Stripping Alberta Teachers' Association of discipline role a serious mistake

What the government is proposing may accomplish partisan goals, but only at the expense of much broader and more important issues in the field of education, writes former Alberta education minister David King.

Province's plan would have a multitude of unintended negative consequences, says former minister David King

Alberta's Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced in December that she plans to split the Alberta Teachers' Association in two, by removing teacher discipline from its mandate. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

This column is an opinion by David King, who served as Alberta's minister of education from 1979 to 1986. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

In December, Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange announced her intention to bring forward legislation this spring that would strip the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) of its professional role related to policing teacher conduct, to either take on that work through government or pass this role to another, as yet unknown, agency.

She cited the case of a Calgary teacher who was disciplined by the ATA in 2006 and against whom additional allegations have come forward regarding the sexual abuse of  students – allegations which had not surfaced in the 2006 hearing conducted by the ATA.

LaGrange said that it has become clear that the ATA cannot continue to investigate and prosecute complaints against its members while representing their economic interests. She argued that this was a conflict of interest which makes Alberta an outlier and proposes to remove the professional role, leaving the ATA as an exclusively "union" organization. 

I contend that this would be a serious mistake, with a multitude of unintended negative consequences and no material upside. 

I served as minister of education in Alberta for seven years and I, too, wrestled with this issue. I chaired Canada's Council of Ministers of Education, and also had responsibilities related to other professions and occupations in Alberta. I understood what was done for other professions here and for teachers elsewhere. In fact, I moved three times to modify the functions of the ATA, albeit without splitting it into a separate union and professional regulator.

Alberta's situation unique

Alberta is relatively unique in having a single organization that represents both the professional and economic interests of teachers. My experience tells me that this is a significant contributor to Alberta's long-standing and well-deserved reputation for excellent education. 

First, the ATA has a very solid process in dealing with complaints. I won't detail the errors and omissions made recently in commentary from some other former ministers, but the substance of the process is solid, and separation will not result in any material improvement. Quite the contrary.

There can, and should, be incremental improvements to the process, but real improvement will come from more faithful adherence — by administrators, trustees and department officials — to the process already in place. I have personal knowledge of discipline failures that resulted from inaction or inappropriate action by police, system administrators and others. 

But discipline is a red herring, and I want to raise another issue that, in my experience, is more important and immediate. 

The ATA is different from other professional associations with these dual, apparently conflicting roles, but it is unique because teaching is a unique vocation. Doctors, lawyers, accountants and nurses are not entirely employed by a local government and they do not stand in loco parentis to those they serve. The government must do everything in its power to maintain the emphasis of teachers on their professional role. Their economic interests are entirely legitimate, but as a public we want those interests to be secondary to professional interests. 

ATA not just a union

For years, teachers have served on curriculum advisory committees with enthusiasm and energy, bringing valuable knowledge, experience and good motivation. They organize annual professional development conventions for all the teachers in the province. For many years, the ATA has paid more attention to the future of education than the government of Alberta has. The ATA has also done more than other educational institutions to foster connections with educators in other parts of the world. 

When I was minister, it was virtually forbidden to refer to the ATA as a "union," although economic interests were (and are) a legitimate part of its role. Sometimes, the economic interest did dominate, in a specific situation, for a brief period of time. But more commonly, it was the professional interest that dominated and I found, as minister, it was always helpful for me to be able to call the ATA back to professional ground when the economic-interest ground got tough. The ATA could never act solely on economic-interest grounds because they felt their professional obligations too strongly. 

There are Canadian provinces that have separated the professional role from the economic-interest role. I feel confident in saying there is probably no minister of education, in any other province, who would say the outcome of separation has been good for education. 

It is far better to encourage teachers, always, to think of themselves as professionals, and have the government and the public hold them to that standard, than to give free rein and emphasis to the economic interest and marginalize the professional development and maintenance role. 

What the government is proposing may accomplish partisan goals, but only at the expense of much broader and more important and enduring issues in the field of education.

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David King was Alberta’s minister of education from 1979 to 1986. He was also the minister responsible for implementation of the province’s policies regarding professions and occupations, and is a past chair of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada.


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