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UCP slaps Alberta Teachers Association … probably not for the last time

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Alberta Teachers Association president Jason Schilling. Image: David J. Climenhaga

Almost completely missed in media coverage of Friday's purge of NDP appointees to agencies, boards and commissions by Alberta's United Conservative Party government was the revelation that the same day the government abruptly cancelled a three-year-old memorandum of agreement with the Alberta Teachers Association to co-operate on curriculum development.

While all eyes were on the Friday Morning Massacre, the government informed the ATA late in the day that it was pulling the plug on the curriculum agreement, ATA president Jason Schilling revealed in a statement yesterday. It was done "without meaningful advance notice or any consultation," he said.

"The decision followed on statements made by Premier Kenney the previous day that made unfounded claims about the content of the draft grades K to 4 curriculum and about Alberta student achievement," Schilling's statement said.

Schilling, according to the statement posted to the ATA website, "received the news with disappointment and resignation."

Schilling was sworn in as president on July 1 after beating incumbent Greg Jeffrey in a contested election. So this will probably not be his last difficult day with the UCP government.

The ATA, which acts as both the union for 40,000 public and Catholic school teachers and their regulatory and disciplinary college, is nowadays a bête noir to the united Kenney party, which resembles the Progressive Conservatives of yore in name only.

The PCs of old had many teachers in their ranks and an often mutually satisfactory relationship with the ATA over many years. So much so, indeed, that I've teased the ATA in this space by calling them "the Alberta Tory Association." Even under Ralph Klein's premiership, teachers were influential in the government. The late Halvar Jonson, an ATA president before entering politics, served as Klein's minister of education and in other important portfolios.

But that seems to have ended with the departure of most traditional progressive Tories from the UCP's ranks under Kenney's leadership. As a private-school-educated religious zealot with strong anti-union leanings, Kenney would have been less sympathetic to the ATA than previous Conservative premiers even if it hadn't dared to sign a memorandum of agreement with an NDP government.

But since the UCP narrative is that election of Rachel Notley's NDP in 2015 was a fluke at best, and that any legislation or policy of the New Democrats is therefore not legitimate, the willingness of any group to work with that government was bound to be treated as ideological unsoundness bordering on outright betrayal.

Moreover, under Kenney, the UCP made common cause with the operators of private religious academies, including overtly homophobic groups that objected to PC and NDP policies on gay-straight alliances, as a wedge issue to split the NDP from religious voters.

In an apparent response to Schilling's statement, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange tweeted Saturday afternoon: "By withdrawing from the MOU Alberta Education now has the ability to work equally with all partners in #abed, including @albertateachers." Interestingly, there was no statement making this point on the government's website Saturday.

Schilling said the ATA "rejected the notion that the Memorandum excluded participation by other stakeholder groups," arguing the government could have done that anyway without walking away from co-operation with the ATA. "This decision and this government's approach seems to be motivated more by ideology than by a desire to ensure authentic engagement to benefit students."

Friday's slap at the ATA is unlikely to be the end of the organization's troubles with the Kenney government.

The ATA has determinedly defended its professional conduct function, a dual role that is controversial not just in conservative circles but in the union movement as well. Past Conservative governments have often talked about splitting the ATA into separate regulatory and collective bargaining organizations, but with its connections to the PCs the organization has always been able to forestall any action on that front.

Many observers of the UCP believe it will now move ahead with such a change, which ironically could have the effect of creating on the union side a collective bargaining organization much less inclined to accept the depredations of the government with just disappointment and resignation.

Since Kenney is an acolyte of the blitzkrieg political tactics of Sir Roger Douglas, author of New Zealand's failed experiment with radical market fundamentalism in the late 1980s, we may soon discover that Albertans other than the ATA are also reeling from unexpected announcements made at the last moment. And if not, they likely will be as soon as that pesky federal election is out of the way.

Curriculum 'expert panel' being cobbled together

Meanwhile, we know Kenney's promised "expert panel" on school curriculum is in the process of being cobbled together, but we don't yet know who will be on it.

Here are some of my bets for potential panel members:

  • Donna Trimble, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, an advocacy organization influential with the UCP that describes itself as supporting "maximum parental choice."
  • Brian Coldwell, a member of the PCE board, pastor of New Testament Baptist Church in Edmonton, and chair of the Independent Baptist Christian Education Society, which defied the law requiring GSAs to be allowed in all schools.
  • Neil Webber, president and founder of Calgary's Webber Academy private school, a former four-term Calgary-Bow MLA and PC cabinet minister first elected in 1975.
  • Jeff Wilson, former Wildrose MLA who is now board chair of the Foundations for the Future Charter Academy in Calgary.

Whatever happens next, it seems likely there will be serious consideration of topics like "creation science" and abstinence-based sex education in Alberta school curricula.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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