Educators scramble to understand what removing ‘public’ will mean for Alberta school boards

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New provincial legislation from the UCP has removed the word “public” from all school boards, affecting eight of 41 divisions across the province.

Educators and administrators are scrambling to make sense of the sweeping change, which took effect Sept. 1.

Colin Aitchison, the press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said the removal of the word was done as part of a streamlining process.

“The removal of the word public was done to solely simplify the naming conventions of Alberta’s public school divisions,” he said in an emailed statement. “School divisions will still have the autonomy to brand themselves in a manner which they feel is appropriate for their division (eg. Prior to Sept. 1, Edmonton School District no. 7 branded themselves as Edmonton Public Schools. They will still be allowed to brand themselves as such).

“It is important to note that this change was originally introduced by the former PC government in 2011 when the Education Act was initially brought before the legislature.”

One political scientist tells CBC News it may be too soon to understand the ramifications.

“It could very well be a small administrative change to the legal title of schools,” said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University. “There’s a lot of suspicion. And so what could be normally seen as just a simple administrative move for further efficiencies, or for legal reasons somehow takes on a more insidious role.”

The UCP campaigned on a promise to replace the existing, 40-year-old School Act with their amended Education Act.

Political scientist Duane Bratt says the UCP’s move to remove “public” from school boards could be a small change with big ramifications. Or, it could be administrative. (CBC)

“Right now, if you look at the Calgary Board of Education the CBE, the word public isn’t in there so we don’t know what impact this will have,” he said. “But there has been suspicion of the Kenney government toward public education for a while. He is closely aligned with private schools, with homeschoolers, he never went to public education himself.”

There are also issues around funding, with the recent MacKinnon Report, which recommends funding reductions, and the budget about to come out in late October.

“Meanwhile, schools are struggling to figure out how much money they actually have,” Bratt said. “I think the issue here is not so much the legal change, as the lack of trust and great suspicion and paranoia that people in public schools have to a very recently elected government.”

Bratt said even though the change could appear minor, school boards are scrambling to understand the ramifications.

“They’re going to go, ‘Why do they want to do this?’ And the government says, ‘Oh don’t worry it’s just a simple little change, you don’t have to change your stationery or your messaging. This has no impact whatsoever.’ But are we going to discover a year from now that this actually did have a major ramification?”

Name change will incur costs

Lorrie Jess, president of the Alberta School Boards Association, says the ASBA is seeking clarity on what taking “public” out of school authorities’ names will mean, and how the costs will be handled.

“It will cost money to change branding and letterhead and banking, and there is no funding attached,” Jess said, adding that ASBA has been informed there will be a grace period for making those changes, through a letter from Curtis Clark, deputy minister of education.

“We have flexibility to change our names as we buy new buses, or as time goes by,” she said. “But the legal names of school divisions, so the ‘public school division’ on the side of a bus, can stay. It can stay on everything for now. But as time progresses they want us to change it.”

It’s another way to conflate and confuse and blur the lines between public schools, charter schools, private schools, and we think it’s very deliberate.– Barbara Silva, Support Our Students

Barbara Silva, Communications Director with Support Our Students Alberta, finds the UCP changes alarming.

“I think it’s really interesting that it is so specific and so small,” Silva said. “So what that means to us is that it’s a very deliberate and strategic ministerial order because if it doesn’t mean anything, why go about doing it at all? why impose this new legislation on school boards to change their legal names?”

Silva believes it’s all about privatization.

“They hope it flies under the radar with the public, but it’s an incredibly deliberate, strategic plan to undermine public education, which is the first step in privatization,” she said. “You undermine first, then you underfund, and then you privatize.”

The Calgary Board of Education has never had the word public in its name. Calgary will now become the Calgary School Division.

A school board, Silva says, is unique from a charter school or a private school.

“We have a democratically elected board, we have citizens run for trustee, we go to the polls every four years and we elect trustees in a democratic process,” Silva said.

“Charter schools don’t have democratically elected board. So again it’s another way to conflate and confuse and blur the lines between public schools, charter schools, private schools, and we think it’s very deliberate.”

Silva points out that for a government intent on cutting red tape, this change is likely to increase it.

“That’s what makes us realize that this is absolutely deliberate. This is absolutely something they are going forward with in spite of the fact that they prefer red tape reduction, because this is going to create a lot of red tape, a lot of work. And it’s going to divert funds from the classroom.”

CBE to discuss name change on Tuesday

Calgary’s Board of Education has put the name change issue on the agenda for the next board meeting on Tuesday.  Silva hopes that’s a sign that the CBE is ready to fight the changes.

“This is exactly why we elect the school board trustees, and school board trustees now need to start flexing the democratic muscle with which they were elected and they need to start defending public education, and they should be having these meetings,” she said. 

Silva said Support Our Students Alberta has already held a meeting to get mobilized, and plans to hold meetings in Edmonton, Medicine Hat and Red Deer as well.

“It’s talking about what the privatization movement looks like, and all the parallels, because people like to think this is happening in the States, this isn’t happening here. But that’s not true.”

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