Where do we stand? Alberta's education landscape for a new school year

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Welcome to a new school year!  

The education landscape in Alberta has certainly experienced some significant shifts since the end of June and PCE is here to provide you with an important update.

 

Provincial government eliminates Bill 24 clauses

The new UCP government passed Bill 8 over the summer, switching Alberta's foundation education legislation from the School Act to the new Education Act, as of September 1st

That switch has eliminated all the legislative changes which were made by the NDP through Bill 24 (if you need a refresher on what was included in the NDP’s Bill 24, read our blog article from November 2017).

Thankfully, this change means that provincial legislation no longer explicitly forbids communication between schools and parents, nor offers a free pass for clubs and activities to offer sexual and religious content without any parental notification/opportunity to opt-out. 

PCE applauds all the parents and citizens who have pushed for these important changes over the past several years. Your efforts have made a difference – thank you!

 

Why does enforced secrecy remain a reality in many Alberta schools?

Even though provincial laws have been changed to remove enforced secrecy, important work remains to be done. 

While 87 MLAs are responsible to set provincial laws from the legislature, there are also school board trustees elected within each public and Separate (Catholic) school division who are responsible to set the policies, procedures and practices at the local level.

In 2017, the provincial NDP government used the strongarm of the law via Bill 24 to compel all school boards in Alberta to have specific clauses in their "Safe and Caring" policies, including the exact wording which prohibited certain communication with parents. 

The fact that some independent faith-based schools refused to do so is what triggered the Bill 24 court challenge, led by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.

Here's the present reality:  

Even though the provincial government no longer requires enforced secrecy to be a part of "Safe and Caring" policies, the majority of public and Separate (Catholic) school divisions, and even some private schools, have not yet made any changes to their policies. 

This means that staff within many schools in Alberta continue to be prohibited from using their professional judgement to communicate openly with parents and enforced secrecy still remains a reality.

However, there is now a key difference as to the source of the problem: the choice to explicitly prohibit communication with parents now lies in the hands of elected school board trustees, instead of provincial government MLAs.

That said, PCE is in the midst of researching policies for all public and Separate (Catholic) school divisions, and will soon publish a resource to help parents and citizens:

  • Clearly understand which school divisions still include enforced secrecy in their policies.
  • Locate the contact information of school board trustees responsible for setting school board policies in order to effectively advocate for changes.

If you would like to be part of the volunteer team who is researching these policies, please email admin@parentchoice.ca

 

FOIP/PIPA questions

A two page “Advisory on Disclosing a Student’s Participation in a School Club” was released by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) of Alberta in June.

While this release was an attempt to clarify the parameters of FOIP and PIPA regarding student privacy, it has led to further questions.  PCE intends to pursue these questions with the OIPC.

 

New curriculum advisory panel announced

According to an August 22nd CBC News article:

The Alberta government has appointed an independent panel of experts to help develop new school curriculum across the province, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced Thursday.

The advisory panel will review and build on the work already done and move forward with an initial report to the minister by December. The wider public engagement process is scheduled to begin early next year.

The previous redesign conducted under the former NDP government was focused too heavily on what is called "discovery learning," LaGrange said.

Asked what the rest of the timeline would look like, LaGrange said she hopes to have changes start rolling out as of 2020.

"I've given them the latitude to go wide and broad and to bring back the recommendations, and then we'll just have to distil that information," LaGrange said.

The province is committed to moving toward an education system that ensures students "have a strong foundation of essential skills and knowledge, something we heard loud and clear from parents," the province said Thursday in a news release.

"It is critical that we get this right," LaGrange said at Thursday's announcement at St. Teresa of Calcutta Elementary School in Edmonton.

Further information is available on the Alberta government website.

 

CBC Radio interview: Education choice supports students

Thank you to CBC Calgary Eyeopener for inviting Donna Trimble, Executive Director of Parents for Choice in Education, to do an interview highlighting the benefits of school choice.

Critics of education choice seem to suggest that expanding choice means eroding a strong public education system.

However, as Donna shares in the interview, a strong public education system is one that meets the needs of ALL children.  And the best way to meet the needs of all children is to offer a diversity of choices. 

You can listen to the full interview by clicking here or on the picture below.

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Citizen Action Team

PCE continues to build an action team of citizens who are committed to getting more involved in order to strengthen freedom and education choice in our province.

We will be hosting video conference training sessions throughout the year, sharing key information regarding specific, targeted opportunities that arise. This network will proactively work to support families and freedoms in the area of education going forward.

If you are interested in being part of this key team of people, please e-mail Theresa Ng, PCE Communications Advisor, at tng@parentchoice.ca for more information.

 

Voluntary student organizations: More than GSAs

With all the controversy over the summer about Bill 8 and the new Education Act, it’s important to set the record straight: the law popularly represented as pertaining only to GSAs, actually extends far beyond just this one type of club.

In fact, what has been - and continues to be - protected in law are the establishment of “voluntary student organizations” and their activities. 

Below are the specific clauses from section 35.1 of the Education Act, followed by an explanation of how this section of law continues to impact Alberta schools.  

Note the wording of this section remains mostly unchanged from the former School Act, with the exception of removing one word (“immediately”) that had been added by the NDP’s Bill 24.

 

Support for student organizations (Education Act, section 35.1)

35.1(1) If one or more students attending a school operated by a board request a staff member employed by the board for support to establish a voluntary student organization, or to lead an activity intended to promote a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment that respects diversity and fosters a sense of belonging, the principal of the school shall

(a) permit the establishment of the student organization or the holding of the activity at the school, and

(b) designate a staff member to serve as the staff liaison to facilitate the establishment, and the ongoing operation, of the student organization or to assist in organizing the activity.

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), an organization or activity includes an organization or activity that promotes equality and non-discrimination with respect to, without limitation, race, religious belief, colour, gender, gender identity, gender expression, physical disability, mental disability, family status or sexual orientation, including but not limited to organizations such as gay-straight alliances, diversity clubs, anti-racism clubs and anti-bullying clubs.

 

Fact 1:

The law clearly specifies these clubs and activities exist for multiple factors “including but not limited to” physical or mental disability, religious belief, family status, etc.

While this legislation is popularly represented in the media as pertaining only to sexual and gender minority clubs, it actually opens the door to all sorts of clubs in our K-12 schools that have legal jurisdiction to exist outside the authority of school staff and parents.

As stated in a March 2015 PCE column published in the Edmonton Journal:

“the Alberta government has opened a veritable Pandora’s box of club requests around issues for which children may feel they are being discriminated - race, religious belief, colour, family status — you name it. The conflicts between any number of clubs within the same school, or contradictions between clubs and the central culture of the schools themselves, will result in unforeseen negative consequences across the system…  the legislation does not preclude other clubs that meet vague and subjective criteria.”

 

Fact 2:

Every principal of every school in Alberta must say “yes” whenever any single student – of any age – asks to start a “voluntary student organization” or insists upon a related school-wide activity – whether that be a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) or any other voluntary student organization or activity that meets the vague and subjective criteria above.

 

Fact 3:

If the principal does not grant permission to a K-12 child who requests a club or associated activity described in section 35.1 of the Education Act, then the principal is breaking the law.

 

Fact 4:

Without any stated age limitations, children from kindergarten upwards, have full and unprecedented legal authority over adults in the school when it comes to these clubs and activities.

 

Fact 5:

Activities classified as “welcoming, caring, respectful and safe” by the Alberta Teachers’ Association include school-wide drag shows, political activities, or presentations teaching students and staff inclusive pronouns like “ze”, “zir” and “perself”.  (See pages 30, 31, 55, 56 of an ATA Guide for Teachers along with the PRISM Toolkit, a resource listed both for school clubs and classroom instruction).

 

Fact 6:

Unfortunately, we often hear of parents being told, “Don’t worry, our school will make sure there’s a staff member in charge of the club and activities so they are appropriate for kids and consistent with the school’s mission and identity.”

However, the specific text of the law makes clear that legal authority over these clubs and activities belongs to K-12 children, not adults. Note the verbs in the legislation associated with school staff: while principals “shall grant permission”,  staff liaisons/facilitators are tasked to “facilitate” or “assist”, not direct or lead.

Simply put, school staff do not have the legal authority to ensure the content, resources and facilitators of these clubs and activities are consistent with the school’s mission and identity or even age-appropriate to the kids who attend. Any claims otherwise are wishful thinking at best and intentional falsehood at worst.

In addition, regardless of who is appointed as the staff liaison, a growing influence over these clubs and activities is coming from a network of adults from external organizations who are accessing K-12 children through these groups (for example, see here and here) and even soliciting children's personal information to "support" them privately without any parental awareness.

Because the child has sole legal authority over the direction of the club/activity, they can contact external organizations and adults outside the school to ask for whatever support or outside facilitator they want, regardless of whether this support is appropriate for the child, or consistent with the needs and culture of the school community.

 

Looking forward

In conclusion, we begin this school year with some good news, some uncertainties and some ongoing issues that still need to be resolved. 

Know that PCE will continue to come alongside parents and citizens as we remain committed to advocating for an excellent, quality-oriented, choice-driven education system which recognizes parental authority. 

We look forward to working together with you during this new school year!

 


As a non-profit organization, Parents for Choice in Education (PCE) depends entirely on the voluntary donations of citizens to carry out its mission of advocating for excellence in education through maximum parental choice.  To support our ongoing work, please consider donating by cheque or online.