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Trustees Question Bill 15

Our Board of Trustees has sent the following letter to the provincial Education Minister:

June 9, 2020

Honourable Adriana LaGrange
Minister of Education
Office of the Minister of Education
228 Legislature Building
10800 - 97 Avenue
Edmonton, AB T5K 2B6

Re: Bill 15 – The Choice in Education Act

Dear Minister LaGrange:

The St. Albert Public Schools Board of Trustees is writing to express and outline our concerns relating to Bill 15 - The Choice in Education Act that was tabled in the legislature on May 28th, 2020. Our concerns are trifold. Our first concern relates to the impetus for the Bill. Our second concern relates to the potential consequences of the act. Our final concern relates to the consultation process - specifically the online survey that was used to gather input from the public. We will review each of our concerns separately.

We recognize that the United Conservative Party, as part of its election platform, pledged to introduce a Choice in Education Act. The question is why the introduction of this Bill was necessary? The Government of Alberta has a long history of supporting school choice. Certainly, Bill 19 - the School Amendment Act, which first introduced charter schools, as well as several additional policy changes, was seen to alter Alberta’s education system on an unprecedented scale. However, the government’s positive stance on school choice began earlier than the 1990s. Alberta has been argued to have an extremely accommodating stance towards school choice as evidenced by the development of alternative school funding in the 1970s, acceptance of private schools and the revised School Act of 1988 (Wagner, 1999). In fact, Alberta has been described as offering the greatest degree of school choice in Canada (Clemens et al., 2014). School choice is embedded in the fabric of the education system in Alberta. There is simply no existential threat to school choice in Alberta.

School divisions, like St. Albert Public Schools, responded to the increased expectations to be responsive to parental and community interests as they pertain to program offerings. We offer French Immersion, Cogito and a Logos Christian program, as well as hockey and recreation programs. We also offer a wide variety of specialized programs for our students who have special needs. Our close partner, Edmonton Public Schools, is recognized worldwide for the diversity of choice offered within their public system. It is difficult to argue that the public systems in Alberta have not been responsive to school choice interests within their local communities. Furthermore, based on market principles, there is no evidence of an increased demand for more charter schools. The cap for charter schools was never reached nor was there a “backlog” of charter school applications waiting to be processed at the provincial level. To reiterate our initial question, what is the impetus for the Choice in Education Act?

Our second concern relates to the potential consequences of the Choice in Education Act. Although public policy is typically not a subject that elicits emotional responses, school choice policy is different. School choice is an example of a contested and debated policy approach in education generally, and public education specifically. School choice is an issue that often stirs highly emotional responses among students, parents, teachers, school leaders, community members and politicians. Why? A basic premise is that school choice really involves questions about the proper goals of public education. At a fundamental level, school choice policies are important because these policies impact children and families through the provision of educational resources and opportunities. In terms of equity, and who gets what, why and how, the politics, policies and practices of school choice will inform the who, the what and the why. In terms of the Choice in Education Act, we are concerned that policy and regulatory implementation may lead to the splintering of our strong public education system, increasing inequities (in terms of both access and outcomes) among the various “choices” available, and, a lessening ability of our province’s overall ability to prepare young people for active and critical participation in a democratic and pluralistic society. The provincial education system must ensure that all students are educated in an environment that reflects the diversity of our province. Locally elected trustees oversee the use of public funds and the erosion of this function will lead to public funds being used for private interests. If charter and private schools, as well as unsupervised home education, proliferate as a result of the Choice in Education Act, there will be less responsiveness and accountability at the local level potentially leading to unfavourable societal impacts. The likelihood of these potential consequences is ‘enhanced’ given the lack of democratically elected trustees to provide guidance and oversight of charter and private schools.

Finally, in terms of process, we are concerned and disappointed that the Ministry chose to exclude 2,357 surveys said to be associated with the Support of our Students public advocacy group. Although the responses may have been similar, the individuals who sent those emails are voices that need to be considered as equal to others. As we stated earlier, the school choice ‘debate’ is contested and often politicized, but it remains important to understand the viewpoints of all stakeholders and political views in order to develop legislation that is fair, equitable and representative of all Albertans.

Alberta’s education system is viewed globally as a high quality and high achieving system. The strength in our system, in our opinion, fundamentally lies with the strong public education system. Given the strength of our provincial education system, why is Bill 15 necessary? What is the current public education system lacking in the way of choice, which is motivating this government’s Bill for more choice in education? If there is something lacking in our public school system, we need to work on this together in the current system, which is recognized as one of the best in the world.

In closing, the St. Albert Public Schools Board of Trustees is adamantly opposed to Bill 15 - The Choice in Education Act. We look forward to your responses to our questions.

Sincerely,

Glenys Edwards, Chair
Sheri Wright, Vice Chair
Kim Armstrong, Trustee
Cheryl Dumont, Trustee
Stanley Haroun, Trustee

cc: L. Jess, President, ASBA
C. Hogg, President, PSBAA

References:

Wagner, M. (1999). Charter Schools in Alberta: Change or Continuity in Progressive Conservative Education Policy? The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, Vol. XLV (1), 52-56.

Clemens, J., Palacios, M., Loyer, J., & Fathers, F. (2014). Measuring choice and competition in Canadian education: An update on school choice in Canada. Barbara Mitchell Centre for School Improvement.
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