The Alberta Teacher's Association (ATA) held a forum with the UCP leadership candidates on Wednesday, August 10 to ask them questions on pressing matters and hear what the candidates' views for the future of education are. In attendance was Leela Aheer, Brian Jean, Danielle Smith, Rebecca Schulz, Rajahn Sawhney and Todd Loewen. The only candidate who wasn't there was Travis Toews, who said he had a pre-existing commitment and would be unable to attend. Here is what you need to know from the forum.

Leela Aheer

In her opening remarks, Aheer said funding for public schools has to keep pace with inflation, population growth and enrolment growth. She added you have to have solutions for different areas, as a band aid solution for the entire province may not work for some schools. On the curriculum, Aheer stressed that collaboration with teachers is key. The government is here to be your partners, not your adversary. 

Regarding communication, Aheer earned plenty of applause with the statement "I do not work for the leader of my party, I work for you." She went on to say she won't get everything right all the time, so she values an open-door policy and constant feedback from teachers. If the ATA agrees, Aheer would like to establish a liaison between the government and ATA.

For the curriculum, Aheer pointed out that nobody in the room of teachers was consulted on the curriculum, and piloting 4 projects in one year should not be done, as it was never done before. She added it's critical to bring experts onto the discussion table, and she needs to rebuild an entire system of trust. It's not just about pulling the curriculum.

Other points of interest was Aheer saying teachers being left out of pension discussions was the deepest disrespect done by government, and creating a 10 year financial plan for stability instead of erratically throwing funds around.

Brian Jean

As the former Wildrose leader, Jean spoke on how he held it all together (caucus, government, policies) prior to Kenney. He added that education is the foundation on which everything else is built. If you get education right, everything else becomes much easier for future generations.

As for communication, Jean believes in an open door policy. He stated that we all want the same things, but the approach might be different, so he's open to discussing different ideas and working together to make the outcomes as good as possible.

The hot topic was the curriculum, and Jean said there's good (English and math) and bad (music, social studies, wellness). He wants to break the curriculum into chunks and pilot one subject at a time. He added new elements in the K-6 curriculum would become an optional pilot project. He capped off his statement by saying it was disgraceful how the UCP handled the curriculum.

Other points of interest included Jean pointing out the importance of other options (the 5% as he called it), even though public is 95%. Public will receive appropriate funding, but having different choices is key. He also would not commit to big spending as he believed it would not be responsible. He finished the day off by saying it's not about what he personally thinks is right, but what the entire group thinks is right, which this current government failed to do.

Danielle Smith

Smith started by saying she recognizes the ATA-UCP relationship has been rocky, and while she won't be able to agree on everything with teachers, they'll agree on some things and you have to start somewhere. She also spoke on how she is an advocate of choice, and specifically pointed to Bishop Carrol in Calgary which implements a learn at your own pace program. Smith also said there was a lot of learning loss in regards to online learning and a lack of proper social development, so she said one of the most important things they need is to stabilize the current situation, and make sure kids aren't pushed through the grades without having any of the foundational skills.

Regarding communication, Smith said she will work to rebuild trust through one-on-one discussion, and getting buy in from teachers is key, especially when it comes to things like the controversial curriculum.

As for the curriculum, this was the rockiest part of the entire forum, as Smith received groans, shouts and cynical laughter from the audience. She got into it with the audience, saying, "respect is a two way street," to which an audience member shouted back "that's what we've been saying." While her ideas were not well received in the room, she said she's focused on making sure kids get the right answer in math, as students are still receiving marks despite getting the wrong answer, and tightening up literacy. She added parents are feeling like they aren't having their views addressed in the classroom, which Smith wants to address. This included things like the energy industry and some religious parents feeling like their values weren't properly represented.

Other points of interest including Smith saying switching the pension wouldn't have been a problem if it was profitable, and remains committed to criticizing the Canadian Pension Plan. She also asked for feedback on future covid related issues. She won't shut schools down again, but needs ideas on how to protect the vulnerable.

Rebecca Schulz

In her opening remarks, Schulz spoke of parent choice. She added that it's important to keep things focused on the classroom and students. Discussing finances is important, but you can't steer the conversation away from what matters. She also said it's important to rebuild trust with the ATA. During the discussions she also committed to doubling the capital budget for education for stronger classroom support and wrap-around services for teachers.

Regarding communication, Schulz admitted that the approach the UCP took was wrong. Albertans feel that the UCP became entitled and arrogant, and you need to be humble and admit when you get things wrong. She added the process of communication is important. 

For the curriculum, Schulz said she had schools workshop the curriculum and bring back their feedback. She pointed specifically to social studies not being age appropriate, and also highlighted that the process itself regarding the development of the curriculum was wrong. She believes we need to stop development of the curriculum, but people still want a new curriculum so she will work together with teachers and show respect.

Other notable moments included an emphasis on growing the economy to help teachers, and keeping track of where the money is going. She said it should go into classrooms and teachers, not into operational budgets.

Rajahn Sawhney

Sawhney's opening remarks earned the loudest applause of the day among the UCP candidates when she declared: "If elected premier, I will halt the further development and implementation of the current curriculum." She spoke about the need for communication, respect, and government support as well. She went on to say she accepts responsibility for the erosion of trust between the ATA and UCP, and she is prepared to take the first step to build that trust up.

As for the controversial curriculum, Sawhney said back in 2021 she put together an education focus group to analyze the curriculum, and reported that to the Education Minister. Changes were made, but clearly it wasn't enough, so Sawhney committed to bringing experts back in to discuss and write the curriculum based on their knowledge.

Other topics of interest included pointing out that other options are important for parents, but funding public education is the number one focus. For each issue, Sawhney was adamant that communication will be better with her, instead of being rude and adversarial as it was before. She also mentioned increasing mental health supports.

Todd Loewen

In his introductory remarks, Loewen said he understands the importance of the public school systems, but also believes in strengthening the other options like separate schools and Francophone schools. This is because he believes in the importance of parent choice. He added that he knows he won't agree with everything the ATA says, but stressed the importance of communication and said he would bring more communication as leader, since there isn't enough right now between the government and the ATA.

Regarding communication, Loewen commits himself and his education minister to meet with the ATA more and eliminate the adversarial attitude. He added education has slipped, which is the government's faults and not the teachers', and he wants to work together to bring it back up.

For the curriculum, Loewen believes it would've been better to have more people pilot the curriculum for more feedback, and does not believe in discarding the entire curriculum. He believes in reworking and correcting any issues in the curriculum, but there are good things in it. If we keep scrapping the curriculum, we'll never get anywhere.

Other notable moments including Loewen pointing out that there was a lot of backtracking from people in the room that were a part of the very government that is behind the issues, and he is committed to getting the education minister right and listening. He also pointed to his rural roots and said he would make sure rural areas get the appropriate funding.

 

Final remarks from ATA President Jason Schilling ended the day, and the room erupted into applause when he stated "your party and your government has failed them (teachers). You failed them in consulting around curriculum, around pension, around a variety of issues that have impacted the work they do day in and day out." 

He added, "you told all of us here today what you believe is important to education, and we are going to hold you to account," which was also met with tremendous applause

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