The recently released “Education Act, 2011: Proposed Framework” reveals that much work remains to be done if Minister Hancock and Albertans are going to see the legislative framework necessary for the 21st century.
The Minister has often said that he wants a “principle based” Act: he wants to move away from prescriptions, rules, and minutiae. Yet the framework is full of prescriptions, rules, and minutiae. Principles are notably absent.
The Minister has recently blogged that the government of education in Alberta is provided through two chambers – the Legislative Assembly (and Alberta Education), and locally elected school boards (and their professonal/executive leadership). There is no commitment to this principle in the Framework: indeed, in some places the Framework appears to maintain the idea that only the Government of Alberta provides government for education in the province.
School boards are now the only entities in Alberta that do not have natural person powers, yet there is no commitment to providing school boards with such powers. If the present and future require that school boards should be more nimble, and more responsive to quickly changing circumstances, why would we maintain a statutory framework that prevents them from doing anything new or innovative without the prior approval of the Minister?
It is completely appropriate to say, as the Framework does, that “The educational interest of the student is the paramount consideration in making decisions about a child’s education.” But the Framework also says that “education is foundational to a healthy democracy, and as such is at the core of societal well-being”. In that case, shouldn’t we acknowledge that education has, in fact, two vital social purposes, including the creation and maintenance of a healthy democratic community? When, in the context of education, we make decisions that effect the community, shouldn’t the democratic interest of the community be a paramount consideration in making decisions about a community’s future? For example, the Framework simply supports the proposition that the future of school buildings is entirely a function of the program of studies, the curriculum, and gathering enough students together to achieve economies of scale in providing K – 12 education. Such an outlook is cold comfort for citizens who believe that the school building is also a vital community asset and that the school boards should be making decisions about the school building with some regard for the community as well as for the funding formulae of Alberta Education.
It is interesting that Part 5 of the Framework provides the only “measurable” standard of reasonable local autonomy: Local autonomy must be exercised with due regard to fiscal accountability.” Why not require that local autonomy must be exercised with due regard for democratic practices, or the rule of law, or justice for students and citizens?
The Framework is entirely silent on the matter of community involvement in providing/assuring excellent education. The Minister has said that he is in favour of local self-government. Presumably he recognizes that if the community feels a sense of ownership for local education they will nurture it, both in the community and in individual homes. The Framework certainly belittles local self-government. Most notably, the Framework describes locally elected trustees and educators/professionals as being entirely accountable to the provincial government, not to their local electorate. In addition, there are pages and pages of provincially imposed constraints on what school boards may do.
In Part 4 (and other parts) of the Framework, the provincial government quickly and briefly assumes accountability – but not responsibility – for the education of all students. The Framework then goes on to detail the responsibilities and accountability of locally elected school boards, and school boards are not accountable to their electorate in this Framework.
In the same vein, the Framework suggests that the democratic role of electors could be diluted by as much as 2/3, with either elected trustees or the Minister appointing people to sit on the Board. Do Albertans want the Provincial Government making even more appointments behind the closed doors of the Cabinet room? Do Albertans want school boards reaching past the electors to reshape the positions and decisions of the corporate board?
The Framework fails to recognize that different systems of education are legitimate, and have value, but exist for quite different reasons. Consequently, public schools, separate schools, charter schools, private schools (including parochial schools), home schoolers and for-hire tutors should all have a different relationship with the provincial government. It would be timely to include in our conversation the question of whether separate schools are relevant to life in Alberta in the 21st century.
On the matter of separate school education, I am heartened to see that the Framework proposes members of the minority faith will finally have the choice of becoming public school supporters. It is incongruous to talk about the importance of parental involvement in the education of their children and then deny parents the opportunity to vote for the trustees who will oversee the child’s education. I can certainly understand why many separate school supporters would not want other people (not of their faith) to participate in the election of trustees. But public schools are inclusive and have said they would welcome members of the minority faith that want to participate in the government of the public school system. It is a step in the right direction to be completely inclusive where people want to be inclusive, and limit exclusiveness to the separate school system only, as per their request.
Public discussion of the Framework document will be interesting in the months ahead.