Alberta education minister pledges nation-leading school curriculum for reconciliation

Alberta’s education minister says the province’s new K-12 curriculum will lead the country in how it addresses reconciliation with Indigenous people.

Statement comes as Northwest Territories reviews whether to continue using portions of province's curriculum

Education Minster Adriana LaGrange said Alberta schools received funding this year for students who never materialized. This additional money should be adequate to absorb additional costs, she said. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Alberta's education minister says the province's new K-12 curriculum will lead the country in how it addresses reconciliation with Indigenous people.

Her statement comes as the Northwest Territories reviews whether it wants to continue using portions of Alberta's curriculum, as it has done for decades.

"We are going to have very, very strong First Nations, Métis and Inuit content," Adriana LaGrange told a legislative committee reviewing the education budget on Wednesday. "We will have probably the most comprehensive curriculum across Canada in terms of reconciliation."

LaGrange has been adamant a new provincial school curriculum will contain lessons about the dark history of residential schools, Indigenous history, Black history and anti-racist education since government-solicited curriculum advice leaked last year.

The future curriculum has been under fire since advisers handpicked by the government recommended delaying lessons about residential schools or other negative impacts of European colonization until students were in Grade 9. They also suggested young children memorize lists of historical dates, and slashed out learning outcomes connected to Indigenous traditions, calling it "mysticism."

The minister's office did not answer questions by deadline about what would make Alberta's new curriculum among the most comprehensive in the nation to advance reconciliation.

At Wednesday's all-party committee meeting, Opposition MLAs tried, unsuccessfully, to get a dollar figure from LaGrange about how much money is allocated to implement the new school curriculum and where that funding is coming from.

Teachers have raised concerns that they will need professional development time away from class, training, new resources and new exams in order to bring the new curriculum to life.

About 10 per cent of school divisions will pilot the new K-6 curriculum starting next fall, and teacher participation will be voluntary, LaGrange said. The teachers testing the curriculum will provide feedback to the ministry, and an updated curriculum will be mandatory in all elementary school classrooms by fall 2022, she said. Upper grades are rolling out in subsequent years.

LaGrange said the public will have to wait until the latest drafts of the K-6 curriculum are released publicly before she reveals how much the government plans to spend on resources, training and new exam development.

She said those drafts will be released within weeks.

All funding for implementation will come out of the education department's budget, not from schools, she said.

However, budget documents show her department's spending is slated to rise by $26 million — about 30 per cent — over the next three years, while money destined for schools and boards will drop by $26 million over the next three years.

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said those figures show the government is reaching into schools to pay for the project.

Troubling enrolment dip

The minister also revealed final school enrolment counts that showed more than 24,000 students who were expected in Alberta schools did not materialize.

LaGrange said school authorities and the ministry expected 730,030 students this year, including those enrolled in homeschooling. A final count showed 705,917 enrolled.

Many of those missing students were prekindergarteners and kindergarteners whose families didn't enrol them in those optional early learning programs.

With the ministry projecting an enrolment rebound of 20,000 more students next fall, NDP Children's Services critic Rakhi Pancholi said the budget should be preparing schools to receive thousands of young students who are not as developmentally prepared.

"Those are critical early learning years, and I think we should all be concerned that that's where we saw the most significant drop of numbers of children engaged in quality early learning and early childhood education," Pancholi said.

LaGrange's office did not answer a question on Wednesday about why her enrolment figures for the 2019-20 school year are not the same as figures the government has posted online.

Although LaGrange said the enrolment decline is expected to be temporary, many school boards say they were forced to shut down dozens of prekindergarten classes this year after the government cut program unit funding (PUF). The funding paid for additional help for young children who have severe disabilities or language delays.

On Wednesday, LaGrange highlighted an additional $40 million — about a three per cent increase — for a $1.3-billion fund for learning supports in schools. This budget line includes money to help students with disabilities, who are learning English as an additional language, to fund school nutrition programs, and bolster schools in low-income areas, among other needs.

LaGrange wouldn't say how much of that $40 million extra was for PUF. She said she would make those decisions in the coming weeks after hearing from school authorities.

The minister also said school divisions would not be penalized for their falling enrolments during COVID-19. Although she has pledged every board and charter school would get at least as much funding as they did the previous year, the government has not yet released the dollar amounts destined for each board.