Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
February 25, 2002
Take education seriously
If the three-week (and counting) strike of Alberta teachers has proven anything, it has shown that education in this province needs an overhaul - a new look at both attitudes and structures.
Premier Ralph Klein's decision to go on a lengthy overseas trade mission just as the teachers were walking off their jobs was symbolic of the province's low regard for its school system. Because of the archaic structures of Alberta education, an answer to the teachers' demands has to come from the provincial leadership. Local school boards have lost their bargaining power.
The province gave a loud "no" to the teachers' demands, but its "no" did not help anyone deal with the many questions that needed to be addressed.
The province's rejection of the teachers' 20-per-cent salary demand was certainly clear enough, a rejection that most taxpayers would likely support. But does that rejection have to mean the teachers' remain limited to a three-per-cent pay increase when they still have not recovered from the five-per-cent decrease they took several years ago when the province was tightening its belt? With the politicians recently giving themselves and nurses pay hikes in the neighbourhood of 20 per cent, it is easy to understand why the teachers are balking?
In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Albertans - from students to laid-off-school staff, to parents, to trustees - are suffering from the province's decision to say "no" to the teachers' demands and then to walk away from any further discussion. If education were a government priority, there would have been urgency from the beginning to end the strike.
The government's Feb. 19 announcement that it was not ready to order the teachers back to work or to supply the added funds needed to reach a settlement is perplexing. There are now 355,000 Alberta students out of school because of this fiasco. They are being deprived of their education because of the refusal of the two sides to budge.
The implication is that students can miss three or more weeks of school without it negatively affecting their education. This is hard to accept.
A best solution would be for the province to grant some of the teachers' salary demands and to make a commitment to lowering class sizes over the next few years. It's hard to see a negotiated end to this strike occurring in any other way.
However, this system that has local school boards doing the bargaining and the provincial government controlling the purse strings is out of whack. It shows how powerless the school boards have become since the province began setting the local education mill rate and equalizing tax revenues across Alberta. There was justice in this approach - from which Catholic districts benefitted handsomely - but there was also a shift in power that has exacerbated the current situation.
But what is the solution? Province-wide bargaining? A return to the previous inequitable tax arrangement? Catholics would not want to see our school boards abolished. Even if they are relatively powerless in bargaining with employees, they are a key player in ensuring the Catholic identity of our schools.
We need to reassert the importance of education. That importance is not necessarily shown by the level of teachers' salaries - although that is one indicator - but also by class sizes, the ability of the commonweal to ensure schools get the best quality teachers and curriculum, a freedom for parents to enroll their children in schools that would meet their needs, the encouragement of innovation, the establishment of headstart programs for low-income children, the ability of schools to meet the needs of children with a whole host of special needs, and other concerns.
Above all, we need a government and a teachers' association determined to put the needs of children first. Throughout this strike we have not seen abundant evidence that either group cares sufficiently for the needs of those most affected.
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