Over the next six months, decisions will be made be made by the Alberta government which have the potential to drastically alter the face of education in this province. Of course, this being Alberta, it is also entirely possible that the only thing that will change over the next six months is the government's rhetoric about education, and that everything on the ground will actually remain the same or get worse.
Between now and the end of March, the government will re-introduce the Education Act, Bill 18, into the provincial legislature. This is the act that, after three years of extensive research, broad consultations, and numerous drafts, was introduced into the legislature last spring by former minister Dave Hancock and then removed from consideration by the fall session of the legislature by new Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk for the sake of further consultation.
Listening to Lukaszuk speak over the course of the public consultations, it seems that the only reason he wanted to pull the act for re-consideration was so that he could spend a few months touring the province speaking about bullying, and the need to make sure that strong anti-bullying measures are included in the act when it is re-introduced. Regardless, the public meetings are now wrapped up, even though the online portion of the consultation is ongoing, and we can expect a revised Bill 18 to hit the legislative agenda as soon as the legislature resumes sitting.
Albertans shouldn't expect the act itself to drastically alter education in the province, as it is largely full of big-picture sentiments and concepts, without anything specific and implementable. The bill is likely, however, to include a handful of significant changes like an increase to the compulsory education age (from 16 to 17), and extension to 21 of the maximum age for participation in the school system, better defined roles for school boards, parents, schools and trustees, an increase in the power and flexibility given to school boards, and now, some sort of anti-bullying measures. The real meat and potatoes of the process will come from the regulations that the government passes in council to actually implement the provisions of the act.
Those will be especially telling given that, at the same time that Bill 18 is being debated in the legislature and regulations are being drafted, the government will also be drafting the 2012 – 2013 provincial budget. As we saw after last year's cuts, the annual budget can have a much more significant impact on the quality and direction of our education system than almost any piece of legislation could.
Premier Redford has promised that there will be no major cuts or layoffs in the upcoming budget, but she has also vowed not to raise taxes and to eliminate the provincial deficit by 2013. It is worth noting that Ed Stelmach made the exact same promise before cutting over $100 million from the education budget last year. Redford has now also stepped back from her promise to reinstitute funding for full-day kindergarten within a year of taking office.
The reality of provincial education funding is that the $107 million returned to the system by Ms. Redford upon taking office was enough only to bring the system back to the over-crowded, understaffed status quo that existed under the previous premier. Improving the system will actually require allocating real dollars and cents to match the fancy language and lofty ideas expressed in the new Education Act—dollars and cents which are not likely to be available given the need to eliminate the deficit and the reluctance to increase revenues.
At the same time, Education Minister Lukaszuk has promised on a go-forward basis to shelter education from the unpredictability of Alberta's revenue stream, but with volatile oil and gas revenues accounting for over 25 percent of this year's budget that sounds like one more good intention that cannot be delivered.
All of this is further complicated by the fact that the current salary agreement with teachers will expire this year, and a new one will need to be negotiated. The government is heading into negotiations looking to extract a modest salary deal by dangling the promise of "stable and predictable" funding over the life of the deal, but Alberta's teachers have learned the hard way over the last few years that those promises are not worth the paper they are written on. Much of the struggle over education funding in the last couple of years has come from the fact that the government signed a five-year deal with the teachers, imposed it on the school boards, then tried repeatedly to renege on their promise to provide adequate funding so the school boards could meet the provisions of the deal.
The Alberta Teachers' Association is working hard to establish a positive working relationship with the current government, and they were heartened by the reinstatement of the $107 million in funding, but you can bet that they will carry the memory of the last two years, and of being blamed by the government for chronic underfunding, with them to the negotiating table.
In the end, the combination of the new School Act, the provincial budget, and negotiations with teachers will all contribute to more volatility and flux in our education system than we have seen in a long time. It is important that Albertans keep a close eye on all of these proceeding over the next six months, as the outcomes will collectively determine what our education system will look like for at least the next four years, and possibly for the next 20. Perhaps now more than ever when it comes to education, Albertans need to stay informed, have their say, and hold their government accountable—our children's education depends on it. V
Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.
Vue Weekly, Tues Jan 4 2012