Alberta’s United Conservative Party this week unveiled a 14-point plan to reform the province’s education system if it becomes the government after the April 16 election.
Among the changes being proposed, the UCP would restructure the math curriculum to address what party leader Jason Kenney said was a devastating reduction in proficiency in the subject. The party’s finance critic, Drew Barnes, publicly lamented the fact that, under the NDP, a mark of 42 per cent in Grade 9 math was considered a pass.
“We need to do better,” he tweeted. “That means it has become acceptable for children to not know 68 per cent of the material they are taught in school.”
With math skills like those, Albertans better hope Mr. Barnes doesn’t become finance minister.
But the proposed changes to the math program weren’t at the centre of attention around the UCP’s announcement. Rather, it was news that the party would replace the NDP’s School Act with an earlier version introduced in 2014 by the former Progressive Conservative government. Among other things, the UCP plan would reduce protections extended to LBGTQ students under the current legislation, particularly as they pertain to gay-straight alliances.
GSAs, as they are known, are clubs that offer students who are gay or who are questioning their sexual or gender identity a forum to interact with other like-minded schoolmates. They are considered an important environment for students who might be being bullied, or who just need to know they are not alone in their feelings.
The alliances are also viewed as an important discussion opportunity for gay students who have not come out to their families.
Under the old 2014 law, school officials had the power to inform parents if their child was attending a GSA. This was widely condemned as a dangerous infringement on a student’s privacy rights. There are parents who would not be pleased to hear their child was attending such a club, and who might take their anger out on them in any number of ways.
If elected, Mr. Kenney will allow students to be outed, against their will, if it’s decided by a teacher or principal that it’s in a child’s best interests. I’m at a loss as to what those circumstances could possibly be.
What seems more evident to me is what this is truly all about: an attempt by Mr. Kenney to placate that section of his party’s base that is ultraconservative – a faction that includes religious groups and some faith-based schools who are against GSAs because they believe these clubs will somehow spread homosexuality. (They’ll make straight kids gay!) They want them outlawed. Mr. Kenney’s policy is a backdoor way of doing precisely that: If students feel they could possibly be outed if they joined such a group, then they won’t attend. Problem solved.
It also might just be playing to Mr. Kenney’s own prejudices. He has said in the past that parents have a right to know what’s going on in their children’s lives, unless there is the potential for abuse. (And how is anyone to know for sure how a parent is going to react to news their child is or might be gay?)
He also once urged then-premier Ralph Klein to use the notwithstanding clause to overturn a Supreme Court ruling making it illegal to fire someone based on their sexual orientation – which maybe tells you something about his thinking as well.
Whether eliminating protections now offered to LGBTQ students is a product of his own biases or not, it is a horrible policy, perpetuating the belief that there is something wrong with being gay, or something of which a person should be ashamed.
Mr. Kenney is seemingly not even imagining the need for a gay student to have the protection this privacy offers from a home situation that may not be accepting of this reality, a prejudice that could have violent ramifications.
The UCP Leader needs to be reminded about the high rate of suicide among LBGTQ students, and the unusually high rate of street kids who identify this way. He needs to understand that what he is proposing could very easily exacerbate this troubling phenomenon.
Finally, Mr. Kenney needs to ask himself whether he’s prepared to risk Alberta’s reputation over a move that is small, petty and mean-spirited, all to serve the interests of a close-minded, intolerant minority. Ahead of a provincial election, Albertans need to ponder that question as well.