Part 5: Kenney Escalates His Attacks on Public Education During COVID-19
After taking time to evaluate what has happened to public education around the world, as various governments exploited disasters to push privatization agendas forward in education, from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and even the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, it has become increasingly obvious to us that this is the current UCP government's strategy here in Alberta as well.
If there was any doubt Jason Kenney is exploiting the current pandemic to ram through their conservative agenda, look no further than Sonya Savage, Minister of Energy’s recent comments that made global headlines: “Now is a great time to be building a pipeline because you can't have protests of more than 15 people."
These comments have damaged Alberta’s reputation with negative coverage quickly spreading around the world and are a blatant public admission that disaster capitalism is a strategy employed by this UCP government, and is most assuredly not confined to pipelines.
Attacking Public Education in Calgary
Weakening public education is step one in the privatization playbook. Minister Adriana LaGrange is now well versed in this practice, as she took a swipe at the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) on May 21, with the release of the Grant Thornton independent audit. The audit showed no signs of “reckless spending” as foreshadowed by the minister in November of 2019. Nonetheless, Minister LaGrange accused the largest school board in western Canada of not putting students first, of poor governance, and fiscal mismanagement largely tied to a lease agreement signed back in 2008.
LaGrange’s press conference reiterated time and time again that should the CBE not shape up, she would be forced to dissolve the board by the November 30th deadline. Not even a wince in declaring her power, and willingness, to dissolve a democratically elected school board.
The UCP knows that if the largest public school board in the province can be kneecapped, public education in Alberta will be dealt a major blow.
Of course, that is just one opportunity to undermine public education being explored, and exploited by this current government.
Relaunching Alberta Schools
It is painfully obvious that this government isn’t really interested in implementing a successful school relaunch. If Albertans returned to safe, healthy and successful public schools, there would be no need for “choice”. A return to school from COVID-19 is now the umbrella under which this government can erode public education, and create a market for privatization.
It doesn't really matter what standards exist for public schools come September (or whenever they open) - there will be a sector of society that will have no choice but to attend. Those who will have to send their kids to overcrowded, understaffed, under resourced schools during a pandemic because they are poor, because they have to work, because the rent is due.
Those who can afford to stay home, or to enroll in online charters or private schools will be the ones who have a choice.
"Choice" in Education
Public education in Alberta is not immune to disaster capitalism. Later this week the Choice in Education Act will also be tabled. Expected to be a highly ideological piece of legislation that will undoubtedly take full advantage of the current crisis to further weaken public education in favour of privatization disguised as choice.
There is little doubt the ‘Choice in Education Act’, combined with the current pandemic and the push for online schooling will pave the way for online charter schools.
When this government and other conservatives around the world speak about choice, this is what they mean; they mean the privilege of choice. Choice for the privileged while cutting public education for everyone else.
Their goal is to use school conditions as a centrifuge to separate those who can afford to leave, from those who cannot. To make public schools a place for the poor, and the marginalized, with private or online education for everyone else.
A Fork in the Road for Public Education
Weaken school boards, fire trustees, provide vague and ill-defined policy around a school relaunch, all while pushing forward a “Choice in Education Act”. It is a roadmap to undermining public education in Alberta.
COVID-19 (and all disasters) are seen as an opportunity for those looking to undermine our public education system. Jason Kenney and Adriana LaGrange know this.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
We can choose differently. There are other options present.
When schools reopen, we can ensure our students, who have sacrificed so much during this pandemic, go back to the kind of public education they deserve.
More on what that looks like, very soon.
*The Alberta Federation of Labour is producing a blog series which looks at what happens to public education during a time of crisis. We will evaluate what the Alberta government is doing during this global pandemic, and examine how governments can choose to either strengthen our public system, or use a time of crisis as a catalyst to attack, undermine, and privatize our public education This is Part 5 in the series.