Recently, on social media, SOS Alberta was asked “Who are you? You know my name. I don’t know yours…” by a member of the Provincial Legislature, and a staff member of another politician accusing us further of being a 'front group for the NDP', (not the party they belong to). Full threads can be found here and here - but what this is really about is our questioning of public dollars going to private schools and how this diverts resources from the public education system. Although our executive’s biographies are on our website and there are plenty of methods to get in touch and meet with us, we were still questioned about who we are. Here is our answer.
We are Support Our Students Alberta, a public education advocacy group which advocates for the right of all children to an equitable and accessible public education system.
We are volunteers.
We are non-profit.
We are community builders.
We are engineers, psychologists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, custodians, speech language pathologists, scientists, dental hygienists, chiropractors, butchers, landscapers, accountants, homemakers, cashiers -- hard workers, contributing to all aspects of Alberta society.
We are mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and children.
We are cis, trans, bi, questioning.
We are Muslim, Christian, atheists.
We are public school graduates, private school graduates, we are urban, we are rural.
We are immigrants, refugees, 4th generation Canadians, FNMI.
We are disabled, gifted, special needs, able-bodied.
Most importantly, we are Albertans who believe in the promise of public education to build community across all these beautiful differences.
What we believe:
We believe public education is a child’s human right.
Every child regardless of income should have a barrier free public education.
We believe there is room for improvement, but also that public education is worth fighting for.
We know children go to school with trauma, mental health needs, food insecurity, poverty-related issues that can create barriers to their learning, something no PISA or standardized test score can measure.
We know children go undiagnosed and unsupported for learning disabilities, and early intervention could greatly affect their future.
We know some parents and families are unable to pay for the testing required to properly diagnose and treat their children.
We know some children feel unsafe at school, because of the colour of their skin, their religion or their gender identity.
We believe GSAs save lives.
We believe institutionalized and systemic racism exists throughout our education system.
We believe an unsupported, alienated and marginalized student becomes an alienated and marginalized citizen.
We believe competition has no place in education. Inherent in competition are winners and losers and no child should lose when it comes to education. Especially when the competition is tilted in favour of the privileged.
We believe choice is a euphemism for segregation.
We believe public funds should be for public schools.
What we have done:
We have conducted a province wide survey researching how education resources manifest on the frontlines for Alberta children.
We have met with representatives of all provincial parties, including the Wildrose, Liberal Party, Alberta Party, Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta and the New Democratic Party.
We have met with elected officials at the municipal and school board levels.
We have collaborated with public education advocacy groups across Alberta and in other provinces and internationally.
We travelled to 4 cities across Alberta to screen the enlightening documentary Backpack Full of Cash, a cautionary tale of the privatization of education.
We engage with anyone and everyone who wants to work in the best interests of children. Our door has always been and remains open for these discussions.
We are a non-partisan group. Above all else, what we do, the countless nights we volunteer to write, to plan, to work, to collaborate, we do because, we believe that when we meet the needs of the most vulnerable children, we elevate the quality of life for all children. We do not volunteer our time and energy for our own children; we do it because we believe in the institution of public education. We do not think education should be political, but the moment public funds were provided to private institutions, it became a political issue. We won't pretend that 250 million dollars a year is not diverted from the public system to private hands. We won't pretend competition does not hurt the most vulnerable of our population. We won't pretend outing LGBTQ2+ children is not religious infiltration of a public service.
We also will not be intimidated, demeaned, or condescended to, when a politician or anyone else asks “Who are you”?
We are Albertans, we are proud, engaged citizens, who will continue to advocate, not because we need you to know who we are, but because our children are watching.
Alberta writer, editor and academic, Leslie Vermeer kindly gave us permission to post her recent blog post, Rooted in Curriculum and Policy , this post is from an academic presentation she made in Toronto in May 2017 about education for reconciliation. For us it speaks to the need for a new vision of how Albertans see education curriculum and how the curriculum rewrite is an opportunity to address issues of equity and institutional bias. The Alberta curriculum rewrite is just that, an opportunity to make some thing new for Alberta students, not just repackage old structures and old ways. This is the one article about the curriculum rewrite we think all Albertans must read.
More of Leslie Vermeer's work can be found at her blog Reading With a Pencil
Rooted in curriculum and policy
JULY 31, 2017 ~ LAV
At the end of May 2017 I gave an academic presentation in Toronto in a session about education for reconciliation. I felt I was something of an odd duck in this session, but the feedback I received from the presentation was strongly positive. At some point I may publish a longer version of the presentation, but for now I would be happy for a few more people to encounter my thoughts about Alberta’s curriculum revision process. So here is the text of my presentation as spoken.
The NDP, the TRC,
and Why We Might Make the Same Mistakes Again
“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
— T.S. Eliot, “Gerontion”
“In a dark time, what is the work of a syllabus? What is the function of a classroom? What does it mean to teach students about the values of close reading and critical thinking?”
— Jehanne Dubrow
On June 15, 2016, Alberta Education Minister David Eggen announced a complete overhaul of Alberta’s K–12 curriculum. This announcement, coming just a year after Alberta’s New Democratic Party “made history” in May 2015 by toppling a Progressive Conservative dynasty of more than forty years’ duration, was not a new initiative, but rather a follow-through on a process already in motion. Curriculum renewal had been instigated in May 2013 by the former minister, Jeff Johnson. But David Eggen made a point of observing that “Support for First Nations, Métis and Inuit student learning, as well as the inclusion of Education for Reconciliation … will be reflected in future K-12 curriculum” (Government of Alberta, “Updating”), recognizing the significance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, which were made public around the same time as the NDP came to power in Alberta.
With the announcement of the curriculum review process, Alberta has an opportunity to create something new and important, something that changes Alberta’s relationship with Indigenous Canadians, something that reflects progressive ideals and improves life outcomes for all Albertans. For nowhere do people feel the consequences of history more than in schools, where cultures transmit valued and valuable knowledge, norms and ideologies. And no subject has greater reach into students’ hearts and minds than language arts, a near-universal discipline that accomplishes much more work than simply teaching reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and representing. Language arts underpins other subject areas by teaching efferent literacy and transmits a culture’s norms and values explicitly by representing them in texts of all kinds.1
Because this subject area is so important, before we embark on a blithe remaking of what already exists, we need a fuller understanding of the current (2003) English Language Arts curriculum for senior high and how it produces particular social outcomes. In reviewing the existing ELA curriculum, I argue that unless the curriculum adopts a dramatically different framework, this wide-reaching aspect of schooling will — despite appeals to technological competencies and Indigenous sensitivity — continue to exploit the interests of power and retrench the material problems of Canada’s history. That’s because the main outcome of the existing curriculum is sanctioned stratification. What we need instead is critical, resistant thinking.
Before I start, I want to make clear that I do not have an Indigenous background. I am not attempting to speak for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people, and am certainly not speaking at them. As someone who wishes to be an Indigenous ally in whatever ways I can, I offer my insight into this very specific and important area in the interests of greater social justice for all.
As it is elsewhere, English language arts is the underpinning requirement for graduation and postsecondary study in Alberta. It is central to achievement in other academic subjects, too, because expressive and receptive language skills underpin learning in all disciplines. The language arts encompass skills vital for success in the modern world, particularly in the knowledge economy, in which service jobs dominate and economic growth depends on the exploitation of research and intellectual property.
Alberta’s current high school ELA curriculum is a curriculum of stratification, rooted in individualism and competition and organized into two streams (actually three, as I will explain in a moment) “to accommodate a diverse range of student needs, interests and aspirations” (Alberta Learning, Senior High 5): 10/20/30-1 and 10/20/30-2 (or “dash one” and “dash two” as I will refer to them). These streams are underpinned by a rationalist tradition that sorts and selects students for particular futures. The curriculum document comments repeatedly that the streams are similar, while in fact they may be easily distinguished by content. Distinct content implies there is knowledge that certain students must know and that others simply do not need; the reason for unequal distribution is inherently political.
Students arrive at high school having already been sorted and selected. Although schools ostensibly operate according to meritocracy (also known as equality of opportunity), students do not arrive at school having experienced equality of condition: some students enjoy structural advantages from their earliest days while others face structural disadvantages. What this point means in practice is that only some students have access to high-status knowledge, by which I mean the knowledge that leads to university and potentially to well-paid, secure employment and relatively high social status. Post-graduation success is regulated by achievement in the K–12 system and so is necessarily competitive; as a society we believe there can be only so many “smart” kids and only so many top marks to go around. Competition for the benefits of schooling works hand in hand with biases built into the system through race, gender, class, and other markers of difference to produce stratification.
The curriculum document says, “In general, differences between the two course sequences correspond to differences in student needs, interests and aspirations” (Alberta Learning, Senior High 6). But the real difference in the streams is that they produce markedly unequal paths for student futures. Again, the document says, “Since the [dash two] course sequence provides for the study of text at a variety of different levels of sophistication, to meet the needs of a more diverse student population in terms of student aspirations and abilities, students who aspire to post-secondary education, but not necessarily to careers related to the English language arts, may register in this course sequence” (Alberta Learning, Senior High 7).
Diversity sounds good!2 But the fact is that relatively few students take the dash-two stream, and those who do are choosing a very restrictive path. No Alberta university program, and a limited number of diploma and certificate programs, accepts ELA 30-2 for admission. Some students recognize that the dash-two stream closes doors; but students don’t all come to school with the same preparation, so regardless, without understanding the longer-term consequences of this “choice,” some end up in the dash-two stream, in which the expectations for their learning are lower, their expected level of accomplishment is lower, and their options for next steps are sharply limited.
The issue is even more acute for Indigenous students, who may find themselves in a little-known third stream: English Language Arts 10/20/30-4 (what I’ll call the “dash-four” stream). Dash four was introduced in 2006 for students experiencing extraordinary difficulties with language and literacy. These courses have as their “core responsibility … to foster and strengthen the development of language” (Alberta Education, Knowledge 3). Superficially, this program of study appears structurally similar to that for the dash-one and dash-two streams, and the general outcomes echo those in the other streams. On closer inspection, however, the subpoints under the general outcomes are fewer and much more basic than those in the other streams (Alberta Education, Knowledge 9–36). More importantly, these courses do not qualify a student to leave high school with a diploma: only ELA 30-1 or ELA 30-2 may be presented for diploma credit.
Relatively few students are enrolled in the dash-four stream, and many of those who are require further academic intervention for a variety of behavioural, intellectual, and medical reasons; but significantly, Indigenous students are singled out in the curriculum preamble with the explanation “Knowledge and Employability courses serve to facilitate positive experiences that will help Aboriginal students better see themselves in the curriculum” (Alberta Education, Knowledge 9), a statement that certainly says something about how Alberta Education viewed the Aboriginal community in 2006. Given that the graduation rate for First Nations students hovers around 36 percent (Assembly of First Nations), encouraging Indigenous students to take a dead-end course seems disingenuous, at best.
To put it another way, the curriculum offers excellent, good, and poor paths suited to excellent, good, and poor students. My argument is that the labels excellent, good, and poor are not natural as applied to students but rather are artifacts of the structures of a capitalist society. Students may arrive at these descriptors having been already constructed as excellent, good, and poor on the basis of evaluations that have little to do with their intellectual abilities or readiness to read literature. Students who cannot or do not choose the most advantageous stream of high school English Language Arts may have been constructed as dash-two or dash-four students since their earliest days of primary school on the basis of their home or first language, their lack of early exposure to text, their classroom behaviour and lack of self-management, and other factors that have a great deal to do with the norms of socioeconomic status — the hidden curriculum. It is only in high school, where streaming becomes explicit, that such construction becomes visible. Those who understand and enjoy the benefits of full literacy continue to succeed; and those whose literacy is partial, functional, and vulnerable to manipulation are at risk for failure — many Indigenous students, for instance, particularly students from backgrounds of poverty, as well as new Canadians, racialized students, and other students who experience systemic oppression. Again, because students do not enjoy equality of condition, many do not benefit from equality of opportunity.
Perhaps this information is not shocking to you. After all, Davies and Guppy observe, “Education systems long have channelled students into different types of schools and programs based on a belief that not all students can benefit from the same curriculum” (91). For many people in this room, the question may not be whether stratification should exist as a curricular outcome, but to what degree it should exist. For me, any degree of intentional stratification as an explicit or implicit curricular outcome is simply wrong; that is the reason I’m speaking here today. For me, a curriculum that deliberately produces stratified outcomes is a curriculum that perpetuates social injustice. Alberta’s current curriculum is structured to produce stratification but also mystifies its actions with the rhetoric of choice to suggest that such this outcome is natural, expected, and even desirable. Stratification begets further stratification, and in Alberta, our most vulnerable students are the children of single Aboriginal mothers. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine how a curriculum organized around stratification could hurt children, families, and communities.
So let me now explain how Alberta came to have this curriculum and why it is at risk of perpetuating stratification, regardless of the best intentions of the new NDP government or the Calls to Action by the TRC.
For a long time, Alberta has been “a right-wing corporatist state in which the interests of the state align with those of private corporations” (Harrison 80). The reason stems from Alberta’s dependency on oil and gas. According to the discourse of petro-politics, the quality of democracy, personal freedom, and political integrity is eroded as the price of oil rises (see Ross 2001; Oskarsson and Ottosen, 2010; Smith 2015). In Alberta, the well-being of transnational investors and the maintenance of a business-friendly environment are critical to a robust economy: threats to this economy have informed profoundly angry and sometimes violent responses to Alberta’s NDP government and its policies. This political economy developed over several decades, after the discovery of oil in Leduc in 1947, and found its apotheosis in neoliberalism under Ralph Klein beginning in late 1993, marked by a clear diminution of democratic participation and a shift to governmental authoritarianism (see Lisac, 1995; Laxer and Harrison, eds., 1995; Taft, 1997; Harrison, ed., 2005). Petro-wealth means the government can draw on oil and gas royalties instead of taxes to fund the provincial budget, making government less accountable to its citizens. The precariousness of this wealth, however, which depends on global economics and is controlled far from the Alberta capital, has also conditioned Albertans to be defensive about their provincial wealth and fiercely protective against criticism of the oil sands and the province’s environmental record (Takach 136–38). The practicality of political survival has found even Alberta’s NDP government making numerous compromises, including Premier Notley’s stating she intends to work cooperatively with oil companies regarding issues like the oil sands and transnational pipelines (Smith 105).
I don’t believe the writers of the 2003 English Language Arts curriculum set out to write a document that perpetuates inequality. That curriculum was, however, a product of neoliberalism. Throughout the document we find references to neoliberal keywords: choice, preference, aspiration, individual interest. Framing a student’s experience of high school Language Arts as a matter of choice and interest shifts the production of structural inequality to a matter of rational, individual decision-making rather than a matter of government policy, and naturalizes the stratifying effects of schooling. If we seek to accomplish true reconciliation — not to mention address other urgent social traumas — we must recognize that the “what” of the curriculum is neither innocent nor disinterested: indeed, it is consequential and sharply interested. The 2003 curriculum made clear that it produces some graduates of high status and some of low status, as befits an economy that depends on disposable, docile labour.
Education policy is state policy. It is written by those who hold power and serves the interests of power. In neoliberalism, curriculum cannot be severed from economic outcomes, and we can see traces of this yoking even in the Guiding Framework the current Education Ministry has developed to inform its curriculum revision process. This document says, “Alberta’s provincial curriculum helps students create a positive future for themselves, their communities and society. It provides students with pathways to the world of work and post-secondary education related to their career interests” (Framework 12). Education is one of the TRC’s most emphatic calls to action. But what we know from history is that those who have most tend to rig the game to ensure their continued success, and those who have least rarely get ahead. As long as Alberta remains in thrall to petro-wealth, the shortchanging of democracy and the capitulation to international interests are real risks, even though Alberta’s governing party has changed. A practical outcome is that curriculum will be written to educate workers, not citizens.
What we need in the new curriculum is a clear movement away from the expectation that student life-outcomes are solely the responsibility of the student and her/his family, and toward the recognition that student life-outcomes are strongly and explicitly shaped through the experience of schooling: that is, a shift away from meritocracy and toward social justice. But any new curriculum has the potential to reinforce the neoliberal agenda if it does not address the larger questions of what a curriculum is for — if it does not respond to the reality that the existing curriculum functions instrumentally in the interests of power and privilege, to identify, reward, and discipline students and workers.
In speaking to you today I have outlined the negative consequences of the existing curriculum and suggested the potential for ongoing stratification if the writers of the future curriculum continue to yoke education policy to economic policy. But there is an alternative. We can change the outcomes of the language arts curriculum if we change our expectations around the purpose for studying language arts in the first place. This means changing not only the content but also the framework: we urgently need critical thinking and an end to streaming.
I cannot tell you what the ultimate curriculum document will say; its creation is happening now, and it will not be piloted for several more years. I can tell you, however, that regardless of what the document may say, unless we fundamentally interrupt the traditional purpose of English Language Arts, then the new curriculum perpetuate the inequality and injustice we know all too well.
1 Francophone students, of course, study French language and literature rather than English. The stratifying quality of literature study also pertains in a French context, despite that in Alberta Francophone students often struggle to assert their language rights. Simply to keep my argument manageable, I will confine my discussion to English Language Arts; my recommendations for the change in the teaching and learning of language and literature pertain equally to English and French.
2 Actually, the corollary of stating that the dash-two stream suits “a more diverse student population in terms of student aspirations and abilities” is that the dash-one stream suits a less diverse — or more exclusive — student population. So not so good, really.
On July 22 members of the Wildrose Party and Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta chose to merge and form a new political party called the United Conservative Party. A new interim leader was declared this week, MLA for Olds-Three Hills-Didsbury, Nathan Cooper. Questions were raised about his past views and work around LGBTQ2+ issues. We too have questions about his current position on LGBTQ2+ citizens, human rights and how this impacts UCP policy towards LGBTQ2+ youth and GSA's. We have written and sent Mr Cooper a letter, posted below. One of our supporters from the Olds-Three Hills-Didsbury constituency also kindly delivered a copy of the letter to his office.
Mr. Nathan Cooper
Interim Leader United Conservative Party
Dear Mr. Cooper,
July 26, 2017
On behalf of Support Our Students Alberta, a public education advocacy organization, I wanted to reach out to you to engage in productive dialogue around education policy as you are now at the helm of the recently created United Conservative Party and official opposition in the legislature.
Support Our Students Alberta is a non-profit, volunteer organization promoting equitable and accessible public education for children across Alberta. We represent citizens, parents and students who believe strongly that diversity and acceptance are our greatest strengths in Alberta.
Among our supporters are parents and children who are supportive of and are themselves from the LGBTQ2+ community and they are concerned for the safety and rights of students while at school.
We understand in the 8-10 years since your participation in the organization: C anada Family Action , (an organization committed to seeing,“Christian principles applied in Canadian Law”) your “thinking has evolved” and you now “unequivocally support the LGBTQ community.” The most fortunate part of this change of opinion is that you are in a position not just to change your mind, but to affect real change in this regard with many Albertans. Instead of limiting people’s rights, you can now actively protect them, particularly as it relates to children in Alberta schools.
The Support Our Students Alberta community has very real concerns about your party’s commitment to uphold the rights of children in Alberta schools and would appreciate your clarification on the position you and the United Conservative Party hold with respect to the following issues:
1. What specific policy initiatives will the UCP develop to ensure the safety of children at school and specifically students in Gay Straight Alliances across this province?
2. Do you support comprehensive sexual health education as a part of the provincial curriculum in schools including topics of consent, body agency and LGBTQ2+ topics for all Alberta students?
3. Do you support the human rights of transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms in which they identify?
4. Minister Eggen has asked all school authorities to develop policies that specifically support LGBTQ2+ students, staff and families. Do you support this policy requirement? Will you ensure that all schools fully comply?
5. Do you support parental notification for any child wishing to join a Gay Straight Alliance in their school? Please explain your position.
Mr. Cooper, these are just some of the questions, citizens, parents and students come to Support Our Students Alberta with, some of whom are in fact, your constituents. We would like to facilitate your response to these questions about what your position is and the position of the UCP is on these issues. We would be more than pleased to post your responses to these important questions so that our engaged parents can have their concerns answered directly from you.
Many kind thanks for your time and consideration. We appreciate you taking the time to reach out to Albertans on these important issues.
If you have any questions or concerns please do not hesitate to contact us at the number provided below.
Support Our Students Alberta
Today as part of the Alberta Government's initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in Alberta we had the pleasure to sit down with representatives from Minister Eggen's office and discuss the role public education can play in building community and addressing racism within Alberta. One of the most important things we were able to do at this meeting was to both share our experiences and the experiences sent to us by Albertans directly with government decision makers. We think this is the most important thing we can do as an advocacy organization, to share the voices of citizens. If you have an experience you would like to share we want to hear from you and we will pass on your comments to Minister Eggen's office and the Office of the Premier.
Agenda July 10, 2017 Anti-Racism Meeting Ministry of Education McDougall Centre, Calgary Alberta
Support Our Students is a public education advocacy organization, and as such our concerns with racism and intolerance will have a focus specific to public education.
Racism and Intolerance As Experienced by Children in the Present Day:
Racism and intolerance are very real experiences for children across all Alberta schools. We have heard from several SOS AB supporters about their experiences, and these are some of the stories they have shared with us:
*Please note these individuals wish to remain private, we've edited their letters to protect their privacy
**Warning there is some racist language and racist situations described in the following letters which we have chosen to include
Letters received by SOS Alberta from Albertans, July , 2017:
I want to share my story so that this doesn't happen to another child again. I know that one of my close friends was able to address this issue at their child's school by asking that more books be added that address diversity and more cultures to increase awareness/sensitivity for how people that look different can be made to feel accepted at any school they attend. That principal did bring more cultural books on staff after the request was made. I'm an elementary teacher at a large public school. I know that there are very few books like this at our school. I wonder how the minister might feel about increasing money for books in libraries to address this issue and start teaching communities as little as elementary students to help fix this issue one step at a time.
Please share this story with the minister of education.
My children were bullied for being atheists at the Palliser school [we attended] to the point they were told they were going to hell.
When my eldest child was 6 (now 12) was on a soccer team, and a kid started making fun of their gorgeous ringlet hair and called out " curly fries! Curly fries! curly fries!"
There are many cases of Racism in [our town] that we have personally heard from our other ethnic friends. It is quite common.
I'd love to see it mandated that teachers and staff privately take the Harvard Racial Bias Test online so they're aware of the biases and can work on improving them (we all have them. So much better to acknowledge!)
A dear friend of mine fostered a number of FN kids, two of them were siblings that they got as newborns. Those kids were Blessed to grow up in a beautiful loving home. They were treated exactly the same as the natural born children in every respect. The younger of the two had some issues and dropped out of high school. The older child is now studying to be a Social Worker. In any event the oldest child and their Mom (which is what they called her) were chatting one day a few months after graduation and then it all came out. both the siblings were harassed and bullied non stop because they were FN. That was when Mom found out why the youngest quit school. This went on for the entire time they were in high school. Mom was devastated. She asked why they hadn't told her and said she would have gone right to the school to get things sorted. The response: "Exactly Mom and that would have just made things worse for us". Two days later mom burst into tears while talking to myself and another friend after church. She was heart broken and the sobs kept coming. The thought that those children endured so much for so long was tearing her apart. Our hearts broke for that family. How is it even possible no staff saw this? Those kids should have been safe in their small town rural high school but they weren't. Nowhere close. I am just grateful that they have survived and maybe one day there will be healing for them.
The place where children from all walks of life should have opportunities to learn across faith, culture, ability and race. The benefits to this kind of learning and environment have been shown to be beneficial to learning and skills for later in life. This is happening less and less:
Of note, the CBE no longer even includes the term PUBLIC in its title. We must recommit & redefine what a public system truly is; accessible to ALL children.
Presence of Christian schools, Jewish Schools, Quranic worldview schools, Muslim Academies, Traditional learning Centres (know to appeal to certain cultures), Sports Academies, Music Programs, Language programs, all segregate children under the public umbrella. This current system will only encourage, not discourage intolerance and racism
Specialized programming, and their associated barriers (fees, application procedures) not only segregate, but disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged population who are over represented by FNMI, people of colour and other minorities.
Effects of these barriers and systemic inequities result in poor completion rates and disengaged students.
Talking about diversity and tolerance is important, but means nothing unless children have the opportunity to experience diversity and exercise acceptance. Anti-racism-education cannot be theoretical, it must be practical. For this to occur children from all walks, of all faiths, cultures, and ability must build community through public education together. They need us to create those opportunities. It is important to fight racism, it is equally important to prevent it.
Scott Rowed wrote the following op-ed for Fast Forward Weekly in 2012 examining how school choice and competition has impacted public education in Alberta. Any numbers and stats reflect 2012 data. Thanks to Scott for letting us repost!
School choice. Sounds good, doesn’t it? The idea is often linked to the concept that competition improves the quality of education. Alberta is certainly taking a leadership role in this, with taxpayers funding public, separate, private, charter, alternative and home schooling. But is the system fair to all? Does competition really improve learning? There is reason to think not. Indeed, it’s time to recognize that school choice is not always benign, that it favours some families at the expense of others, and is a threat to public education.
Over the past week the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) has held public meetings for parents at alternative programs affected by recent bell time and transportation changes. These were not public engagement sessions, they were information sessions. Opportunities for the CBE to inform families of the decisions made on behalf of families, affecting their children.
For years, the CBE has promoted programs of choice. As recently as last week the CBE announced a new program of choice an elite athletic program at Bowness High School. They have built an intricate system based on choice, what is really a system based on competition. Programs of choice also termed alternative programs compete for students from all across the city. These programs including the regular program compete for students and for funding.
The thing with competition is it's great, while you’re winning. But eventually, in time, everyone loses.
Choice, is only a choice until it becomes unsustainable for the CBE to provide. And this has been happening all over the city for years.
Families have exercised their choice only to eventually have their children moved from one school to another, put in a school lottery, have programs and schools close, siblings separated due to boundary changes, bell times modified and fees increased.
These are only some of the changes to programs of choice that have happened over the years including:
CBE is telling Calgarians these changes are a result of provincial legislation under Bill 1. Always stating the important reminder that the CBE is actually not obligated to get your child to school if you choose one of the programs they've been offering and selling to students and families. However, school boards are to a large degree autonomous. Many school boards across the province do not offer alternative programming at all and certainly not to the degree offered in Calgary. It is the obligation of Alberta Education to provide education equitably across the province. It has been the CBE’s autonomous decision to continue to offer AND PROMOTE programs of choice in a manner it cannot sustain.
The past few years at the CBE have seen a year over year increase in school fees and financial burdens and barriers placed on families across Calgary. Just 7 years ago, bussed students did not pay noon supervision fees. Then, bussed students were required to pay that fee. Shortly thereafter, bussing fees increased from $300 to $335 per student per year with the elimination of the family cap. Now, the CBE will increase costs for some families to send children on city transit to schools up to $700 student per year. And when these fees increase, we are told those decisions are “operational” decisions not open for engagement to the public. Thereby creating an environment in which our children's education is a consumer good rather than a public/civic responsibility.
You are told you have CHOICE: Which is great until they decide to take it away from you.
Fees continue to increase: It’s manageable until it's not financially viable for your family anymore.
Transportation changes: Seem fine until you see multiple bus transfers, changes to bell times and separation of siblings and it just won't work for your family.
This is not Public Education, this is PRIVATIZATION of our public system.
Students/Families have been sold an illusion. A choice that has fine print. *Available until such time as the provider deems fit. Parameters subject to change at any time
What is the solution? Can CBE families find something agreeable and manageable for fall 2017? Should parents boycott all fees? Should families return to community schools? Should Calgarians collectively protest at the CBE? We, SOS Alberta are open to suggestions.
But we believe, that we should no longer be divided by programs, left to defend our choices, pitting one program against another, neighbour against neighbour and instead, collectively oppose these changes that threaten our communities. The implication in this plethora of choice is that some schools are better than others and a program of choice is superior to a regular program school.
Perhaps, we should be considering the longer term solution of emphasising the value of community schools and demand a rich and diverse curriculum in every public school that includes languages, includes arts, includes athletics, and includes science. Perhaps our kids shouldn't have to choose. Perhaps public education should not come with an asterisk or fine print. Perhaps we shouldn't have to wonder every year what changes will make our children's and families experience in the system more financially, logistically and emotionally difficult. Perhaps we shouldn't let them lead us down this hole of privatization. Because the options before many of us today are not things we can buy our way out of, nor should we have to.
The following blog post was written by a SOS Alberta member from Calgary in response to some recent announcements made this past week from the Calgary Board of Education(CBE). The CBE is one of the boards in the province that charges families school fees, including fees for yellow school bus transportation and students taking public transit pay for public transit as regular transit users do. The CBE is also a board that emphasizes school choice by offering a range of niche or alternative programming from traditional learning to language programs. We would love to know from people in other parts of the province what their expectations are for transportation fees for the next school year and how has choice impacted their school board?
Earlier this week the CBE sent out notices of bell time changes, amendments to busing fees and bus service changes.
At SOS Alberta we support GSAs. We support the right of students to form GSAs in their schools. Its the law and GSAs help create a positive school culture. GSAs are about community building and supporting kids. We also agree that parents do not need to be informed when their child has joined a GSA at their school. GSAs are social clubs akin to leadership club or amnesty international club or even a book club. Parents are not being excluded. Parents are a valuable part of the school community and there are many ways for parents to be involved. If parents want to know what is happening at their kid's school there are many ways to find out. Talk to your kids, your relationship with your child will be the best measure of what they disclose to you. Talk to your school's principal if you have questions about the school or board policies. Join your school council, get involved. If you have questions about GSAs and why privacy is an issue there are many great resources available. We have started to compile some here: GSA Resources. Take the time to listen to the voices of people who are involved in GSAs.
Show your support for students and GSAs by wearing one of our buttons.
How does under-resourcing of our public education system manifest in the day to day experiences of Alberta students and families? We hear often from students and parents about their school experiences, navigating the process of addressing special needs, learning challenges and inclusion. One of our supporters has kindly shared with us her daughter's and her family's experience navigating 'the system'.
I just received a copy of a private assessment I paid for to see if my daughter has progressed any since being diagnosed and coded with a learning disability 2 ½ years ago and was very angry and frustrated by what I read. As I had suspected, she had not progressed much except she now can identify more sight words. My daughter is 10 years old and still reads at a kindergarten level and writes at a grade 1 level at best.
She has a learning disability in reading, writing and math and AD/HD. What I don’t understand is how much do our children have to fail in order to get the targeted, appropriate help they need so they can succeed? My child is very intelligent and if given the proper support I know she can do great things.
Why do I have to pay for a private specialist for something she is supposed to be getting in school? What happens if I can’t afford to do that like many Albertans? Is my child less important than those whose parents can afford it?
I have been waiting for the Education system to help her, and as I wait she falls further behind. I am now forced to find a way to get her that targeted, appropriate help myself as she will be 4 grades behind next year and counting. We can’t afford to have anymore throw away years. The next hardest decision will be what will my family have to sacrifice to give my daughter her basic human right to an education?
Groceries? Summer Camps that build her self esteem and confidence? Technology tools she needs at home that are not provided for at school so she can learn?
My heart breaks for my daughter that the system is failing her and we as Albertans are letting that happen. We need to get children screened earlier for learning challenges and get them the help sooner so they don’t have to fail so miserably before we give them a branch to save them. Why should parents have to beg for supports, resources and timely assessments or obtain them privately? Why aren’t we providing every child with the right to a good education and giving them what they need to reach their full potential?
We need to make Education a priority in our province and we need to fund it properly for it to work. It’s either pay now or pay later in health care costs, justice system and social services costs. These children end up on drugs to cope, in jail or on social services as they are either under employed or unemployed because they drop out or don’t have the skills required like reading or writing.
We can’t afford to put off funding Education because we can’t afford it. Our future depends on it.
Children don’t stop growing and the need never goes away.
Our biggest priority is giving space for Albertans to share their perspectives on education issues, please feel free to share with us your thoughts. If you have something to share please let us know
Last week we released Levelling the Playing Field: A Comprehensive Resource Audit of Alberta Schools reporting on the results of our 2016 Survey of Alberta Schools. One of the most significant issues reported to us by school administrators was how schools are facing significant challenges because of the increasing complexity of Alberta classrooms. Our analysis showed that there was a deficit and disparity across the province in special needs specialization and training for staff including both teachers and support staff. Principals spoke of not being able to adequately meet the needs of students because they either do not have the resources available or available resources are inadequate. This was an important reality for principals to share and their perspective will continue to inform our advocacy.
In the fall of 2016 we launched the first annual Support Our Students Alberta Survey of Alberta Schools. A survey was sent to every school in the province that receives public funds and today we are pleased to present our report, Levelling the Playing Field: A Comprehensive Resource Audit of Alberta Schools, full report available to download below.
Special thanks goes to all the school administrators who took the time to complete the survey, we look forward to working with you again on this year's survey! Sharing the voice of your school enhances our ability to advocate for Alberta students.
Three main themes emerged from our findings, specifically around health, specialization and fundraising. Some examples of our findings are:
“More kids are coming to school with ADHD, diagnosed and not yet diagnosed, anxiety disorders, psychological effects from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, trauma, and other family issues. Kids are exposed to, and are even doing, drugs at an alarming rate. Kids are suicidal and self-harming. We have a FSLC come 1 a week. Easily half the kids that need to be seen are not because of time restraints. We could easily employ a counselor 2-3 days per week. Yet, Educational Assistants are being cut back more and more; FSLC time is being cut back – FSLC’s are burning out because of the pressure they feel of not having enough time to help all these kids; kids are falling through the cracks; teachers are expected to do more and more all the time. No longer do they simply teach, they are EA’s, behavior specialists, learning support/resource teachers, counselors, psychologists, and life coaches. Often this is not only for the kids, but their parents as well. And we are surprised (well really we aren’t) when kids are unable to engage enough to learn. It is impossible to care about reading and math if a child just saw his mom get high before he left for school; or maybe she didn’t have any dinner or breakfast, and has nothing packed for lunch; or maybe he was punched by his step-dad walking out the door. I have parents coming to me in tears not sure how they are going to feed their kids, or clothe them for winter, let alone put a present under the tree for them at Christmas. I vent, but kids are dealing with more and more, but are receiving less and less help.” -Principal (International Border Region)