It was by all accounts, a fiery speech. Standing on a blue-curtained stage in front of a couple thousand supporters at the UCP’s inaugural policy convention in Red Deer in May 2018, leader Jason Kenney went on the attack against anti-oilsands activists and the foreign money he says funds them. He spoke of war rooms, alliances and retribution. And then Kenney promised an equally full-throttled attack on a very different enemy. “If the NDP tries to smuggle more of their politics into the classroom through their curriculum,” he said, “we will put that curriculum through the shredder and go right back to the drawing board.”
The pronouncement drew 48 seconds of applause from the full house in front of him, arguably the most enthusiastic response of the night. In contrast to the wild applause, Kenney held a look of sombre gravitas, nodding his head to signal his commitment to that pledge.
It wasn’t the first time Kenney had denounced the Notley government’s efforts to update Alberta’s kindergarten through Grade 12 curriculum. His talking points centre on the idea that the rewrite is being done “in secret” and with a “socialist agenda.” Kenney’s attacks on curriculum have been consistent with his commentary on such issues as school funding, parental rights and gay–straight alliances. “We are profoundly concerned about the government’s direction…on education,” he said in his maiden speech to the legislature. “What Albertans don’t want is failed pedagogical fads or political agendas in the classroom.”
Since winning the UCP leadership, Kenney has offered glimpses of his approach to education—without actually releasing a formal platform on the file. There was his promise to “fight like heck” for private schools, his support for an alternative sex-ed curriculum in separate schools (“It’s not for me or the premier to dictate to the Catholic system how it teaches Catholic values”), and a core mantra about “parental choice” in education.
“If the NDP tries to smuggle more of their politics into the classroom through their curriculum, we will put that curriculum through the shredder and go right back
to the drawing board.” – UCP leader, Jason Kenney
Albertans may not want “political agendas” in the classroom, but for Kenney education policy is all about ideology. His comments reflect an ambition to steer the province’s K–12 system toward a more socially conservative and market-oriented underpinning—even to encourage more Albertans to educate outside the traditional public system. And the fastest way for him to do that, critics say, is to undermine the public system itself.
The heart of Wilcox, Saskatchewan—pop. 264—is the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a private boarding school that regularly boasts of the professional hockey players who have risen through its ranks. In 1976 an 8-year-old Jason Kenney arrived there with his family. According to a 2014 article in The Walrus, Kenney’s father had been headmaster of a Winnipeg girls school when he was called to help the famous but nearly bankrupt Notre Dame College in southern Saskatchewan. Martin Kenney arrived at the school with his family and they stayed for 15 years, helping to build a preparatory school that is now known as a powerhouse for minor hockey in Canada.
Kenney’s educational history makes him unique among Alberta leaders: If the UCP forms government this year, Kenney would be the province’s first post-Depression premier to have graduated from a private school. (Richard Reid, Alberta’s sixth premier, who held the role in 1934 and 1935, was the last with such a designation.)
Alberta has about 100 accredited K–12 private schools, which range from religious institutions with tuition fees of a few thousand dollars to elite preparatory schools with august stone buildings and sweeping campuses, where parents can spend up to $22,930 for their children to attend.
Alberta currently funds private school students at about 70 per cent of the amount it provides for public school students—the highest such rate in the country. This system of public subsidies for private schools has existed in Alberta for decades, though the 70 per cent rate has been in place only since 2008, when Premier Ed Stelmach raised it from 60 per cent.
Kenney has been effusive in his support for private education. During a telephone town hall last August, he accused the NDP of greenlighting a campaign to defund private schools and said he’d vigorously defend “school choice.” (Rachel Notley indeed criticized public funding for private schools while in opposition, but has not changed the funding formula as premier.) What his pledge means is unclear. When a UCP spokeswoman was contacted by Alberta Views for an interview with Kenney, she replied: “Our platform is currently under development and we will have more to say about our vision for Alberta’s education system closer to the election.”
The UCP has released several policy documents, including a draft policy framework in January 2018 that called for “equal funding regardless of school choice—public, separate, charter, home or private.” A few months later, at the party’s first annual general meeting in Red Deer, UCP members voted for a slightly amended statement, to ensure “equitable per-student funding in accordance with school choice.”
The change from “equal” seems notable. But “equitable” is open to interpretation, perhaps deliberately so. Does it mean maintaining the status quo? Could it mean raising the per-student grant for private schools, possibly to the same level as for public schools? Could it mean giving money for private schools’ capital projects? Perhaps private schools could apply for other grants they’ve long been denied—for transportation or technology or class-size reduction initiatives.
“Choice” is also open to interpretation—the word is sprinkled throughout UCP education policy declarations and Kenney uses it constantly in speeches. He frames it in the context of parents being able to select a specific program, school or pedagogical approach for their child. On his now-defunct “grassroots guarantee” website, Kenney wrote in 2017 that parental choice “is one way to keep the whole system more accountable… through a kind of positive internal competition [between schools].”
The Alberta-based non-profit Parents for Choice in Education, which was front and centre at the Red Deer convention, argues “parents are the experts on their own children, and they should be free to choose the method of schooling that best meets the needs of their families.” (The organization did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Others worry “choice” means exclusivity and elitism. For Barbara Silva, communications director for Support Our Students (SOS), education conversations that focus on “choice” too often centre on parents—not the students the system is meant to serve. “‘Choice’ is absolutely a euphemism for segregation,” she says. “It’s dangerous language because it means segregation [and] it means parents can do what they want with their children. It’s geared towards the parent—or the taxpayer—and rarely refers to the rights of the child.”
Such language is an affront to the notion of the public good, she says. “It’s never combined with the expectation of what education should achieve. Children have a right to equitable access to public education. That is not a parent’s choice.”
SOS is a non-profit born out of the budget cuts that threatened Alberta’s K–12 system in 2015. The group says it wants public funds to go only to public schools. Silva views Kenney and the UCP as part of a larger right-wing populist movement that has swept from Donald Trump’s America to Doug Ford’s Ontario. She notes that within a month of the PC victory in Ontario last year, Ford’s government cancelled a $100-million fund for school repairs. Kenney himself has promised a period of “sustained restraint in spending.” Silva expects this means slashing funds to public education.
She adds, however, that the ultimate goal of cuts may not be fiscal restraint but rather the undermining of public education, as in the US, where parents become fed up with rundown public schools and overcrowded classrooms and opt for private education instead. “If you… believe Alberta is immune to these forces, that would be ludicrous,” she says.
If a UCP government increases the per-student grant for private schools or adds capital funding or other funding streams for private schools, this could increase demand for private education. But organizations such as the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges in Alberta say they aren’t pushing for an increase to per student funding. “When we talk to education ministers, we’ve always said we want predictability and sustainability so we can plan longer term,” says John Jagersma, who heads the association.
The UCP has stated it would promote “school choice” by encouraging an expansion of charter schools. Alberta is the only province to have charters, which were brought in by the Klein government in the early 1990s. Such schools must deliver education in a way that isn’t found in existing public systems. The province currently caps the number of charter school authorities at 15, though each may have several campuses. “Right now, charters serve about 9,000 students but growth isn’t possible because we’re capped,” says Dale Erickson, the superintendent of the Calgary Arts Academy. “Most charters have large waiting lists but because there are limits on space, we can’t expand.”
At present, opening a new charter school isn’t easy. A charter authority must apply to the local school board and explain why a particular educational model is needed. (Alberta’s existing charters include Almadina, which has “a unique emphasis on English language acquisition”; Boyle Street Education Centre, whose students’ education has been interrupted; and Suzuki Charter, with its focus on music.) The board might then open such a program itself. If not, the group can ask the minister of education for permission to open a charter school. Over the past five years, the ministry received five such applications. None were approved.
Erickson says charter schools are often misunderstood, even by education ministers. “Whenever there’s a change in [minister], charter schools have had to start over to help the ministry understand what a charter is,” Erickson says.
ast October Premier Notley attended a seemingly innocuous event at Edmonton’s Hazeldean elementary school. “Read-in Week” encourages prominent community members to read to schoolchildren. Notley posted a photo of herself on Twitter reading Mouseland to a group of students seated cross-legged on a carpeted floor. The book is about a group of mice who vow to vote out their cat leaders, who don’t have the interests of mice at heart. The tale was famously narrated by NDP grandfather Tommy Douglas as his party, the CCF, was en route to winning the 1944 provincial election in Saskatchewan.
Kenney responded quickly on Twitter: “The NDP tries to assure Albertans they’re not pushing political ideology in their curriculum reform. But when the premier visits young students in the classroom, what does she read to them? NDP founder Tommy Douglas’s socialist propaganda tale Mouseland. We can’t make this up!”
For the past two years, Kenney has consistently attacked the NDP’s curriculum overhaul as a “socialist” project being done “in secret.” A major curriculum rewrite, initiated by the Redford government, was already underway when the NDP won power. In 2016 the new government formally relaunched the $64-million project, to take place over six years. The plan was to rewrite the entire K–12 curriculum. Some subjects, such as fine arts, hadn’t been updated in over 30 years, while others, such as social studies, had gone through a curriculum rewrite about a decade prior.
By 2017, opposition politicians such as Chestermere-Rocky View MLA Leela Aheer and conservative pundits were calling on the government to release the names of the hundreds of people—including volunteer teachers and education ministry staff—working on the project. The idea of a “secret rewrite” started to gain traction even though, according to Edmonton Journal education reporter Janet French, past rewrites have never seen the authors involved identified. Meanwhile almost 10,000 Albertans contributed to changes through a curriculum survey in May and June of that year.
As drafts and outlines of the curriculum were posted online, Kenney accused them of being “riddled with politically correct themes.”
“How do you get into the history of Métis settlements in a general outline but no reference to the First or Second World War? I’m sorry, I’m not buying it. I think we’ve caught them trying to prepare a really distorted social studies curriculum,” Kenney said in a September 2017 interview with Canadian Press after the government released a 13-page draft outline of changes to be made to the social studies curriculum. A few months later, Kenney made his threat to toss the curriculum in the shredder.
Education Minister David Eggen replied by saying the draft curriculum does cover Canada’s military history—domestic and foreign—and cited “guiding questions” such as “To what extent do contending ideologies influence relationships within and among nations and countries?” Alberta’s and Canada’s history, including an emphasis on Indigenous relations, is central to the new curriculum, he told reporters, adding: “I find it very disturbing that someone would suggest otherwise.”
Carla Peck, a University of Alberta professor of social studies education, is part of a teacher focus group working on the curriculum. She’s one of about 50 members, mostly teachers, who review curriculum written by a different group of approximately 50 other educators, mostly education department staff. She does this work as a volunteer.
“The idea that the (curriculum writers) are all minions in some sort of left wing army is just ridiculous and foolish,” she says. “Teachers by and large… are ethical and committed to the work they do and the children they teach. Teachers are guided and required to abide by a code of ethics that includes not indoctrinating students.”
If Kenney makes good on his promise to toss the curriculum rewrite, Peck worries about all the time and work that will have been wasted. She’s also concerned about how much further behind Alberta’s students will be if they must wait for another curriculum to be pushed through the time-consuming process. Even once that curriculum is done, resources must be purchased, standardized tests rewritten and teachers trained. It could take another six years.
But more than that, Peck thinks ripping apart years of work would cause irreparable cracks in the education system and create distrust by the people who make it run. “Imagine you just put two or more years of work into trying to create the best possible curriculum for kids—and then you’re told it’s going to be put in the shredder?” she says. “Why would I ever volunteer again? Why would I trust you would value my work?… It puts teachers in a place where they’ll be exhausted by the process and maybe lose interest.”
Why has updating curriculum become so controversial? Steven Khan, an assistant professor of math, education and computational thinking in the department of elementary education at the University of Alberta, attributes it to our modern world of social media and deepening ideological entrenchment. “In that environment, where you don’t have a system of trust and policy coherence across electoral cycles, what might be happening is you end up listening to whoever has the loudest voice,” he says. “The broader political climate is somewhat toxic; the discourse around education can be toxic. And trust and transparency, the ability to contextualize sufficiently and the motivation to do so, has faded into the background.”
This increasingly charged political climate has expanded into the legislature. In fall of 2017 the Notley government passed Bill 24, An Act to Protect Gay–Straight Alliances, making it easier for students to set up GSAs and mandating that educators can’t tell parents when a child joins such a group unless the student is under direct threat of harm. A coalition of private schools launched a constitutional challenge against the law. Eggen threatened to pull all public funding from the 28 private school authorities who refused to obey the law (another 66 private school authorities complied) by June 2019.
Bill 24 has been a flashpoint ever since. Kenney opposed the legislation, and his criticisms have been echoed by Parents for Choice in Education and many Christian private schools. The Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) officially launched the court challenge, arguing the bill violates multiple Charter freedoms, including freedom of religion and expression, and keeps parents from knowing where their children are and who they associate with.
However, for Glynnis Lieb, executive director of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, the backlash to Bill 24 is an attack on the LGBTQ+ community. “[Opponents] have been so vocal that people expect the UCP to change things,” she says. “This feels like a targeted focus on the [LGBTQ+] community that I haven’t seen in the decade plus I’ve been in Alberta.”
If Bill 24’s amendments to the School Act are repealed, Lieb is concerned for students who’ve been part of GSAs or even thought of joining one. “We’ve seen how quickly people will take a step back [when] they’ve just emerged from their comfort zone…. how quickly people revert to places of fear and ostracism.”
“‘School choice’ is absolutely a euphemism for segregation. It’s dangerous language because it’s… geared toward the parent—or the taxpayer—and rarely refers to the rights
of the child.” Barb Silva, Support Our Students Alberta
Whether Kenney will change the law governing GSAs is unclear. At Red Deer the UCP rank and file approved a declaration that the government should “reinstate parental opt-in consent for any subjects of a religious or sexual nature, including enrollment in extracurricular activities/clubs or distribution of any instructional materials/resources related to these topics.” For many, that means a repeal of Bill 24.
From the beginning, Kenney, a staunch Catholic and defender of parental rights, has said teachers should be able to use their own discretion to choose whether notifying parents is in the student’s interest. After the Red Deer convention, he said explicitly that the motion was “poorly worded,” that he “hold(s) the pen on party policy,” and that there should be “no mandatory notification” to parents of students who join a GSA. At the same time, however, the constitutional challenge is being spearheaded by an organization headed by a friend and ally of Kenney’s, the JCCF’s John Carpay. When Carpay made headlines last fall for comparing the pride flag to a Nazi swastika, Kenney declined to expel Carpay from the party.
Lauren Alston, the province’s GSA coordinator, thinks students will find a way to organize themselves regardless. But she still worries about the effects of a repeal. “Any attack on a student’s ability to control who knows they’re ‘out’ will immediately make students uncomfortable with even attending a GSA or accessing any of that information,” she says. “And it sends a message to other students.
Another UCP policy declaration takes aim at the Alberta Teachers’ Association. Delegates in Red Deer voted to support a government-mandated split of the ATA into separate union and professional bodies.
Professional organizations that both advocate for and discipline their members—whether doctors, dentists or teachers—are sometimes accused of being in a conflict of interest. For example, in 2018 a teacher from the Grasslands School Division saw her licence revoked after 37 years of teaching practices described by former students as “belittling” and “humiliating,” which prompted questions about whether the ATA adequately disciplines its own members. (A formal complaint was not lodged with the ATA until 2016.)
The ATA has both investigated complaints about teacher conduct and protected its members in regards to employment and collective bargaining since 1935. ATA president Greg Jeffery says his membership would strongly oppose any effort to split the ATA. What’s more, he’s “somewhat mystified” about the idea. Jeffery says he has written four letters to Kenney regarding the declaration but received no response as of late January 2019. “We have a collegial model in Alberta,” he says. “Our administrators are part of our association; a principal isn’t a school manager; a principal is a lead teacher within a school, and that’s their primary role, to be a model to the rest of the teachers. In other provinces, where associations are split, [this] often involves removing the administrators and it creates an adversarial relationship in the schools.”
In a May 2018 ATA News editorial, ATA executive secretary Dennis Theobald proposed a theory about the declaration: “While [the UCP] are not enamoured of the Association’s advocacy for public education and participation in curriculum design, nothing has raised their ire more than the ATA’s efforts to protect and create safe and caring spaces for gender minority students, teachers and others in the school community. These people understand that they’ll have to go through teachers to advance their agenda, and they’re cunning enough to know how to make that easier—just strip the profession of its autonomy; just split the ATA.”
Meanwhile, another storm over religious doctrine in schools could well explode when the province releases its updated sexual education curriculum for older grades. After last year’s provincial election in Ontario, Ford’s government announced it wanted teachers to revert to a 20-year-old sex-ed curriculum because it didn’t like changes made by the Liberal government three years before. In Alberta, Kenney has supported Catholic superintendents who want to write an alternative sex-ed curriculum that would retain faith-based messages.
Silva, from Support our Students, sees a parallel between Ford’s criticism of sex-ed in Ontario and Kenney’s attacks on the curriculum rewrite currently underway in Alberta. “It’s rhetoric used to undermine teachers,” she says. “If you can undermine teachers and undermine the curriculum, you give people pause and a reason to leave the system. And then you can grow the privatization movement.”
Alexandra Zabjek is a journalist in Edmonton. Her previous AV story (June 2017) was about Alberta’s Status of Women ministry.