EDMONTON – Alberta MLAs have rejected attempts to rejig the Progressive Conservatives proposed Education Act to include a ban on mandatory school fees, enshrine a teacher’s right to assign a grade of “zero” or to reference to the province’s human rights laws.
Opposition parties introduced several amendments to Bill 3, the Education Act, during a debate that started Tuesday morning and lasted until about 1 a.m. Wednesday.
The act, which will replace the School Act that has governed Alberta’s K-12 education system for more than two decades, is the third version of the proposed changes to be introduced in the legislature in the last two year.
Wildrose MLA Bruce McAllister proposed the amendment banning mandatory school fees, a move supported by the NDP and Liberals in the legislature.
“I’ve said that September is cheque-tember,” said McAllister, the party’s education critic. “If you have a few kids it does add up. For families, it does make a difference.”
Tory MLAs defeated the proposal, saying that the Education Act was not the right place to address concerns about annual classroom charges.
“I don’t disagree that we need to understand the costs,” Education Minister Jeff Johnson said. “We need to put some fences around these costs. But I don’t agree that we need to take away the local autonomy of the boards and that we can fix it with one fell swoop in legislation. This is something that needs to be dealt with in regulation.”
A Wildrose proposal related to a controversial “no-zero” policy used in some school districts, including some Edmonton public schools, also was rejected by other MLAs Tuesday night. McAllister said it was clear from the outrage over the dismissal of an Edmonton high school physics teacher that parents want teachers to have the right to assign zeros for work that is not submitted.
Johnson said that while he personally doesn’t support the “no-zero” concept, he said it is an issue best considered at the local school and school board level.
“Assessment is not a cut and dried thing, and it’s certainly not something that can be codified in a provincial Education Act and shouldn’t be codified in a provincial Education Act,” Human Services Minister Dave Hancock agreed, speaking against the no-zero amendment.
NDP and Liberal efforts to include a reference to Alberta’s Human Rights Act in the Education Act also failed Tuesday night.
The PCs removed a reference to the human rights legislation in Bill 3, which in previous versions of the Education Act had infuriated some home-school families, who worried that they could be hauled before a human rights commission for views they taught to their children.
Liberal education critic Kent Hehr said he was disappointed, but not surprised, that the Tories refused to return references to human rights legislation.
“I know full well that you’re not going to change what happens in the home, but when you change legislation that gives a wink-wink, nod to certain groups, home-schoolers, other educational boards and the like that the rules don’t apply to you, this bothers me,” Hehr said. “This is what has happened in this case.”
NDP education critic David Eggen expressed concern Wednesday that his amendment to reduce the influence of corporations on schools was defeated. Eggen told reporters the issue is real, referencing Calgary Board of Education plans to introduce corporate sponsor naming inside schools.
“Maybe sponsorship is OK for hockey arenas and other things, but not for our schools,” he said. “Everything has a value, but it doesn’t mean everything has to be for sale.”
Eggen also complained about debate on the education legislation occurring during night sittings of the legislature.
“This process of legislating in the dead of night is entirely inappropriate,” he added. “We’re not getting the debate we need on landmark legislation, such as the Alberta education bill. If they expect Albertans to take them seriously then let’s perform legislation in the light of day.”
MLAs did approve one amendment to the Education Act introduced by Wildrose MLA Heather Forsythe that forbids people from doing anything that is “detrimental to the safe operation of a school.” The wording, she said, allows schools to tackle problems ranging from drugs to weapons to bullying.
The Education Act is expected to be voted on for a third, and final time, in coming weeks.
With files from Darcy Henton