked with diversity and made those inclusive environments where there is absolutely no question that the child is the top priority in that school.
What is your caucus’s vision for the public education system?
More than half of us here are public school kids, so our vision is to continue to support it as it would be supported right now, along with choice in education. We’re extremely proud of the fact that our education system has been the one that people look to for examples of testing and curriculum. We’re absolute lovers and supporters of the public system.
Is there anything else you would like to share with teachers and other readers of the ATA News?
I am humbled and proud to participate in this portfolio and the amazing people I get to work with. I’m very grateful to be in this portfolio. My job is to listen to make sure that, when you’re creating policy, it’s living and breathing. It has to accommodate so many different things. It takes time and energy and a really thoughtful process and common sense to make sure that all of those things are taken into consideration, and that your teachers are supported and those dollars are getting into the classrooms. ❚