Big Idea #5: Fight back to defend K-12 public education 

Working Albertans understand that high-quality, public education is the key to their success and the success of their children. At the same time, economists and public policy experts have been saying with growing urgency that access to high-quality public education, for as many people as possible, is one of the keys to building a strong economy. 

Unfortunately, the UCP is moving Alberta in exactly the wrong direction. Since they formed government in 2019, Alberta has dropped to the bottom of the pile among Canadian provinces when it comes to per pupil spending on K-12 education and concerns about class sizes, curriculum and staff morale and retention have become acute.

In his book, Upheaval, renowned scientist and historian Jared Diamond wrote “if you want to predict the economic future of a country, examine the quality of their education system today.” By that measure, Alberta’s economic future is very much in doubt.

Gil believes it’s important for Albertans to understand that the UCP’s education policies are NOT motivated by traditional conservative concerns about debt and deficits. Instead, it’s clear the UCP is engaged in what amounts to an ideological war on public education.

Helping Albertans understand what the UCP is REALLY up to needs to be a top priority for the NDP in opposition – and reversing their approach needs to be a top priority for the NDP once they form government.

Here’s how Gil would manage the crucial education file as NDP leader and, eventually, Premier.

1. Fight back for public education

Politics is all about narratives. The UCP has deployed many narratives to undermine public education. Instead of responding to each of those narratives separately, Gil believes that the NDP needs to deploy its own narrative, describing what we think the UCP is really up to with public education and explaining why it’s bad for working Albertans and their families.

Specifically, we need to say that the UCP is trying to bring religion into education (violating the division between church and state) and that they’re deliberately trying politicize education in order to make future generations of Albertans more likely to vote conservative.

Destroying public education as we know it is the UCP’s project and we can’t afford to be squeamish about saying so. We also have to develop and deploy our own narrative about how we will update public education to make sure our kids are prepared to succeed and thrive in a changing world.

What’s happening south of the border is a cautionary tale … and what’s being planned by UCP allies like Take Back Alberta is a clear and present danger. The NDP has to sound the alarm bell and take a leadership role in the existential fight to protect public education in Alberta.

Gil’s promise: As NDP leader and Premier, Gil will launch an ongoing education and advocacy campaign aimed at naming and shaming the UCP’s ideological and politically self-serving attack on public education, while at the same time, describing the NDP’s vision for a world-leading public education system.

2. Commit to BIG funding increases

Conservatives have long employed the strategy of breaking public services through underfunding, then using the ensuing crisis to justification privatization. That’s what’s happening in Alberta, right now. What the UCP has added to this well-worn strategy is that the goal is not just privatization, but also politicization. The fact that Alberta spends less per pupil on K-12 education than any other province is not an accident or an oversight – it is all part of the plan. The NDP has to remind Albertans that this chronic underfunding is a feature, not a bug, of the UCP’s approach to public education. What this means in practice is that studies, rallies and lobbying won’t be enough to save public education – that goal can only be accomplished by defeating the UCP in the next election.

Gil’s promise: As NDP leader, Gil will campaign hard to make sure that Albertans understand that the UCP’s chronic underfunding; their refusals to build new schools; and their 3-year average funding model are all part of a deliberate strategy to undermine public education. As Premier, Gil will move Alberta to first place in per pupil funding, as opposed to last place, where we are currently languishing under the UCP.

3. Bring class sizes down

One of the most visible and troubling consequences of the UCP’s campaign against public education in Alberta is the explosion of class sizes in Alberta schools. Forty has become the new 30 in junior and senior high schools and 30 has been the new 20 in elementary schools. The implications for the quality of education are dire. The number of new schools being built is nowhere close to what’s needed to accommodate our province’s booming population. And, even when they are built, they are often filled to overcapacity on opening day. Students of all ages, including children in elementary school, are being forced to take buses across cities and town, even when there are brand new schools in their neighborhoods. Teachers are also reporting that classes are so big that they spend more time doing “crowd management” than teaching. One-on-one time with has become a thing of the past – undermining the quality of education for students and causing moral distress among educators, who are increasingly distraught because they can’t provide the quality of education they were trained to provide. This stress is causing many teachers to leave the profession, which exacerbates the problem.

Gil’s promise: As NDP leader, Gil will make the case for a massive increase in new school construction to keep up with Alberta’s booming population. He will also point out that buildings don’t teach kids, teachers do. With that in mind, he will advocate for hiring 6,000 new teachers so Alberta can FINALLY meet the targets for class size set out by the Learning Commission. These clear commitments will help the NDP win the next election, and as Premier, Gil will make sure these promises become reality.

4. Give education workers a raise

The UCP has been trying to break public education by deliberately underfunding it. But they’ve also been trying to break the system by breaking teachers and other education workers. Again, this is a feature, not a bug, of the UCP strategy. How else do you explain the fact that the average educational assistant – a key part of our education system – is paid less than $30,000 a year in the wealthiest province in Canada? How else do explain the fact that many educational assistants and teachers in the province haven’t seen wage increases in up to a decade, even as Alberta records the biggest jumps in the cost of living in 40 years and the highest rate of inflation among all Canadian provinces? Stagnant wages are a concrete example of the disrespect that the UCP directs towards workers in the public education system almost every day. The NDP needs to become an advocate for wage increases in education. This will help win the support of workers – which is key to winning the next election. It will also help secure the future of our public education system. The system cannot thrive if it can’t attract and retain the workers it needs.

Gil’s promise: As NDP leader, Gil will commit to advocating for significant wage increases for workers in Alberta’s public education system. As Premier, he will make a point of budgeting for wage increases that keep up with inflation for ALL public sector workers, and wage increases that exceed inflation for occupations and job categories experiencing acute shortages. Gil will also return full control of their pensions to teachers and remove UCP requirements for the teachers pension plan to use AIMCo as its investment manager.

5. Eliminate public funding for private schools

The UCP’s real goal is to use public money to pay for private schooling, especially schooling that indoctrinates kids with beliefs that make them more likely to vote for conservatives when they reach adulthood. Former Premier Jason Kenney – who never went to public schools himself – was very clear about this in numerous interviews. He blamed declining support for conservative parties among younger voters on “liberal education” in public schools. The result is that Alberta now spends more public money on public schools than any other province. In fact, most other Canadian provinces don’t use public money to fund private schools at all. Danielle Smith has not only maintained this approach, she has expanded it. Under the guise of “school choice,” the UCP, yet again, increased public funding for private schools (this time by 14 percent) while at the same time giving public schools a funding increase that doesn’t come close to keeping up with inflation and the growth in student enrollment.

Gil’s promise: As NDP leader, Gil will prioritize taking on the UCP’s ongoing campaign of funding private schools while defunding public schools. He will expose the “education choice” movement for what it truly is: an effort to use public money to support the pet project of conservative politicians and political parties. As Premier, Gil will eliminate all public funding for private schools, in the process aligning Alberta with the majority of other Canadian provinces who do not use public money to fund private schools. If parents want to send their children to private schools, they will have to pay for it themselves, as opposed to expecting other Albertans to foot the bill. Gil will also tear up the UCP’s so-called “Choice in Education Act,” and return power over approving and overseeing charter schools to elected school boards, as opposed to allowing the unelected boards of charter schools regulate themselves.

6. Fix the UCP’s curriculum mess

Curriculum is at the heart of the UCP’s war on public education. In fact, what they are in the midst of doing with curriculum in Alberta is an example of the old authoritarian political axiom: accuse your enemies of what you are doing yourself. When the UCP was first elected, they argued (with no real evidence) that the NDP had been guilty of “politicizing” the curriculum – but then they moved quickly to politicize the curriculum, themselves. The reason the UCP has been so impervious to criticisms of their botched curriculum is because they never intended to make the curriculum better, just more to their political liking. It’s clear that they are willing to sacrifice the quality of education offered to Alberta students in order to achieve their political objectives of making young Albertans more conservative.

Gil’s promise: As NDP leader, Gil will push hard against UCP’s campaign to politicize curriculum. As Premier, he will return control over curriculum development to education experts, subject matter experts and key stakeholders, including teachers. Curriculum will be reviewed in regular cycles, staggered by subject, so that piloting and implementation does not become too burdensome. The focus will be on preparing Alberta students for success in a changing world, as opposed to influencing them politically.

7. Fund for increasing complexity

Another problem that has been left unaddressed by the UCP is classroom complexity. Not only are classes larger, they are also often filled with students facing a much wider range of challenges – everything from language issues to behavioural issues to health issues. Teachers are expected to deal with this vastly increased complexity with fewer resources and less support. The result is predictable: declining quality of education, increased burnout among education workers and growing concerns about kids falling through the cracks. Safety is also becoming an increasing concern.

Gil’s promise: As NDP leader and, eventually Premier, Gil will take the issue of increasing complexity seriously by doing things like: reducing class size; providing specialized classrooms for kids who need specialized attention; ending the use of “seclusion rooms” and, instead, hiring educational assistants with specialized training in behavioral management.

8. Provide increased funding for ALL education partners

Another way in which the UCP has been trying to break public education is by cutting or freezing funding for the wide array of professionals who support teachers in their work of teaching kids and managing classrooms. The list of professionals and educational partners who are being stretched to the breaking point include, but are not limited to, the following: speech pathologists, social workers, administrators, school secretaries, custodians, maintenance people, occupational therapists and psychologists.

Gil’s promise: As NDP leader and Premier, Gil commits to funding all the support and “wrap-around” services necessary to ensure high quality education to Alberta students, including those with higher needs.

9. Make schools healthier places to work and study

There are many things that the UCP has done to harm the students and staff in our public education system, but one of the worst (and, sadly, one of the least discussed) is their complete and utter negligence on the subject of health and safety, especially in the context of Covid. Experts now agree that schools were – and still are – perhaps the most significant centers for transmission of Covid. They also agree that Covid is not “over” and, in many cases, it is not mild. In addition, they agree that each reinfection increases the chances that a Covid infection will lead to a debilitating case of Long Covid. Finally, they also agree that one of the groups that is most likely to suffer from Covid and Long Covid is education workers, largely because of their ongoing exposure to hundreds of students every day. Not only did the UCP ignore these realities, they have actively been sweeping them under the carpet. They have even stood in the way of school boards who expressed a desire to protect the health and safety of their staff and students. The bottom line is this: the UCP has put interests of ideology, politics and their extremist anti-vax base ahead of the health and safety of Alberta kids. This has to stop. And the NDP has to stop being afraid to talk about it.

Gil’s promise: As NDP leader and Alberta Premier, Gil will look at Covid through the lens of public health and workplace health and safety. As Premier, he would start the work of reducing the spread of Covid by introducing best-practice protections like the following in all Alberta schools; monitoring of indoor air quality; higher standards for ventilation and the filtration of indoor air; the use of mask mandates when conditions warrant it; and providing all staff and students with appropriate masks, free of charge. Gil would also require regular audits of schools to make sure indoor air quality standards are being met.

10. Take action on misinformation

The final education issue that Gil would address as NDP leader and Premier is an issue that, in many ways, is foundational to the UCP’s attack on public education – and that issue is misinformation. Experts and ordinary citizens alike understand that the world is increasingly awash with pernicious misinformation. Trolls, bots, spam, deep fakes. Russians, Chinese, Saudis, political parties, shadowy campaigns funded by billionaires and self-interested corporations. InfoWars, Truth Social, Rebel Media. You name it, there is no shortage of bad-faith actors who are trying to bend the minds of ordinary citizens and influence the course of events. The UCP and its partners like Take Back Alberta both use misinformation from others and generate misinformation of their own as part of their efforts to further their agendas. We here in Canada can and should learn lessons from Finland and other countries that have had to live next to misinformation giants like Russia. The future of our democracy depends on it. And public education can be a big part of the solution.

Gil’s promise: As NDP leader and Premier, Gil would engage the best misinformation experts in the country – some of whom live right here in Alberta – to help develop a course for Alberta schools that will help students recognize misinformation and not be sucked in by it. The focus would not be on censoring content, but rather on equipping our young people to navigate safely and successfully in a world of misinformation. Gil’s goal would be to make Alberta the Finland of North America in terms of equipping its citizens to deal with misinformation.