Sunday, October 10, 2010

State of the Rose: Education

What's remarkable about the June AGM shots that Anderson and Forsyth took at selected party platform planks that predated their parachuting into the party is how their chosen targets match those of their PC caucus colleague Gene Leskiw (right). Go after the party's free speech plank calling for the repeal of Bill 44's section 3? check. Complain about the "allow individual workers the choice to determine their membership in labour organizations" plank? check. Leskiw's complaint that "[t]he only MLA in the party speaks of limiting teacher’s right to strike to weekends and holidays" is revealing in that this sole MLA was Paul Hinman, yet in the pre-AGM materials the motion to have this right to strike limit struck was attributed to "the caucus." This suggests that Hinman, the only caucus member to campaign for Wildrose in the last election and, later, be elected under the Wildrose banner, has either been co-opted or marginalized as a "caucus" member by Anderson and Forsyth. What about Leskiw's rant about Wildrose promising "standardized annual testing of students and teacher quality"? "This comes straight from George Bush’s American plans for school improvement," she protests. At the June AGM Anderson and Forsyth essentially spelled each other off as they went to the microphone to speak out against planks the teachers' unions don't like. Although I didn't recognize him at the time, teacher union lobbyists present at the AGM (the Provincial Executive Council of the ATA sent seven of their members) recognized another speaker who wanted to protect the teachers' union right to strike as social conservative John Carpay, now Wildrose's candidate for Calgary Lougheed

Perhaps Anderson and Forsyth would like to issue a press release that comments on this letter signed by more than a dozen US school district superintendents and supervisors, which complains of the "glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher". As an interviewee in Waiting for Superman, which is now showing in US theatres, observes, "[t]he teacher's unions are a menace and an impediment to reform." One can quibble with the film saying it oversimplifies, just as I would quibble with Wildrose's education policies by saying there should be more specificity with respect to using objective data in teacher assessment, such as a call for exploring value-added models (VAM). But the film's main thesis, that the effectiveness of the teacher is the major determinant of student academic progress, is supported by the evidence.
Jay Greene, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, is but one of several education scholars who have exposed the belief "that vouchers do little to help students while undermining our democracy" as a myth. According to, a paper by Stanford economist and Hoover Institute fellow Caroline Hoxby that demonstrated that competition among public schools benefit students and taxpayers has been cited 689 times. Matthew Ladner has noted that "choice faces formidable political enemies," and indeed it does, when even a Wildrose MLA has called on supporters of this supposed pro-market party to treat vouchers as a "red flag." On top of this, there is a very simple retort to Gene Leskiw's remark about George Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, and that's that Barack Obama's Race to the Top program takes a page from the same "standards" playbook. Is Obama yet another right wing ideologue?

In any case, current Wildrose education policy as recently announced by the leader mentions testing only to say that current provincial achievement tests should be killed off. While an unspecified replacement is proposed, the replacement is to be developed by "working with teachers." To anyone inclined to interpret this as anything but a union accommodation, note that the process of acquiring insight into what politicians really believe (if anything) requires a certain hermeneutics. One must start with the realization that most political decisions involve some sort of trade-off between interest groups, and that politicians will try to minimize the reality of a trade-off as much as possible in order to be all things to all people. One thus needs to suss out who will get the actual concrete result they have lobbied for, and who will get the dog and pony show. In this case, terminating the PATs is a real substantive victory for the teachers union and the key member of their braintrust on the issue Alfie Kohn. Nowhere in the platform that Wildrose members had an opportunity to vote on is it asserted that the PATs are "outdated" or "inadequate", as current Wildrose policy declares. Indeed, for all the talk about how Wildrose is under the influence of right wing think tanks, axing the PATs is directly contrary to what Michael Zwaagstra has called for at the Frontier Centre. A nod is made towards the annual testing called for by the membership-reviewed party platform, but, again, when applying the principles of politi-speak hermeneutics one must look not for who is getting the "yes" (everybody gets the "yes" from a politician), but for who is getting the "no." In this case, it is clear that the party leadership is trying to give the "yes" to the union lobby to the maximal extent possible that continues to allow deniability that the other side is getting a "no". Where's our standardized testing (full disclosure here: throughout my education career standardized tests were a big boost to my academic record and/or reputation)? "Oh, the tests will remain, in fact the fox is in the henhouse right now developing them!" The proof in the pudding here is the fact that testing opponents actually get argued with instead of quietly accommodated in the remarks of red Tory and current Education minister Dave Hancock, with Hancock fingering anti-testing ringleader Kohn as "dogmatic."

In the photo (right) that Alberta Union of Public Employees' Committee on Political Action released of COPA's meeting with the "Wildrose caucus" on February 23, conspicuously missing is principled conservative Paul Hinman. Heather Forsyth featured in an AUPE press release to help make the union's case against the PC government and at about the same time Rob Anderson appeared in a United Nurses of Alberta release. In January, Danielle Smith had her own meeting with AUPE's president (photo left), with the AUPE subsequently asserting that the Wildrose leader "was receptive to union concerns." In order to advance his thesis that a Wildrose government would take a hard line on unions, AUPE communications person and St Albert-based blogger David Climenhaga was reduced to drawing on a statement by the loser of last year's Wildrose leadership vote, Mark Dyrholm. The result? Wildrose's rise having such a negligible impact on public policy that the union lobby declared victory after the government's February budget: "The budget is something of a victory for [our] coalition"

With respect to Wildrose's post-secondary education policy, it's more financial obligation on the government, less on those who consume a government-subsidized service, and fewer resources for the in-deficit provincial Treasury. The policy calls for mandated tuition caps, a philosophy rather at odds with the idea that the market should determine price levels. A consequence of the cap is that either our universities will have their funding reduced, or the Alberta taxpayer will have to contribute more. Increased tax breaks for private donations are also talked about, but donations of securities, for example, are already tax free.

Don't get me wrong here: there are problems with just demanding more standardized testing, amongst other things. But what's missing is any sign that the union lobbies, and more generally those with claims on the public purse, are going to be challenged.

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