Government promising more choice with charter schools, unfunded homeschooling in Bill 15
EDMONTON -- A bill tabled in the Alberta legislature Thursday could result in a future NAIT collegiate high school, easier creation of charter schools, and less oversight for homeschool programs if passed.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange's Bill 15, the Choice in Education Act, will protect guardians' "fundamental human right" to a say in their child's education and increase their ability to exercise it, Premier Jason Kenney said.
"This legislation enshrines the belief of Albertans in freedom, diversity, pluralism and choice," he commented during a news conference.
"As well as parental responsibility, because we believe that parents know better than politicians and bureaucrats about what’s in the best interest of their kids.”
'REINVENT THE VOCATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL'
Among the smaller amendments the bill proposes making to the Education Act are a reference to Section 26.3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights about parental say in education, and wording to recognize different kinds of school programming and their importance in the Alberta system.
But beyond gestures, the bill would allow applications for new charter schools to bypass local board approval and land directly on the desk of the education minister.
The government says the division and other schools in the area would still be included in a "conversation" regarding the application, but that the move would effectively quicken the process and make better use of tax dollars.
According to Kenney, the Alberta government has saved $1.8 billion over the last eight years by offering choices other than public programming, as independent and homeschooling costs are lower.
And, he commented, "choice means competition, and competition means better outcomes."
However, the chair of Edmonton Public School Board called charter schools "a threat" to public education and the dollars put into it.
“We know that charter schools don’t actually have to take every student that applies and although they receive the full funding a public school receives they aren’t publicly accessible for all students in the same way public schools are,” Trisha Estabrooks said.
Alberta Teachers Association President Jason Schilling added his concern was that public schools wouldn't have as direct a say in any charter programs that are created in their division.
Schilling added 93 per cent of Alberta students attend public, separate and Francophone schools.
"We believe that parents and teachers want to see those students most supported."
The Official Opposition said the changes would ultimately Americanize Alberta's school system.
"It may not be a total voucher system, but I think it is a bit of a loophole to get more money into the hands of schools that didn't exist before and don't fulfil the mandate of public, Catholic or Francophone education," NDP MLA Sarah Hoffman said.
LaGrange said she foresees no ripple effect happening to funding allocation, since charter schools are publicly funded like public schools.
"Those dollars follow the student."
The change would also make it possible to create vocational high schools, such as a NAIT collegiate high school.
"We are paving the way to reinvent the vocational high school because we believe that as Albertans, a practical and experiential learning like vocation learning can prepare young people for fulfilling lifetime careers," the premier said.
While the Edmonton Public Schools told CTV News Edmonton it is committed to partnering with the Catholic school district and NAIT to establish the Collegiate School for Science, Technology and Trades, it has neither been made aware of provincial funding for the project or found a suitable site in Blatchford.
According to NAIT, the proposal was put on the province's back burner until 2019 but its goal remains the same: "to enhance educational pathways that address critical skills shortages; and to promote the opportunities of technology-based careers, including within the skilled trades."
Bill 15 also proposes allowing parents to homeschool their children without supervision of their local school board or authority.
Instead, they would have to notify the government of their plans to do so and submit a home curriculum that "demonstrates sufficient opportunity to achieve … appropriate learning outcomes."
The ATA's response was critical.
"Unsupervised home education should be a concern to all Albertans,” Schilling said.
"A child’s right to a quality education must not be sacrificed in the name of parental choice."
Currently, homeschooled students are entitled to some instructional funding and evaluated by a school authority twice a year.
Under the new model, parents wouldn't receive any money.
The bill was created, in part, with feedback from an opt-in survey of 57,000 Albertans. A majority of respondents reported they were satisfied with the amount of school choice in Alberta and the information available about their options.
“With 62 per cent of respondents being satisfied with the current level of choice, it is essential that government takes steps to protect it," LaGrange said.
"Additionally, with almost 40 per cent of respondents stating they were not satisfied with the current level of choice, it demonstrates still room for improvement.”
There were about 17,000 other participants whose feedback was not included in numerical data due to improperly filling out the survey.
More than half, 61 per cent, identified as parents or guardians. Most – 70 per cent – were women and most – 74 per cent – live in urban areas.
A little less than half, 41 per cent, identified themselves as parents in the public system, while 20.5 per cent have children in a separate school program.
BREACH OF PRIVILEGE
Bill 15 saw one other point of contention raised between the NDP and UCP caucuses on Thursday, driven by the UCP's holding of technical and media briefings and no Official Opposition briefing that morning.
The NDP called it an obstruction to its ability to act as the Official Opposition and a contempt of the legislative assembly.
"When that happens, the members of the Opposition can't do their job because they're being questioned by members of the media on behalf of Albertans, asked to provide their analysis of the bill, and they haven't been given the same opportunity as the media to examine it," NDP Leader Rachel Notley told media.
UCP Government House Leader Jason Nixon responded: "That's ridiculous."
Nixon said the cancelled briefings aren't mandated.
Assembly Speaker Nathan Cooper said he would review the accusations and report back to the house on Monday.
With files from CTV News Edmonton's Nicole Weisberg