Original Published on Aug 17, 2022 at 07:19
By Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Many people are familiar with the Nigerian proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” There is a question, however, of who should have ultimate authority over what a child learns — the child’s parents, or the village?
Parents for Choice in Education, an Alberta-based non-profit organization, seeks to answer that question by advocating education policies that give parents the final say in what their children learn and where they attend school.
With Alberta’s next premier set to be chosen in the United Conservative Party leadership election in October, PCE hosted an online forum Aug. 4 for candidates to discuss their platforms regarding education in Alberta.
The candidates spoke on four topics: the current weighted moving average funding model for schools (which determines funds a school receives based on a three-year average of enrolment, with greater funding weight given to the most recent year and accounting for projected growth), curriculum reform, standardized testing, and classroom approaches to sensitive topics (like sexuality, gender, religion and race).
Two candidates, Leela Aheer and Rajan Sawhney, were unable to attend. The other five candidates’ responses are summarized below.
Though acknowledging no funding model is perfect, Loewen said the WMA model is good because it reduces the number of grants school divisions need to apply for.
“It provides some block funding for rural schools too, which keeps some of the smaller schools available to keep going so that rural students don’t have to travel,” he added.
Loewen said that working with schools and educational partners is the best way to tweak the model, and that collaboration is needed in adjusting the new curriculum.
“We need to be focused on building relationships with our education partners, including parents, so we can establish the trust that’s needed to focus on student learning,” he said.
A big part of that, he added, is ensuring ideology is kept out so “our children aren’t being used as guinea pigs in this process or political footballs getting kicked back and forth.”
Loewen said standardized tests gauge student understanding and school performance and suggested annual testing should be implemented to make sure “we don’t have students getting left behind.”
As for sensitive topics, Loewen said students needed to be included in creating a safe school culture but parents are ultimately the primary educators of their children.
“We need to build the trust of parents in the school system, and the only way to build trust is to have open communication with parents and have them informed and have them feel like they have input and a little bit of direction as to what happens in school with their children,” he said.
Smith’s own experience trying to start a charter school made her believe the current funding model needs an overhaul.
“One of the real barriers that we have is we’re not fairly funding each model,” she said, referring to the different funding for public and Catholic schools, charter and private schools, and homeschooling families.
A voucher system where each student receives the same amount of money would address these inequalities, she said.
Smith said the curriculum roll-out was rushed and needlessly excluded teachers and the Alberta Teachers’ Association. Re-establishing those relationships would be key in moving forward.
Helping students recover from interrupted learning is also crucial, she said, adding that education assistants in every classroom is one way to help.
Smith agreed that annual testing would best track student progress, especially in elementary grades. Though diploma exams help students prepare for university, Smith said more emphasis on trades is needed.
“There is an academic track, definitely,” she said, “but there’s also a practical track and great careers that are at the end of it too.”
As for sensitive topics, Smith said sex is a topic that should be introduced gradually, with kids learning about “bad touching” in elementary grades to combat sexual predators, procreation being taught in junior high, and gender and sexuality topics reserved for the high school years.
Race and religion, however, should be introduced early to help curb instances of bullying.
“We have to be mindful that there is an increase in bullying,” she said, “and that bullying is often on the basis of some of the characteristics that people have from minority groups.”
Toews said the WMA model provides predictability to school boards but that more work is needed on funding other school systems.
“We have a funding system that doesn’t treat all types of school choices equally. We do need to work to level the playing field so that parents have legitimate school choice,” he said, adding that covering transportation is one of his top educational priorities.
Gradually phasing in a new curriculum is important to make sure the government got it right, Toews continued, and winning the next provincial election is crucial to that process.
“What we cannot do is give our education system back to the NDP in 2023,” he said.
Toews also favours standardized testing as a way to ensure accountability, especially that all types of school systems are providing students core competencies. Passing kids through the grades regardless of performance, he added, “is irresponsible for an education system.”
Toews said diploma exams are particularly important, though increasing their weight from 30 to 40 per cent would be appropriate.
Informing parents when sensitive topics are formally being broached in the classroom is a no-brainer, he said, especially since the Education Act requires notification when topics of religion and sexuality are being taught.
“Parents are fundamentally responsible for their children’s education and I think that’s an overriding principle,” Toews added. “That principle should inform so many of these decisions.”
While the WMA model provides stability, Schulz said its biggest issue is being unable to properly address growth. Implementing a voucher system, she added, would oversimplify funding complexities.
“We still have to make sure that we are able to meet the unique needs of children who have specific learning needs, whether that be disabilities or complex needs, and also address things like transportation,” said Schulz. “There really isn’t an easy fix.”
Schulz also said the curriculum changes responded to voter concerns about the NDP, though the return to knowledge-based learning wasn’t perfect in terms of age appropriateness.
“I do think we missed the mark in some areas. Social studies was one of those areas,” she said.
Slowing down curriculum implementation was the right call, she continued, and it also provided enough time to revise those areas in need of work.
“We have to rebuild some trust in the process and I absolutely do want to hear from teachers and expand those feedback groups and those advisory groups so we can get that feedback,” Schulz said.
Maintaining parents’ right to determine their children’s education, Schulz continued, goes beyond notifying them when controversial topics are being taught and involves providing options for parents so the individual needs of their kids are met.
“I know families where they have three kids or four kids and they’re all in different types of education. That’s, I think, the beauty of school choice, is what works best for the family and what works best for each individual child,” Schulz said.
In terms of funding, Jean said the government’s system is pretty good, especially since schools with growing populations are currently in the minority in Alberta.
“I’m reluctant to change funding models for public institutions that rely so heavily on the budgets,” Jean said. “Obviously they can’t do the work they need if they don’t have predictability.”
Addressing discrepancies between school systems could be accomplished through some kind of hybrid voucher model, he added.
Jean said the math and English components of the new curriculum are good, but sections like Grade 6 phys ed and Grade 5 drama are too advanced. Jean advocated for revision and an eventual roll-out in September 2023.
Teaching kids about mental health and appropriate coping strategies, he continued, should be a focus in schools. Doing so, he said, would help eliminate many of the issues facing the province right now, such as homelessness and drug poisoning deaths.
Jean said the current spread of standardized testing is appropriate, though the topics should be tailored to the core competencies students need at particular ages — for example, basic reading and math in Grade 3.
Since the Alberta Bill of Rights protects the right of parents to make decisions about their children’s education, Jean said the matter of parent notification about controversial topics was already solved.
Discussion on such topics, he added, should be based on the curriculum.
“If the schools are doing a good job of sticking to the curriculum, then this shouldn’t be an issue and it shouldn’t be controversial at all,” said Jean.
The full recording of the panel and each of the candidates’ responses is available online at bit.ly/PCE_UCP.
This item reprinted with permission from Shootin’ the Breeze, Pincher Creek, Alberta