Meet the minister

November 22, 2011 Shelley Svidal, ATA News Staff

Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk

Thomas Lukaszuk vows to employ child-centred litmus test

Thomas Lukaszuk is enthusiastic about his recent appointment as minister of education. Just three weeks into his new portfolio, he looks forward to promoting what British Prime Minister David Cameron has described as the best education system in the English-speaking world.

“I’m really looking forward to working with teachers in a partnership and making sure that our Alberta education system retains its position in the world,” he says. “At the end of the day, what is really important to me is that children receive high-quality, well-rounded education and are then released into this world as wholesome human beings who can compete in any realm, ­academically, socially, emotionally and in other ways—and we’re good at this.”

Born in Poland, Lukaszuk immigrated to Canada in 1982, enrolling in Grade 6 in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Because the school did not offer English as an additional language programming, he repeated Grade 6 when his family moved to Edmonton the following year. After graduating from St. Joseph Catholic High School, Lukaszuk attended Concordia University College of Alberta and the University of Alberta, graduating from the latter with a bachelor of education degree. Following a brief stint as a teacher, he founded Injured Workers Advocates Inc., a firm designed to assist injured workers with work-related injury claims. He folded the company when he was elected MLA for Edmonton-Castle Downs in 2001. In 2008, he was appointed parliamentary assistant to the minister of municipal affairs, and in 2010, he was named to cabinet as minister of employment and immigration, a portfolio he held until his ­appointment as minister of education last month.

Lukaszuk credits Margaret Hogan, his high school English teacher, for setting him on that path. A self-described shy student, Lukaszuk says the understanding and extroverted Hogan encouraged him to take up public speaking. He nominated her for an Excellence in Teaching Award.

William Dacyshyn, his high school social studies teacher, taught the young Lukaszuk that he would do exceptionally well if only he applied himself. “He challenged me and almost guilted me into studying and proving him wrong, and then I ended up getting some of the top marks in social studies in Grade 11 and 12,” Lukaszuk says. “He had this way of motivating you but causing you to become harder and more demanding on yourself, just by simply pressing the right ­buttons. He was a very experienced teacher.”

As minister, Lukaszuk vows to challenge all education partners to approach issues from the perspective of what is best for the child, his litmus test. “My focus will always be on the kids,” he says. “I will be asking Albertans when they are making decisions and when they are providing me with advice . . . ‘Is this the best decision for the child at the desk?’ and if it is, then that is the advice that I will be more than happy to follow.”

Lukaszuk identifies choice as one of the primary strengths of the province’s education system. “We have a healthy, constructive, child-focused competition among educators, offering students and parents a variety of educational settings,” he says. “We have very well-prepared teachers, who are passionate about the work that they do. . . . We have infrastructure and technology in schools that allows teachers to adopt some of the most modern teaching strategies.”

At the same time, he readily acknowledges the system’s challenges, including First Nations, Métis and Inuit education. Indeed, improving the quality of the educational experiences of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students—both on and off reserve—is one of his priorities for his new portfolio. “That [Aboriginal] child is entitled to receive equitable education, comparable to any other child anywhere else in Alberta,” he says. “We have some significant work to be done in that area.”

Lukaszuk would also like to create a climate in which education partners can talk about education, pedagogy and children while setting aside divisive issues, such as labour issues. “Those tend to get in the way—they’re polarizing, they’re time consuming [and] they’re energy draining—and I think if we can bring some peace into those issues that are really noneducational, we can focus on some of the stuff that really ­matters,” he says. “If we’re not willing to discuss education, then there are no collective agreements to be worrying about because we’re not doing what we should be doing in the first place.”

Noting that tripartite discussions among government, the Alberta Teachers’ Association and the Alberta School Boards ­Association have recently resumed, Lukaszuk says he would like to see as their ultimate outcome “a situation where we have the ability of bringing to the table a degree of funding stability. By doing so, we will be in a position not to concentrate for the next few years on labour negotiations and collective agreement negotiations and instead, as I said earlier, doing what we are really paid for by Albertans and discussing matters of education, matters of ­actual importance to students.” He adds that the tripartite approach has proven constructive before. “I’m hoping we can replicate [the 2007 memorandum of agreement] and extend it for as long a period as possible,” he says.

During the Progressive Conservative leadership election, then candidate Alison Redford talked about providing stable, predictable education funding on a three-year cycle. Acknowledging that both education and health care would benefit from stable funding, Lukaszuk points out that such stability would make school boards’ work easier and more predictable and do away with ongoing pilot projects and one-time enveloped funding, “which sometimes, in the long run, create more problems than they actually solve.” At the same time, he notes that providing funding stability could be tricky because the province’s revenue fluctuates on the basis of the global economic situation and commodity prices. To that end, he would like to look into mechanisms with Treasury Board to shelter the education system from some of those fluctuations. He would also like to re-examine existing funding models and formulas. “Bringing stability just to perpetuate what you’re doing may not be the answer unless you know that what you have been doing actually is the best way of doing business,” he says.

During the leadership election, Redford also talked about re-­examining section 11 of the Alberta Human Rights Act, which allows parents to exempt their children from classroom discussions of religion, sexuality and sexual orientation. Lukaszuk points out that any decision on that issue rests with government caucus. “As elected officials, we’re elected not to superimpose our own personal or religious views on the rest of Alberta. We’re elected to represent the views of our constituents,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’ll make that decision, but it will make for an interesting but a healthy caucus discussion, to be sure.”

Lukaszuk lauds former minister of education Dave Hancock for initiating Inspiring Education, which engaged Albertans in frank, open conversations about education. In fact, he would like to convert the project into an ongoing dialogue. “We should always be engaged in constructive, critical discussions relevant to our education system,” he says, adding that there are no taboo topics where education is concerned.

He would also like to examine the provincial achievement testing program to develop a mechanism that would allow government to continue to obtain the data it requires while dispensing with issues, such as misuse of data by third parties and undue student angst, associated with the current program. To that end, he intends to ask Genia Leskiw, chair of the Cabinet Policy Committee on Education and MLA for Bonnyville–Cold Lake, to develop a forum for dialogue on the topic. “There are different modalities of testing that I think would satisfy both parties,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be black and white.”

While Lukaszuk is open to examining the role of charter schools in education, he stresses that he is a proponent of choice. “Having healthy, constructive, child-focused competition is good. That’s why we are where we are as an education system. It’s obviously not detracting. If we were a system that was struggling nationally and internationally and one could point to the existence of one player in the system as partial or total cause of it, then I can see the concern. But if we have a system that is actually excelling, then I don’t see the concern,” he says.

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