Calgary

Advocate says UCP plan to revert to old gay-straight alliance rules an attack

Schools under a United Conservative government would operate under rules for gay-straight alliances that were developed before the NDP came to power, says UCP Leader Jason Kenney.

Kenney outlined his party's education platform for the April 16 provincial election Monday

UCP Leader Jason Kenney says he would not cut education funding if he becomes premier of Alberta. (CBC)

Schools under a United Conservative government would operate under rules for gay-straight alliances that were developed before the NDP came to power, says UCP Leader Jason Kenney.

Kenney outlined his party's education platform for the April 16 provincial election at the private Calgary Jewish Academy on Monday.

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He said his government would proclaim the former Progressive Conservative government's Education Act of 2014 to replace the NDP's amended School Act. The Education Act included a provision to allow gay-straight alliances — clubs meant to make LGBTQ kids feel safe and welcome —  in schools if students wanted them.

"We support those as an opportunity for young people who might be facing harassment or bullying to get that peer support and so we will encourage schools to comply with that legislation," Kenney said.

The New Democrats said at the time there were some loopholes in the Tory legislation that some schools were using to delay or deny students trying to set up the clubs. That's why the NDP amended the School Act to take protections for LGBTQ students further.

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A flashpoint of the NDP legislation was a prohibition on school officials telling parents if their kids joined the clubs. Last summer, a coalition of faith-based schools, parents and public interest groups lost a bid to have a judge put the law on hold until there is a ruling on its constitutionality.

Commenting on how a UCP government would deal with any pushback from religious schools on gay-straight alliances, Kenney said: "Our approach would be one of co-operation rather than one of confrontation."

Kristopher Wells, an associate professor who specializes in sexual minority issues at Edmonton's MacEwan University, accused Kenney of taking a "back-door route" to undoing progress the NDP has made on LGBTQ rights.

"This is an attack on LGBTQ rights in the province," Wells said. "It's a move to undermine gay-straight alliances and has the ability to do real harm to LGBTQ students, who remain amongst one of the most vulnerable groups of students in our schools today."

Kenney also said his party would ensure all sex education in the province covered the topic of consent.

Reinforcing standardized tests

While unveiling his party's education platform, Kenney said Alberta needs to reinforce standardized tests so teachers and parents know how students are doing in math and reading.

Kenney said he's troubled by recent evidence of declining outcomes for Alberta students in math and reading.

"It's time to put away the failed teaching fads," he said, promising to end the focus on "so-called discovery or inquiry learning, also known as constructivism."

"We've seen a devastating reduction in math proficiency, or numeracy."

Kenney said a revamped system of standardized testing would help students and parents understand where improvements are needed and hold schools more accountable for sub-par results.

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"We need a system where the report cards sent home to parents are easily readable and understandable," he said.

Support for private, charter schools

Kenney also promised a UCP government would be more supportive of private and charter schools than the NDP has been.

"We will protect the status and funding of independent schools in legislation, given that they save the public system about $168 million a year," he said.

He promised the UCP would lift the cap on the number of charter schools in Alberta and allow charter schools to own property and expand school choice.

"Parents, not politicians, know what's best for their kids," he said.

Kenney also promised that a United Conservative Party-led Alberta government would not cut funding to education.

But the NDP issued a news release in response to Kenney's education promises noting that he has refused to commit to funding 15,000 new students who are expected to attend Alberta schools this fall.

"Earlier this month, Kenney's handpicked education spokesperson told teachers that funding to match growing enrolment in schools would have to wait until oil prices rebound," the release said.

"Last September, the UCP candidate in Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul admitted Jason Kenney's cuts to services like education are 'going to hurt' and would 'absolutely' affect Alberta families."

"Kenney has long looked at education as a place to cut funding. When he was director of the Association of Alberta Taxpayers, Kenney said "Education will be the toughest area to cut, but it will also be the most important," the NDP statement added.

The Alberta Teachers' Association criticized Kenney's plan to lift the cap on the number of charter schools.

"Charter schools, by definition, are public, (but) they really operate like private schools," said ATA president Greg Jeffery. "They don't have that publicly elected board, they have the right of refusal, and that makes them very different from true public schools. So lifting that cap … is problematic because it's taking away from the public school system."

Kenney promised a UCP government would do an audit to investigate why class sizes in Alberta continue to increase despite specifically earmarked funding to trim them.

"Let's dig into the finances, where did that money go?," he said.

Kenney said the UCP would look for efficiencies by cutting administrative overhead and getting those resources to teachers.

Nearly 68 per cent of classes offered by the Calgary Board of Education — across all grades — exceeded target levels in the 2017-18 school year. That's up from 47 per cent a decade earlier, a CBC News analysis of provincial data showed last year.

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With files from The Canadian Press, Kim Trynacity

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