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Alberta schools are public no more. What gives?

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Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. Image: Adriana LaGrange/Facebook

Alberta schools are public no more.

Or something.

A ministerial order signed by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange on August 15 eliminated the word "public" from the legal title of all public school divisions and boards in Alberta.

What's going on? That's not immediately clear, but given Premier Jason Kenney's promises to support private schools with public funds and his government's obvious sympathy for private and religious education, the change has raised concerns among public school supporters on social media.

No one seems to have noticed at the time the ministerial order was issued. Nor was there a government news release explaining the change, touting its benefits or even tossing a couple of gratuitous insults at the former NDP government, as is standard United Conservative Party operating procedure.

The language of the order is economical to the point of being sparse. There is no explanation beyond "the name of the following school divisions and their corresponding board of trustees shall be in the following form …" There's nothing about rationale.

The list of public and separate school divisions named in the ministerial order begins with the Aspen View School Division (formerly the Aspen View Public School Division No. 78) and the board of trustees of Aspen View School Division and runs through to the Wolf Creek School Division (formerly Wolf Creek Public Schools) and board of trustees of Wolf Creek School Division. At no point does the word "public" appear in the list of names. The words Catholic and separate do. The changes took effect on Sunday.

As for coverage in mainstream media, there doesn't seem to have been any, unless you count rural Alberta's St. Paul Journal, which filed a story yesterday about changes to the local school board's name.

So what gives?

Former Progressive Conservative deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, no admirer of Premier Kenney or the UCP, has commented on the topic on social media, suggesting in a tweet the change was made "in the name of fanatical ideological symbolism to erase the concept of public education."

"Removing the word 'public' from schools boards' name serves a great purpose," he said in another tweet. "It created a new reality. It divorces our perception of education from being a public good."

"If it isn't 'public,' then nothing is 'private' in contrast to it. Then they're all just schools. If you get rid of 'good,' it's harder to define 'bad,'" he said in another. "Ever read Orwell?"

"Removing the word 'public' is insidious," tweeted Charles Adler, the conservative broadcaster and political commentator who nevertheless is no fan of the UCP, comparing the change in terminology to Newspeak in George Orwell's 1984.

"I agree," Edmonton Public Schools (now Edmonton School Division) Trustee Michael Janz told me. "It's Orwellian doublespeak to clear the way for a voucher system." He also suggested the change will please Catholic separate school boards "who take umbrage with whenever we say we are public. They like to think they are public too." (Just ask a fired or not hired LGBTQ teacher how public Catholic boards really are!)

St. Albert public education advocate Luke Fevin tweeted: "What's with Ministerial Order … making all PUBLIC boards drop 'PUBLIC' from their names? Is it to make Public schools look less like the main actual & de facto school system? What's the game? Can anyone at UCP explain?"

In fairness, of course, we don't know what the government of Alberta has in mind with this change, only that it doesn't seem to be inclined to volunteer the information.

If you're concerned about public education and want some clarity on this issue, especially if you live outside the Edmonton region, it might be a good question to ask your UCP MLA.

Kenney, an enthusiastic booster of public support for private and religious schools, received much of his education at the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, where his late father was president from 1975 to 1992, and at St. Michael's University School in Victoria, B.C.

LaGrange is a former trustee, chair and vice-chair of Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools (now the Red Deer Catholic Separate School Division).

NorQuest College president quits

The Edmonton Journal reported last night that Jodi Abbott, president and CEO of Edmonton's NorQuest College, has resigned.

The Journal's report noted Abbott is the sixth president of an Alberta post-secondary institution to announce a departure since the NDP imposed salary and benefit caps on post-secondary presidents that were supposed to take effect in 2020.

It's possible, however, such senior education executives may benefit from the recent MacKinnon report's recommendation the freeze on public sector bosses' salaries come off while rank-and-file frontline workers bear the brunt of the UCP's austerity program.

On the other hand, thanks to hints dropped in the same report, now might be a prudent time for executives of smaller public post-secondary institutions to head for the exit.

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: Adriana LaGrange/Facebook

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