School Principles

How should we shape our education system? A former minister weighs in.

By David King

These days, I enjoy being a citizen. But for 29 years I was a citizen politician, managing campaigns, working as the research assistant to the leader of the opposition, serving as a government MLA for 15 years and as Minister of Education for seven. Even now I am still a little surprised to think that I served longer as Minister of Education, here in Alberta, than any minister in any province in the last 40 years. When I worked as a citizen politician, I was a Progressive Conservative, but I haven’t been a member of that party since 1994. I think of myself as a community conservative—someone who values strong communities and wants to live in a community which is dynamic, constantly getting better without giving up the best of what we have inherited.

Next month Albertans will vote for municipal councillors and school trustees. It is likely that within 10 months we will be voting in a provincial general election. This is a good time to remember and to look ahead.

I learned about politics from my father and grandfather, both united church clergy, and from Peter Lougheed and the Progressive Conservatives of the sixties and seventies. I learned that there is a profound difference between the politics of hope and the politics of fear (always practise the politics of hope). I learned that there is a profound difference between welcoming people provided they become just like us, and welcoming people because diversity is something to celebrate—it makes us stronger, more resilient, more able to make our way in the world. I learned that people with a vision can more or less create the future they want; people without vision are slaves to every change of circumstance, every rumour and every secretive lobbyist who whispers sweet nothings in their ear. I learned about courage, about “the majority of one.”

I was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in August 1971, when the Progressive Conservatives formed the first new government in Alberta in 36 years. Although I was only 25 years old when I was first elected, many members of the new government caucus were almost as young. We believed in ourselves; we believed in Alberta.

Social Credit cabinets were often described as the board of directors of Alberta, Inc. It was an image that the Progressive Conservative government of 1971 shattered. In fact, I thought we had destroyed it—but I was wrong. Since 1993, I have often been in the company of people who suggest that provincial general elections were like corporate annual general meetings. “The citizens should elect the board of directors,” they say, “then leave them alone, forget politics and get on with life, with making a living.” The problem is, the government of Alberta is not at all like the board of directors of a corporation, for many reasons. Perhaps the most important one is this: citizens, unlike shareholders, have an unlimited liability for the decisions made by their Legislature or cabinet.

It is conventional wisdom today that we are paying through the nose for the mistakes our government made. We will continue to pay the price for many years. From 1993 to 2006 our government certainly lacked faith in Alberta’s long-term prospects. It lacked courage and foresight. In three elections we succumbed to this. We chose to be led by those who projected fear, and we became fearful—of the cost of social housing, of Ontario, of Ottawa; fearful that the price of oil would never again exceed $12 a barrel. We chose a government that was just strong enough to be hurtful but not strong enough to be helpful. We elected Tory MLAs who, as far as we know, never disagreed with the Premier in any notable or sustained way. Every single person in the government caucus followed Ralph Klein’s lead into despair, fear and intimidation.

Almost all the leaders of our current “new” government were in the 1993 caucus or the 1997 caucus. We have no indication that they had faith in Alberta when Mr. Klein despaired. We have no indication that they promoted hope rather than grim determination to wrestle the debt to the mat. We have no indication that they could foresee recovery, a boom and incredible opportunity.

Today I am not a politician, but I am still a citizen. I am very interested in the decisions our government is making and will make in the next year or so. I would rather avoid having to spend more years paying for a new round of mistakes.

I would make K–12 education my highest priority. It is every community’s most important investment. We can’t have advanced education and skilled trades without first having quality K–12 education. We can’t have excellent health care or economic development without quality K–12 education. Although it would be unusual, I can imagine getting through life without needing a doctor; I can’t imagine getting through life without needing a teacher.

I care about the decisions being made in the field of education today. The doctors, nurses, financial advisers, clergy, grocers and others who will meet my needs in 20 years are probably in junior or senior high school right now. I don’t know about you, but I am very concerned that they should be knowledgeable and skilled, and have good character and attitudes. our community depends on how we draw our children into life as citizens.

As a citizen who would like my government to succeed, as someone who has been there and knows what is possible, I offer the following ideas about government decisions generally, and especially about K–12 education here and now.

1.

Increase the base funding for school boards by about $500-million per year.

We need to do this because, wisely used, it will provide the best return on investment over the next 20 years. An additional investment in K–12 education of $500-million per year for 20 years will yield a greater return to this province than a new $10-billion investment in the oil sands.

And we can afford it. our government, on our behalf, is acting like the naive teenager who inherited a mansion full of fine art. Not knowing the value of the art, the teenager sold it in a garage sale, at a fraction of its value. Let’s put an end to the garage sale and start recovering the full value of our riches. The full value is available to us in the marketplace. Let’s think long term.

The government should make this additional investment without prescribing what the money is used for; in my experience, the locally elected representatives can and will make wise decisions.

Good ideas, generally, come from local communities, not from provincial departments. Early childhood education, native education initiatives (such as Awasis and Ben calf Robe), designated community schools and many other initiatives began in one community or another. A wise government, a good department, recognizes the value, nurtures the program and encourages expansion—but it doesn’t take credit and it doesn’t impose.

2.

The government has centralized control of education for too long.

What we are doing looks less and less like “public school education” controlled by the community and more and more like “state school education” controlled by the provincial bureaucracy.

Provincial government control of school construction provides a classic example of this. Other examples include the almost complete failure to meet the needs of immigrants and refugees, the loss of relevant locally developed courses, and ministerial control over local staff (notably the superintendent).

The basic problem is that bureaucracies are essentially a “commodity” type of operation. They measure everything quantitatively rather than qualitatively. They can be wrong about the measure of every individual and yet still be right about the average of the group, so they don’t care if they are wrong about the individual.

The centralizing mindset of the provincial government is probably an anachronism that won’t fare well in the 21st century. We need to make the most of each individual, which we will not do if we focus on improving the average for 600,000 students.

We need to promote trust, and bureaucracies are based on skepticism if not distrust. We need to promote the idea that knowledge and power should be shared, while bureaucracies promote the idea that knowledge and power should be hoard- ed. In local communities, legitimacy is the basis of authority; in bureaucracies, authority is the basis of legitimacy. In communities, the well-being of the community, and everyone in it, is the desired end; in bureaucracies, fast decision-making and economic implementation are the desired end.

Very few people would argue that the “state schools” of France or Italy provide a better education than the public schools of Edson or Edmonton, yet the provincial government has us moving toward the state school system.

3

The government should make a renewed commitment to the proposition that public school boards are a local general-purpose government, just like municipal government.

As we approach local elections, it is important to remember that the government of Alberta believes locally elected representatives (trustees and municipal councillors) are the agents of the provincial government, not of the local electorate. Most electors hold the opposite view, believing that locally elected representatives are the agents of the community—responsible, among other things, for carrying messages to the provincial government.

In a 1994 decision on a dispute between the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta and the provincial government, Madam Justice J.B. Veit nicely summarized the government lawyers’ argument: “The government argues that… it could, if it wished, eliminate at a stroke the city council of Calgary and run the city of Calgary from Edmonton. The government says it would probably not make such an order, but asserts that it could abolish Calgary city council if it wanted to.”

The government of Alberta made a terrible mistake in 1994 when it eliminated the right of school boards to levy a local property tax in support of education.

Let me emphasize that I favour the equitable distribution of most education resources on a province-wide basis, and I certainly believe that most of the investment in people should be covered by progressive forms of taxation.

But—and this is an important “but”— school boards are accountable to the local community, and if a board does something in response to purely local circumstances or interests, there should be some way in which the local community can find the money and pay for what they want.

Presently, trustees cannot keep a school open if they want to; they cannot build a new school if they need to; they cannot do anything the local community wants or needs them to do— unless they can persuade the provincial government to provide extra money.

But the government does not, as a matter of course, provide school boards with any money to fulfill locally determined mandates.

4.

The Minister of Education should insist that the department abandon its wrong-headed and ideological approach to accountability.

A locally elected school board should be accountable to the local electorate, not to the provincial government, for what happens in its jurisdiction. There should be absolutely no bureaucratic and statistical accountability to the department of Education. Professional, personal and social accountability— of teachers, principals and administrators—should be to the locally elected boards and to the communities that have elected those boards.

Most so-called “high stakes” testing is really “high altitude” testing for those who live at a high altitude—the rarefied atmosphere of the department. As a farmer friend of mine has often said: “If I want my pigs to put on weight I feed them, I don’t weigh them more often. And I don’t weigh them all at once, then calculate averages.”

Of the 20 “important objectives” identified by Alberta Education for successful high school completion, only seven can be reasonably well evaluated using paper-and-pencil tests. However, all the objectives are important, including the ones that seem unimportant because we don’t test for them. Many of these are related to what the conference Board of Canada has identified as “employability skills.” They focus on attitudes and behaviours, accepting responsibility, and relationships. The Conference Board hasn’t got it entirely right, but they are pointing in the right direction, and I would like to see an equally authoritative body identify similar citizenship skills.

In any case, the class average is irrelevant to what we want to know about a student at the end of the day. under Alberta Education’s Grade Level of Achievement (GLA) initiative, one number or letter grade is expected to cover six or eight subjects—not to mention numerous skills and attitudes—to tell us whether a student is performing “at grade level.” This is the height of folly and hubris and disregard for parents and the community. The minister should get rid of the GLA regime. Tell the boards to tell the teachers to tell the parents how the child is doing by referring to work the child has done, in terms the parents understand. By being much less prescriptive and statistical, the government could get what it wants, and get what parents want, at a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the friction that comes with GLA.

5.

Make a commitment to community schools and to the community use of schools.

On most days, most public school boards are dealing with some aspect of the mandate of at least 13 different provincial government departments, from Advanced Education to health to the Solicitor General. This happens because it is sensible— effective, efficient and economic. yet school jurisdictions get core sustaining funds from only one department, Education, which has no mandate to fund on behalf of other departments.

Evenings, weekends and holidays, many Albertans would like to use schools for community recreation, for lifelong learning or as a venue for dealing with politics and social issues. School boards have no funds for the additional custodial services or energy costs. If they want to put a kitchen in a new school so that it may be more widely used by the community, the province provides no support. Yet schools, like education itself, are an integral part of the commons of every community.

6.

Modernize the rules relating to separate school education.

Discourage the fragmentation of small rural communities. Discourage the proliferation of separate school buildings for different faiths, or schools with fences down the middle of the playground. Discourage needlessly small schools, sometimes side by side, that struggle to provide the strong program that would be possible if students could be educated together. Allow members of the minority faith to be supporters of the public school system if they wish. Allow public school boards to provide faith-based alternative education.

When my wife and I were first married we avoided using our credit card, even for something as small as theatre tickets. But we did take out a mortgage to buy our first home, and we stretched ourselves in the process. We believed in ourselves: we believed in our education, our good health, our energy, our community, our peers. We were hopeful. We felt confident that the investment was a wise one, and that we would enjoy reaping the benefits. Our hope has always been entirely justified.

Our hope met its match in the entire community. Many other bright, passionate, energetic, hopeful Albertans planned and acted on the conviction that the future was wide open. In those days, the future didn’t happen to us; we happened to the future. Thirty years later, people who didn’t live in Alberta at the time know the story of the people and government of Alberta in the early seventies – the story of self-confidence and strength, the story of the renegotiation of royalties after the first oil shock; the story of the heritage fund and the heritage foundation for Medical Research… and the list goes on. It is time for Alberta—for the best Alberta can be—to happen to the future again. The prospects are wide open in front of us.

Former education minister David King is the executive director of the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta.

 

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