Monday, February 20, 2012

David King on Alberta's Education Act Part I

This was written by David King who is a former Alberta Minister of Education. This is 1 of 2 posts on Alberta's new Education Act. This post first appeared on King's blog here.

by David King

In 2008 the then Minister of Education initiated a province-wide conversation about the future of K – 12 education in Alberta. The department contributed to the conversation by providing a structure – Inspiring Education – and Albertans contributed by providing content.

Although many of the participants felt that the government’s management of the Inspiring Education process was biased in favour of self-interest, and that this bias was reflected in the wrap-up, nevertheless the conversation was valuable.

From it came ‘standards’ by which to draft new legislation. These standards were never codified and agreed to in a formal way, but it would probably be fair to characterize public consensus around the following points.

  1. The new Act should be clear about the foundational principles. (As the Minister of the day said, the new Act should be principle-based.)
  2. The legislation should oblige the government to uphold foundational principles, without discretion to abdicate responsibility. The government itself claimed that its primary responsibility was to “assure” needful outcomes. (The legislation should hold the government’s feet to the fire, as much as the government sometimes holds others’ feet to the fire.)
  3. The new Act should represent a commitment to the future (with all the attendant risk and uncertainty), rather than to the past. (Albertans want to be first into the future, rather than last out of the past.)
  4. The role of the provincial government, as reflected in the new Act, should be to declare the goal and set the direction (by looking at the stars), and the role of the school operators should be to cover the ground and achieve the objectives that move us toward the goal(s).
  5. The new Act should provide a legislative framework for oversight for all types of educational delivery, with as much operational freedom as is useful for good government, sufficient boundaries to be clear about public purposes and goals, and openness to as yet unimagined types of educational delivery.
Assuming agreement about the ‘standards’, the next important focal point should be on principles. What principles should be clearly expressed in the new Act? Again, based on the Inspiring Education conversations, the following suggest themselves.
  1. The new Act should explicitly acknowledge and commit to the principle that public education is the preferred institution for education, recognizing that public school education is unique for three reasons: 1) it is inclusive without pre-conditions of any kind and it is inclusive of all who are students and of all adults as part of the community that governs it; 2) it is a deliberate model of a civil democratic community, so the government of public school education is democratic and public school education exists to promote an understanding of, and commitment to, democracy; and, 3) local democracy and local community are the ground from which springs every other community and democratic understanding. Public school jurisdictions should be given meaningful natural person powers.
  2. The new Act should explicitly acknowledge and commit to the principle that the public interest in assuring education for every child is not only for the benefit of the child: education serves the public purpose of creating and sustaining our society, and the provincial government controls education for the purpose of assuring that children are exposed to ideas and practices of good citizenship in a civil democratic society;
  3. The new Act should explicitly acknowledge that public school boards are a local general purpose government, dealing on a daily basis with the mandate of more than a dozen provincial government departments, and their range of freedom should reflect this.
  4. The new Education Act should embody democracy, including the following ideas:
  • all participants are worthy of trust;
  • inclusion, respect, and diversity, without pre-conditions of any kind;
  • the people who will be most effected by decisions are the people who should have most responsibility for making and implementing the decisions, and public school jurisdictions should have the capacity to accept mandates from local electors and accomplish locally determined mandates;
  • open, transparent government, at all levels; and,
  • elected representatives are accountable to their electorate, not to other elected representatives.
  • all participants(for example, students as well as teachers) are producers of education, not merely consumers of it.

The Education Bill introduced to the Alberta Legislative Assembly today (February 14th) should be tested against these standards and principles.

Probably the first thing that strikes a reader of the Bill is that it is very similar to the current School Act. It relies upon concepts and organizational structures that are more than 100 years old. Most notably, it relies upon well-used words and phrases because they have been tested in the courts (often more than 60 years ago), and their meaning is well known to anyone who wants to continue living and working in the historic paradigm. The government’s stated reason for rejecting new ideas and new language is that newness represents risk for the government, since the ideas and words have not been tested in the courts. In its organization and language the Bill represents an explicit rejection of new ways of thinking, new models, new language.

The second thing that might strike a reader is that there is no declaration of aspirations or principles within the body of the Act. Some of the “Whereas” clauses allude to aspirations and principles, but “Whereas” clauses are advisory only; they are not decisive. The Whereas clauses may make all of us feel good, but they are not in any way binding. There is no description, in the body of the Act, of the intended outcomes that the provincial government or local school operators are accountable for assuring. Consequently, the entire Act is procedural: it focuses on means, without regard for ends. The Minister and the department can direct or sanction any school operator at any time, for any reason, because, in the absence of ends statements in the Act the Minister and department can enforce whatever end they choose, and their choice can change from day to day. On the other hand, in the absence of clearly stated expectations in the Act, the Minister and the department can decline to assure anything. For example, the general public may believe that every child is entitled to access a public education that is non-denominational in flavour, and the Minister may agree that such access is fundamentally important for every child, while at the same time declining to act in a timely fashion to assure it. Or, the Minister may say that safe and healthy schools are essential to good education, while the government defers school renovations.

The Act treats all delivery systems as being essentially equal. There is only a procedural definition of public school education, or of any other form of education. There is nothing suggesting that public school education is the preferred means of education, and no statement that public school education is important to the attainment of public policy. There is nothing to make clear that a necessary work of education is to create and sustain a civil democratic society. There is no statement that the government of education is to be democratic.

More, in an upcoming post.

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