Thursday, 14 September 2017

Alberta's tone deaf Bill 1 a.k.a. Ignoring the Elephants

Dear Minister Eggen,

I am writing in response to Bill 1, and specifically regarding how transportation costs have been lowered only for children attending their catchment school in “regular” programming.

My sons, aged 12 and 15, each began Kindergarten at our Catchment school. I was happy to send them there. The school had been suffering poor attendance due to an aging neighbourhood and brought French Immersion in to create a dual track school which would sustain the school until the demographics began to change. The school and the district promoted French Immersion and did a good job explaining that their curriculum was the same curriculum followed by English peers. I am from a French-Canadian family and although I was not raised in French I was happy to have my children study in Canada’s 2nd official language once I was assured the programming would be the same. Long term it was also a good strategy for the school to attract interested families and avoid closure, which was a plausible risk in 2003/4 when the school was preparing to introduce FI.

So, rather ironically, during the years of intense overcrowding in the SW of Edmonton, our school was designated for several neighbourhoods approximately 15 km away. Children were bussed past multiple (and considerably less crowded) EPSB and ECSD schools for several years. These years were hard. Our children endured large class sizes and non-traditional classrooms like the stage, and staff room. Our school worked extremely hard, staff and parents together, to make those hard years look easy. The culture of our school as an inclusive and kind school persisted, despite being so terribly over crowded, and certainly despite being dual track. Any resentment or finger pointing was quickly diffused by explaining we were balancing the need of the greater community’s shortage of student spaces (while advocating for much needed schools in new communities) with the need of our school to remain viable and relevant in an aging community. Our parent council did good work in those years. We rattled a lot of cages at the Provincial, Municipal, and District levels. We fought hard for ALL kids.

Bill 1 came in and essentially punished any family with children in an alternative program by excluding them from the much needed transportation cost subsidy. Last week I paid the EPSB $470 for EACH of my 2 children to attend our closest FI junior high and high school while their peers who happen to be categorized as “in catchment” paid $180 each. The fact that they started the program at our neighbourhood/catchment school is irrelevant. That extra $580 would have covered most of our remaining school fees for the year. Our kids don’t get to take band or any of the other expensive options, they don’t get to go on school trips, because we can’t afford it, but the Alberta government sure just let us know in a big way that our choice of an “alternative program” was a privilege and one they would not support. I paid an extra $580 for the “privilege” of my children attending an alternative program and the NDP just created an official Provincial 2 tier system.

So, even though French is our second National Language, and even though the curriculum is identical, and even though FI was promoted aggressively at our designate school where they began the program we are officially "alternative". And furthermore, since there is no system of accurately assessing a family's ability to afford it, this means only families with money will be able to stay in FI. It's going to be extremely difficult for us this year. You've finally created the 2 tier educational system we've been fearing. I agree that choice has completely run amok and is unsustainable and often at odds with what our society needs to focus on right now. I don't want to make these hard decisions but they must be made. So, make them. Maybe FI will be discontinued and that's fine, but don't allow districts to offer programs that only the rich can attend. Do the right thing, decide what will and won't be funded and then assure that every offered/available program is indeed accessible to everyone. I am so disgusted and disappointed right now I could cry.

I have been a fierce advocate for accessibility and equality in education and I am shattered by how 'off target' this whole process is. There are many ‘Elephants in the room’ when addressing equitable funding, accessibility, and sustainability for Education in Alberta. ‘Elephants’ like why we’re still funding private schools, public school programs which have entrance requirements or dubious pedagogical merit, religious public school programs which have consistently and increasingly shown themselves to be at odds with Alberta’s curricular expectations and human rights requirements, and an extremely costly entire second and competing public board in many of Alberta’s school districts in order to cater to one Faith based demographic. There is a large and difficult discussion which must be had around the notion of choice. Whether we can allow any and, if so, how we ensure those choices are accessible to all. There was work to do, and I believed you were the government to finally do it but instead you threw money at a problem without ensuring equity. In fact, this has cemented inequity and polarized parents across the province. And you’re running a costly self congratulatory ad campaign patting yourself on the back for it. It has come off as pretty tone deaf to a lot of us who have been advocating for a strong and egalitarian Provincial Education system.

Lastly, I hope you consider the urgency of this matter. Bill 1 stirred the pot by painting all parents of children in alternative programming with the same brush. Has it ever occurred to you that Alberta has encouraged unsustainable levels of competition in most of it’s districts for decades and that vast numbers of parents have chosen alternative programming simply because it was offered? There are endless reasons why that’s a problem but punishing parents for making a choice, when choice is offered, is obtuse. By excluding alternative programs from the transportation subsidy, you created an ‘us against them’ mentality and you’ve incited and mobilized 1000’s of parents to act. I fear this will deliver them right into the hands of harmful groups like Parents for Choice in Education and alt-right Politicians like Jason Kenney. Without hysteria or exaggeration, I predict they will use this and promote Choice/Alternative Programming as a political football. This will play directly into the hands of people who would protect bigoted, homophobic, misogynistic, and zealotic mandates within the Provinces Educational system. I would like to say it’s inconceivable that a typical FI parent would side with an anti-GSA parent on any issue, but you drew a line in the sand and told every alternative program parent that they were on the wrong side … times are tough, parents are stressed, issues become polarizing, and as the saying goes “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

I hope you fix this. I hope you find a way to do it quickly so this year doesn’t remain so inequitably costly for only SOME parents. I hope you engage citizens in meaningful dialogue and do a good job of dealing with those Elephants. There are a lot of us who are reasonable, fair minded, and willing to face change if it’s fair. I don’t know much, but I know calling us the enemy and punishing us financially is no way to start the conversation.

No comments:

Post a Comment