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Public education under attack: Interview with Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling

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Jason Schilling. Image: David J. Climenhaga

On April 19, 2019, Jason Kenney and the UCP won the provincial election in Alberta and one of the first things they did was pass Bill 8, the Education Act, which lifted the cap on charter schools. Since then the hits to public education have kept coming. Like their fellow Conservatives in Ontario, the Kenney government is undermining one of the best public education systems in the world. Until December 6, they are soliciting public opinion on education choice in Alberta including: public and separate schools, francophone schools, charter schools, private schools, early childhood education and home education. 

Jason Schilling assumed the presidency of the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) on July 1, 2019, but he has been an ATA leader for decades. Read what he had to tell us, and have your say about this effort to undermine public schools.

It seems that you have been elected to lead in interesting times.

It has been an interesting time. I had some colleagues say that to me as well, like "wow, this is an interesting time to be taking on the role." I have lots of support from my colleagues in the field, from other members on executive council and staff here at the Alberta Teachers' Association because we all care about public education. So I do not have to do it all alone, that is for sure. We have been standing for public education and teachers for a little over 100 years and currently have 47,000 members. We will continue to stand to improve public education.  

I have been involved in the ATA for 23 years, which is when I became a teacher and first started on my local's bargaining council. It has been one of the more difficult and destabilizing times I have seen, for students, schools, parents, and teachers, but I will continue to work with my colleagues to improve education.

Could you give us a timeline of the UCP and Kenney government initiatives destabilizing public education?

The Kenney government took power in May. One of the first things they did was they passed Bill 8 which is the Education Act. The Education Act had a couple of really problematic things for the association in terms of our advocacy work. First, it removed caps for charter schools in the province. We have only about 13 in the province right now and these schools are funded publicly with public dollars but not to the full extent as with a regular public school. They also removed protections for students who wanted to start a gay-straight alliance in their schools and also for students who may be LGBTQ working in the public school system. Then they passed Bill 9, which made changes to the ATA negotiations with the government with no consultation and forced us to launch a charter challenge. That was on my third day in office! 

After that the government started a curriculum review process which no longer had a role for the ATA and teachers. In 2017, the ATA and the government signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) on curriculum redesign which said that the Alberta government and the ATA were going to be full partners on curriculum redesign and we worked together in that capacity. We had developed literacy and numeracy programs which would prepare our children with math skills useful in the age of computers and other such tools. There was no political agenda. We worked with integrity to bring current classroom experience to update the outdated components of the curriculum to better serve Alberta's students. The Kenney government cancelled this process and established a curriculum review panel which had not one participant who had any active teaching experience in this millennium.

Teachers work with curricula every day, taking words on pages and bringing them to life in their classrooms for students across the country.  They see what their students need. The fact that they had no say on the curriculum review panel was disrespectful of their professionalism and expertise.

So when schools opened this year, what I read was that there was no new curriculum and no budget.

Exactly, a school system thrives on stability. On the first day of school, the Alberta government chose to release the recommendations and report of the blue ribbon panel on Alberta's finances, chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon. Notably, the panel was directed to look at plans to balance the budget by 2022-23, "without raising taxes." It proposes a path to balance that is achieved through $600 million in spending cuts over the next four years, with a corresponding $7.5 billion increase to government revenues, largely achieved through economic expansion and increased resource revenues.

This is why school districts are announcing cuts and fee increases now. Some of the most egregious cuts proposed in the budget are the cuts to the class size initiative  and the classroom improvement fund. These initiatives were aimed at addressing the shortfalls we were already facing in maintaining our great public education. Smaller class sizes are better for students and so many parents were counting on reduced transportation costs and fees. This article documents how parents were planning to use the money they saved in fees, and many were planning to use it for their children's needs. 

Alberta is a fast-growing province and we have 15,000 new students in our education system this year alone. Calgary alone has 4,400 new students this year. Right now the school boards have been told these students have been added to the system with no additional funding to educate them. We had a shortfall of 2,000 teachers in 2018, and this number does not include educational assistants or wrap-around staff.

School boards are now working to address multimillion-dollar shortfalls which are going to impact students and teachers. We are worried that we are going to see larger class sizes and more fees. The  growth in class sizes is alarming as are issues around the class composition and complexity within those classes as the class sizes grow. We are also worried about cuts to programming, especially for special needs, English-as-a-second-language students. Teachers are also reporting more students with trauma which creates additional needs. 

While each school board runs on its own, they do not have the power of taxation within the community so they are one hundred per cent dependent on the government for funding. Each community has different issues. Teachers are being asked to do more with less yet again, and there is going to be a breaking point where teachers just can't fill in the gaps anymore. 

So what can we do and what is next?

The MacKinnon report floated the idea of performance funding, so students in the schools which are performing the least well get the least funding, schools which are performing the best get the most money. We have a ministerial order which removes the word "public" from school names. The UCP government's Education Act lifted the cap on charter schools. We are hoping that Alberta is not implementing components from "No Child Left Behind" in the United States, which failed that country tremendously. A new report charges that roughly $1 billion of that has been lost to fraud and waste in the charter school sector in the United States.

We don't want that bad idea coming to Alberta. We are one of the best education systems in the world and, as teachers and the Alberta Teachers' Association, we know we need to improve our system to meet new needs, not undermine it by underfunding it and bringing in unreliable and debunked practices. Our students and we deserve better.

Teachers and the ATA are working with our colleagues in the field, with other unions and associations in Alberta who are also under attack, with parent councils, superintendents, school boards and the government to get people advocating for public education.

Until December 6, the Kenney government is soliciting the opinion of Albertans on education choice in Alberta including: public and separate schools, francophone schools, charter schools, private schools, early childhood education and home education. Write in and make sure they know you will not let our public education system be undermined.

Parents can write to their school board trustees and their MLAs to talk about issues in schools. They are elected people, use your voice to advocate for the things you believe in. Here is a link to a letter-writing campaign with infographics about class sizes.  

If public education matters to you, talk to people about it, reach outside of your network. If you are at a community barbecue, at a Chamber of Commerce event or at any event, talk to people.  Go to the constituency office of your MLA and get involved and meet with their staff.

Maya Bhullar is the Activist Toolkit coordinator at rabble.ca. She has over 15 years of professional experience in diverse areas such as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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