GSAs, class sizes, funding: Education earns campaign spotlight
Education was the main theme of Day 7 of the Alberta campaign trail.
The United Conservatives announced their education platform Monday morning at the private Calgary Jewish Academy.
Afterwards, public reaction was swiftest to Leader Jason Kenney’s proposal to replace the School Act with a 2014 piece of legislation called the Education Act.
While the Education Act does include a provision to allow GSAs, replacing the School Act would effectively erase protections brought in by the Alberta New Democratic Party preventing school officials from outing students in gay-straight alliances.
“We want safe schools, we want peer support for kids who need it, but I think we can do that by respecting the religious freedom of independent schools,” Kenney said on Monday.
When the NDP amended the School Act, it said there were loopholes in the Progressive Conservative legislation that were used to delay or deny students from trying to set up the LGBTQ-friendly clubs.
A flashpoint of the NDP legislation was a prohibition on school officials telling parents if their kids joined the clubs. Last summer, a coalition of faith-based schools, parents and public interest groups lost a bid to have a judge put the law on hold until there is a ruling on its constitutionality.
Commenting on how a UCP government would deal with any pushback from religious schools on gay-straight alliances, Kenney said: "Our approach would be one of co-operation rather than one of confrontation."
Kristopher Wells, an associate professor who specializes in sexual minority issues at Edmonton's MacEwan University, accused Kenney of taking a "back-door route" to undoing progress the NDP has made on LGBTQ rights.
“This is an attack on LGBTQ rights in the province," Wells said. "It's a move to undermine gay-straight alliances and has the ability to do real harm to LGBTQ students, who remain amongst one of the most vulnerable groups of students in our schools today."
Kenney also said his party would ensure all sex education in the province covered the topic of consent.
Other promises included maintaining or increasing funding through efficiencies like reducing administrative costs, building new schools, and auditing class sizes.
Funding freeze would be equivalent to a cut: school board trustees
Edmonton area school board trustees also asked politicians Monday to prioritize education during the rest of the campaign, rather than let pipelines and the economy dominate discussion.
At a conference at Rogers Place, trustees from the Edmonton Public Schools board and surrounding communities said 15,000 new students will join Alberta classrooms next year—enough to nearly fill the hockey stadium they stood in front of.
“Funding for growth needs to be reflected in all areas, in classroom funding, inclusive learning supports, student transportation and infrastructure,” EPSB Vice Chair Bridget Stirling said.
She called a freeze on funding growth equivalent to a cut.
“An EPSB report from September shows a freeze in growth would have an impact equivalent to 188 full-time positions. That means more students per teacher, fewer EAs to support in classrooms, and a reduction in specialized staff to student with special needs.”
Trustees gave the NDP government a B or B+ grade for how it allocated funding for education while in power, but said more needs be done.
They’re asking, at minimum, for all parties to promise funds for student enrollment growth next year.
“That arena full of students is coming, whether or not the funding is there for their education,” Stirling said.
“While some have claimed that education funding needs to wait until the economy recovers, our children don’t stop growing when the economy slows down. Students can’t wait for oil prices to rise to have the supports they need for success in school.”
At the UCP event in Calgary, the party promised a curriculum overhaul to give students “foundational competencies” and reinforcement of standardized testing, if elected.
“Basically that means, back to the basics. Let’s stop with the failed teaching fads,” Kenney said.
NDP Calgary-Buffalo candidate and Minister of Finance Joe Ceci responded to Kenney’s remarks, saying, “They talk about giving a $4.5 billion tax break to the richest corporations in this province, and the rest of us, including the students, will pay for it with poorer classrooms and fewer teachers.”
With files from Sarah Plowman and The Canadian Press