Danielle in The House, November 8: Education Act

Ms Smith: Thank you, Madam Speaker. It is my pleasure to rise today to speak in third reading of Bill 3, the Education Act. I will acknowledge that the process of arriving at this version of the Education Act has seemed to be kind of tortuous for all of us, but I think that in the end it’s been worth the pain that we’ve all gone through.

Madam Speaker, as I mentioned in my second-reading speech, the Wildrose has consistently supported the underlying principles of creating an Education Act to replace the outdated School Act. I can tell you that, having spoken with the superintendents that are overlapping the area that I represent, they are very pleased with most of the elements of the act and are looking forward to seeing it implemented. Again, the School Act has served us well, but I think we can all agree that the new bill is going to serve Alberta students, parents, and teachers well in the years to come.

Madam Speaker, I also want to express my satisfaction with three elements of the bill which were in there when the government introduced it but were not there in previous versions of the act. I think there have been some changes that have been good, and I would say, with some small measure of satisfaction, that the Wildrose led the fight in modifying against those previous bills. The first, of course, was the removal of the reference to the human rights code applying to home-school families. We do know how concerned our home-school families were about that. I’m very pleased that the Education minister listened and changed the language to be more reflective of what was in the previous School Act so that everybody’s rights are protected, and we can also protect those minority groups who would face discrimination. I think that was a good change.

The second, of course, was the reintroduction to the act of recognizing the fundamental primacy of parents in being able to choose the type of education they want for their children. This is one of the reasons, I think, why when you look at the government’s record over the last 10 to 15 years, education reform has really been one of the shining examples of where they’re doing things mostly right by giving parental choice, having a number of different options. We are very pleased to see that they recognize that fundamental primacy of parents.

Then, of course, the issues dealing with Catholic school boards. I know that the Catholic school trustees were quite concerned that some of the language would seem to indicate that they would be forced inEducation Actto amalgamation. We do know that there are some interests out there who want to eliminate Catholic school education altogether and have everything rolled under one massive public school board. I happen to think that having two schools boards, a public school board and a separate school board, to give that additional choice to parents is something that our Alberta parents have been asking for us to maintain. I’m glad that the Education minister acknowledges how important it is to maintain the independence of the Catholic school board as well.

Originally, though, the government didn’t listen to the concerns that were raised, so 2,000 parents, you may recall, rallied on the steps of the Legislature. The Wildrose was proud to be there. I remember the hon. member for, at the time, Airdrie-Chestermere spoke to that group of 2,000 parents and their kids. I think also that after an intense electoral scare, the government came to their senses and made the improvements that were requested. I’m glad to see that. Truly.

Madam Speaker, at second reading I suggested that we generally like the changes that were made in the Education Act.

The act has been improved through the amending process – I’ll get to that in a minute – but I do think it could have been further improved, and I think that there were some missed opportunities. I’m disappointed that the Education minister didn’t take seriously three of our amendments, which I think would have gone a long way towards improving the act.

First, on charter schools, to be able to acknowledge the important role that the innovation in charter schools plays in improving our public education system altogether. We want to make sure that we have continual innovation. We want to make sure that teachers and school boards are able to try new things. I think that the amendment that was put forward about charter schools would have gone a long way towards sending the signal about how this government looks at charter schools as being important.

I’ll give an example of why I think charter schools have a great role to play in improving education for all students. I look at the school Foundations for the Future. When it began as a traditional learning centre, it was so popular that it very quickly grew to four campuses in Calgary. Very quickly there were news stories out there about them having 4,000 parents waiting to have their kids on the waiting list to be in the school. The Calgary board of education responded to that. They created their own traditional learning centres. The last time I spoke with someone from the CBE, they now have 15,000 students enrolled in traditional learning centres. To me, having this positive interplay between charter schools being able to set up, establish, innovate, and being able to take our successful models and see them come into the public school system so that more students are able to take advantage of that – I think there was a missed opportunity in not reinforcing just how important a role our charter schools play in doing that and expanding and encouraging more of them.

The second point I would make is on the no-zero policy. I know the argument that the Education minister made about not wanting to be prescriptive, but, Madam Speaker, I’m holding Bill 3, which is 188 pages prescribing how school boards should act, how principals should act, how teachers should act. It really would not have been any additional burden to have put in the simple amendment. It’s true. It would have been in section 197.

I mean, just to give an example of what we’re already prescribing principals to do, just so that we can put it into context for parents puzzling, as we are, to understand why the province rejected this, in section 197 we have 10 different provisions prescribing what principals should do. I’ll just read this into the record because I think it’s important for us to remember that it is part of the act and part of the job of the Legislature and part of the job of the Education minister to respond to what parents and students are telling them and to create prescriptions in the event that we see a behaviour that we want to make sure doesn’t occur again. I would say that the no-zero policy, the no-zero firing is an example of that. We say that 197

A principal of a school must

(a) provide instructional leadership in the school,

(b) ensure that the instruction provided by the teachers employed in the school is consistent with the courses and programs of study prescribed, approved or authorized pursuant to this Act,

(c) evaluate or provide for the evaluation of programs offered in the school,

(d) ensure that students in the school have the opportunity to meet the standards of education set by

the Minister,

(e) direct the management of the school,

(f) maintain order and discipline in the school and on the school grounds and during activities sponsored or approved by the board,

(g) promote co-operation between the school and the community that it serves,

(h) supervise the evaluation and advancement of students,

(i) evaluate the teachers employed in the school, and

(j) subject to any applicable collective agreement and the principal’s contract of employment, carry out the duties that are assigned to the principal by the board in accordance with the regulations and the requirements of the school council and the board.

So you see, Madam Speaker, this act is very prescriptive of what a principal can and cannot do. It would not have been a hardship to add an additional clause to ensure that teachers are free to assign grades of zero for work not submitted by students. I don’t buy the minister’s argument on this. I don’t think Albertans buy the minister’s argument on this. But it’s not enough for me to vote down the bill. I did just want to say that I think we could have improved it if we’d put that in – and who knows? – we might see a private member’s bill in future dealing with this as well.

The third point is on the issue of school fees. Now, I know the Education minister took great delight in digging up a column that I wrote 10 years ago, but I think we have to put into context that in a decade what we have seen is an increase across the board of a whole range of school fees. I remember that when I was in elementary school, we used to get scribblers provided for us. We didn’t even have to pay for those. We used to also have big red thick pencils, I remember, that were provided for us as well. How funny I think it is now when you think back to then, about the kinds of things that the school system used to provide.

But as we went through the difficulties of the ‘90s and needed to get back into a balanced budget, I do think that parents were willing to pay for school supplies. They understood that. I do think that parents by and large understand that paying for field trips is something they should do. I know busing fees have become an increasing difficulty.

When I went to school, I took public transit. I was delighted that public transit actually paid for my bus passes during the school year so I didn’t have to pay for that. But busing fees have become a growing issue. I don’t think it was the same issue when I was in school. When you see what our hon. Member for Chestermere- Rocky View brought up, about how actually busing fees are now being used as an additional source of revenue, that it’s actually being overcharged in the case of some school boards, I think that that points very clearly to something going quite wrong in the way fees are being levied, and I think that’s what happens.

The minister may want to point to something that happened 10 years ago; I’d like to sort of speed up a bit and point to what’s happening today. What’s happening today is that parents are being dinged for textbook fees. Parents are being dinged for instructional fees. Parents are being dinged for locker-room fees, for classroom fees, for administration fees. There’s a whole range of different fees that are now being levied against parents, who are now being taken to collection agencies. I think it’s been mentioned in this Legislature: 3,000 parents being taken to collection agencies. I don’t think this was the world I was talking about 10 years ago when I was writing a column, but this is the world that exists today.

In the world that exists today when I was asked by parents to raise this issue, we actually developed a policy and campaigned on making school fees transparent, first of all, so we could figure out how big a ding parents are getting and, secondly, to eliminate them, to eliminate these mandatory school fees so no one has to pay to send their kids to chemistry class, so no one has to pay a locker fee so that their kids can store their stuff in their lockers between classes. We’re talking about two different things.

I’m very disappointed that the minister, when he had the opportunity to do something about it, chose to vote against it.

Now, I campaigned on eliminating school fees. My 17 colleagues here campaigned on eliminating school fees. When we had the opportunity to bring forward an amendment to eliminate school fees, we did. We spoke in favour of eliminating school fees, and I made a special effort to be here the night it was being voted on so I could vote to eliminate school fees. I would point out that the Minister of Education voted to keep them. Voted to keep them. That, I think, is what parents need to understand. The Minister of Education once again had an opportunity to show that he was listening, to show that he cared, and to stop this practice of taking parents to collection agencies to pay for fees that should already be covered under the amount that is paid for through provincial education funding. We have this real problem with dollars not flowing down into the classroom. Unfortunately, the Education minister did not demonstrate that he’s taken this issue as seriously as we think he should. Having voted it down, I think that sends a message to parents that he is not as concerned as the Wildrose caucus is about making sure that our middle-class families are not overburdened when they send their kids to public school.

The one last thing I would say is – and I’ll go back to talking about the positive because I have talked about three of the things that I wish the minister had fixed to have made this bill better, but being that he didn’t, well, I’m sure we’ll have lots and lots and lots of time to talk about this in this Legislature and, certainly, lots and lots and lots of time to talk about that during the next election.

I also would say that in many ways the work on this bill is an good demonstration of how work in this Chamber can be done well. I was delighted to see that the minister did vote to accept one of our amendments. Of course, this is the amendment that was put forward by my hon. colleague from Calgary-Fish Creek. The Member for Calgary-Fish Creek introduced an amendment dealing with bullying and improper behaviour in schools, something I know she feels very passionately about. The Member for Calgary-Fish Creek has served in this place for many years, and she has built up a wonderful group of stakeholders that she can go back to again and again to get advice on various things that she brings forward, and I think that’s why she’s so successful. She can always be counted on to introduce issues that Albertans want considered in legislation but are often overlooked.

This time the government saw fit to accept her amendment, which was based on many, many discussions that she had had with law enforcement officers who deal directly with schools. I appreciate that the whip worked closely with the hon. member to ensure that that amendment went forward and was approved in his caucus. We’re grateful for it, because I think that this bill has been much improved by those efforts and by the willingness of the government to consider adopting that amendment. So I’m glad to see that.

As I say, I do think that this is an example of how legislation can work properly. It was brought in the first time, and it was flawed. It was brought in the second time, it was still flawed. It was brought in the third time, and it looked pretty good, but we were able to have some discussion to make it a little bit better. I wish we’d been able to tweak it on a couple more areas so that we could have made it even better, but I do think that this is exactly the kind of thing that a certain leadership candidate for the Progressive Conservative Party saw when she campaigned and wrote: we need to change how the Legislature and MLAs operate, more free votes so MLAs can reflect constituent views, more time between proposing and voting on legislation.

The amount of time that was taken to make sure that this bill was drafted in a form that was acceptable to all the stakeholders, to trustees, both public and Catholic school systems, to those who are involved in different types of education, whether it’s private or charter schooling, whether it’s home-schooling or virtual schooling, I think the product at the end of this reflects the incredible amount of stakeholder consultation, give-and-take, and, I think, positive dialogue and discussion that took place in this Chamber. So I would like to congratulate the Education minister for that.

While I commend the government for doing a good job on this bill, I will note for the record that the government is not heading in the same correct direction regarding the ongoing and very important debates that are happening on Bill 2 and that are happening on Bill 4 and which I fear will happen on Bill 7.

Hopefully, this can once again be looked at as a constructive example of how at the end of the day if you take the time, if you listen to the opposition, if you listen to parents and stakeholders, if you listen to those who are impacted by legislation, you can end up with good legislation. I think that if we took those same lessons on those other bills, we might be able to move further along in making sure we’re passing the very best legislation for Albertans.

Once again, I think the government should strive to meet the Premier’s standard of raising the bar on accountability and transparency by using the talents and skills of this place to improve legislation like what was done with the Education Act. Now, Madam Speaker, in closing I will say that I will vote in favour of this now much-improved bill on third reading. Hopefully, I will get the chance to be able to repeat that same phrase over the next three and a half years.

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

The Acting Speaker: Thank you.

Under Standing Order 29(2)(a) are there any hon. members who wish to question or comment?

Mr. Dorward: Madam Speaker, school fees are essentially a userpay mechanism which, I think, is best talked about at the school board level. As we talked about it in Committee of the Whole, it was debated back and forth and back and forth and discussed in that context. Fees are all over the map. You know, they vary between schools and school boards, so that’s where they need to be left and not in legislation.

I note that the Wildrose are again in favour of spending more money and adding a cost and a burden to the overall people of Alberta. The question for the Member for Highwood is: if school fees were somehow covered, say magically that cost was there, what would happen if five years later that list of school fees was even greater? Would it grow and grow and grow and grow, which seems like a Wildrose Party concept in terms of spending money? Whereas I hear from this government that we’re concerned about not spending money and, thus, have the policy that’s in place now.

Ms Smith: Well, I thank the hon. member for his question. I think the context for all of our comments on this side whenever we’re  identifying priorities is – and we ran on this, too, we ran on our balanced budget initiative, which would have required that we return to a no deficit rule in our Fiscal Responsibility Act, that we limit year-over-year spending increases to inflation plus population growth, that we have a limit on capital funding that is consistent with the per capita funding of other provinces.

So that would be about $4 billion per year. Over a 10-year period that’s $40 billion. If you develop a priority list over a 10-year period and spend $40 billion, you actually can clear the infrastructure backlog as well as get ahead and start building for the future. That’s part of what I think the hon. member often misses when we’re looking at the framework of how we would manage to balance the budget as well as meet priorities.

The last thing I’d say is that we’d cut wasteful spending. I mean, I don’t know if I could, in this short amount of time I have, list all of the areas of wasteful spending that have been exposed over the last year. Obviously, we do not share the government’s enthusiasm for giving $2 billion for carbon capture and storage.

We do not share the government’s enthusiasm for other corporate welfare grants, whether it’s through the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, whether it’s through the BRIK program, whether it’s through any number of other initiatives. We wouldn’t support giving funding, direct or otherwise, to arenas for taxpayers to pay for. We certainly thought that there were infrastructure projects that could have been deferred to a year or two down the road to be able to pay for high-priority items.

On this issue of education, in particular, I suspect that we’re running into the same problem in education as we’ve seen in health care, as we’re seeing in justice. Even though we have seen an increase of 63 per cent in education funding over the last 10 years – and these are numbers from the government’s website – that 63 per cent increase in education funding over the last 10 years I believe compares to something like a 10 per cent increase in student enrolment. The money is going in, but it’s not, actually, getting down to the front line, and we’re asking the question: why not? Where’s it going?

One of the things we would observe is happening in the health care field – and I’ve spoken with AUPE president, Guy Smith, about this as well. He remembers back in the 1990s when former Premier Ralph Klein made some of the significant cuts to the layers and layers of middle management. The AUPE was initially quite excited about that because they got to a level where the government was hiring one manager for every 16 front-line workers. Well, today we’ve got one manager for every three frontline workers.

I suspect that this is a problem across the board. Do we really need more senior executives making $100,000-a-year salaries with overcapped pensions that are noncontributory, that you can’t get rid of even if they do make mistakes otherwise you have to pay them massive severance packages, that continue to ding the taxpayer for hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenses?

So when I’m asked the question, “Do I think that in a $4 billion education budget we can manage to squeeze out $40 million to eliminate school fees?” I would say: you sure bet you can.

The Acting Speaker: Thank you, hon. member.