Danielle In The House, October 24: Education Act

Ms Smith: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. It is with some degree of satisfaction that I rise today to speak to Bill 3, the Education Act. I sincerely hope the third time is the charm. This is the third time this bill has been presented to this Legislature for debate. Bill 18, of course, and I think we all remember Bill 2, and now we’re looking at the third time coming in.

I would say that we do give general support to this bill. You’ve already heard the hon. Member for Airdrie and the hon. Member for Chestermere-Rocky View speak in general terms about how we can support this bill, but I will take some reservation. I am worried that we are already off to a bad start on this bill, a 188- page bill that was delivered to us yesterday, and now we’re already in a position where we’re debating it less than 24 hours later. This is not a very good start and not really in keeping, I think, with the new tone we’re trying to set in the Legislature.

I would certainly hope that the hon. members on the other side would appreciate that even though we are generally speaking in favour of it today, we have observed that from time to time with such large documents there are clauses in there that do cause some consternation to the stakeholders. So do keep in mind that I reserve the right to come back at some future point when we’ve talked to stakeholders to see whether or not all of the issues that we might have with this bill have been addressed. But I will say that we do have general support.

Let me return to a couple of the issues that were raised in the spring Legislature that we feel have been largely addressed in this new and improved version of this bill. First of all, the great controversy arose because of the addition of Alberta Human Rights Act provisions to the Education Act and in particular to home-school families. I know that the members of the other opposition parties have expressed concern about the exclusion of this in applying to home-school families, and I know that they have raised concerns about Bill 44. I would acknowledge that there aren’t any teachers that have been hauled before the Human Rights Commission under the provisions of Bill 44, but there are religious leaders who have been hauled before the Human Rights Commission. I’ll mention Bishop Fred Henry, and I’ll mention Reverend Stephen Boissoin.

This is part of the reason why we  were encouraged by the Premier’s commitment to remove section 3 from the human rights code so that we could restore free speech, restore freedom of religion. In the absence of the Premier keeping that commitment, it’s quite clear that we could not have the Education Act include this provision and potentially have home-school families hauled before the Human Rights Commission for teaching their children the tenets of the faith throughout the course of a school day. So we’re very pleased that the government recognized that this was an affront to the religious freedom and religious rights of our home-school families and that they have addressed this in this legislation.

The second thing I would say is that I do believe that the government did hear the lesson loud and clear on the steps of the Legislature when I stood along with the hon. Member for Airdrie before 2,000 home-school families and their children, who had come to protest to the previous Education minister to let him know their displeasure. It’s very clear to me that because of this activism on the part of these grassroots parents the government had no choice but to respond.

Also having I think it was three full days of filibuster from the then hon. Member for Calgary-Glenmore and the hon. Member for Airdrie-Chestermere probably had something to do as well with the fact that that bill did not pass in the spring session and was able over the course of the last few months to undergo a substantial rewrite. I would say that in many ways our Wildrose members are very pleased that we have had such an incredible influence on the outcome of this bill, which is why once again I think we can speak generally in support of it.

One of the things I would say about education in this province, and this goes back to the legacy of a former Premier, Premier Klein, is that when I went to the Preston Manning conference in February of 2010, they talked about the ways in which this government should be assessed on its performance in a whole range of different policy areas. For the most part the government was getting Ds and Fs, but in the area of education the group there assembled – most of us were conservatives – scored the government a B plus in education. It was because of the actions\ taken in the 1990s to give parental choice, to acknowledge that parents have a right to choose the kind of education that they want for their children, to allow for public schools, to allow for vibrant Catholic schools, to allow for charter schools, home-schooling, virtual schooling. This has made Alberta’s education system responsive to parents, and that is the one thing that we have to preserve, not only to ensure that parental rights are acknowledged and recognized but to ensure that children get the best education that their parents choose for them.

There are still a few concerns, though, that we are likely to bring forward some minor amendments from. We may bring forward more, but there are three that we are concerned about right now. First of all, on the issue of charter schools: I believe that the reform efforts that began with charter schools have somewhat stalled, and that’s unfortunate because many of the charter schools in this province have not only earned an incredible amount of recognition outside the province but, of course, also the support of the parents who send their children to those schools.

I take a little bit of pleasure in the fact that there is a left-wing progressive blogger named Donald Gutstein who blames me in part for bringing charter schools to Alberta because of a column that I wrote with scholar Fazil Mihlar when I was an intern at the Fraser Institute talking about how important charter schools were to give that amount of parental rights and that amount of choice in programs to a variety of children and how good it would be for Alberta to go down that path.

I’m glad that we’re looking at the issue of charter schools, and I’m hopeful that we can make some amendments to re-embrace the original vision of what charter schools were supposed to mean in this province.

Secondly, on the issue of Catholic education, I think we recall that in the dying days of Bill 2, when it was quite clear it was not going to pass, the Catholic school trustees were very alarmed at the potential provisions that would force an end to Catholic education or at least an end to their autonomy. We were pleased to see that much of the language that was offensive to the Catholic school trustees has been removed. I myself am a student of both public education and Catholic education. I went back and forth between the two. I graduated from the same high school as the hon. Premier, Bishop Carroll high school in Calgary. My brother sends his children to Catholic education.

The fact that my family has always had the option of two fully publicly funded school boards, major school boards in major cities, has been something that my family has valued, and I think all families deserve to be able to continue to have that choice. The language that would have forced those boards together – I’ve talked to the superintendent in my area for the Christ the Redeemer school. He’s read through at least half of the act. He wasn’t able to get through all 188 pages either by the time I spoke with him, but he’s assured me that what he’s seeing he also likes.

We’ll do some more consultation with our Catholic stakeholders just to make sure that all of those provisions are taken out that were offensive to them, but I think that this is an important principle for us to support, that we do have two strong public school systems. One is a public board; the other is a separate board. We want to be able to maintain that autonomy because it does give additional choice in education as well as being able to provide the full funding.

The third area I would raise is the issue of covering education up to age 21. I think we all recognize that we want to be able to encourage those who have not been able to finish the school program within the usual time frame and give them the opportunity to go back to school. The thing that we are concerned about, though, is that there may be integrated classrooms with some of these older young adults, 21 years old, being in the same classrooms as younger people. You can well imagine, as we’re dealing with issues of bullying, as we’re dealing with issues of sexual assaults or any potential problems that we might have along those lines, that when you put groups of people together with that great age difference there is the potential, I think, for parents to be concerned that there are going to be problems.

We want to make sure that when we’re implementing this age limit that we do have opportunities for those older young adults to be segregated from the younger population so that we don’t end up creating any additional problems of integrating children who are not of the same maturity level and certainly should not be socializing in the same way. There are some great models for this in my own riding, for instance. The Christ the Redeemer school division has St. Luke’s school, which does an outreach program.

We also have a distance learning program in many of our schools that provides the opportunity for older students to be able to return. I think the main barrier that we’re trying to eliminate here is the cost barrier of kids being able to return to school. I hope that we put a little bit more clarity around that, maybe if not in the legislation then certainly in the regulations so that we can avoid any future problems.

The last area I would mention – and this is an area that was raised with me as I was travelling around the province talking to our First Nations leaders – is that they are very disappointed that they were not consulted in the process of developing this legislation. One of the things that we have to be aware of is that our aboriginal students do follow the Alberta curriculum. They will follow Alberta law. But they do get funded by our federal counterparts, and our federal counterparts are not paying for these students to go to school up to age 21. If we’re imposing upon our aboriginal communities this extra requirement  school, where is the money going to come from? I think that this is a piece that we have to be talking about with our federal counterparts to make sure the funding flows through.

While I’m talking about this, I would say that our First Nations communities have told me that the funding currently for education is inadequate. In many communities they’re getting $5,500 per student. If those students go off-reserve to a nonreserve school, the school board is charging them $9,000 to $10,000 to $11,000.

There’s a shortfall there. I would say that this should be a priority. If we’re going to be discussing with our federal counterparts how we might be able to raise the revenue to be able to have children funded all the way up to age 21 on our reserves, then I think we also should add this additional component.

How do we make sure that we’ve got an adequate level of funding flowing through to the reserve so that every aboriginal student gets the same high quality of education that we’re able to provide to nonreserve students?

Those are the areas that we’re going to be taking a closer look at. Once again, I’m pleased that the government did listen to the public, did listen to parents, did listen to the home-school families,

did listen to the Catholic school trustees, and did make the revisions that the Wildrose caucus had been calling for in the previous spring election. We are delighted to acknowledge that we will be making some minor changes, but we do think that this is a significant improvement. We do look forward to working with the government to improve the bill and enact the changes, which we know are going to have many positive impacts on Alberta’s students, parents, and teachers.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.