Thursday, March 21, 2013

What Next for Jeff Johnson, Alberta's Minister of Education?

Alberta’s Education Minister, Jeff Johnson, must be wondering what to do now. Having secured the agreement of the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) to a deal which has some elements they were seeking – a focus on conditions of practice in response to a clear set of data that shows that teacher work-loads are “out of whack” with any reasonable expectation of work:life balance and unsuited to the kind of curriculum transformation needed – but not others, he now is facing a rebellion by school boards.

 Edmonton Public and Calgary Public, who are the actual employers of teachers (the Government are the partial paymasters), have rejected the deal. Other school boards are likely to follow. Alberta has sixty two school boards (in itself a strange thing for a population of 3.7 million) all of whom need to say “yes” to the deal for the deal to stick.

 It is also not clear what teachers will do. The ATA has recommended acceptance but the membership is now voting on the deal and many suspect that the vote will be close.

 But how did we get here?

 Some time ago a former Minister, Dave Hancock, had the basic deal in place that would have settled this over a year ago and before the election. There was a tentative deal in place with the ATA, Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) and the Government. He took it to caucus and the majority party said no. Two education Ministers later, any prospect of a deal with teachers fell apart if it involved the ASBA. The ATA walked away from the tripartite talks.
The Minister, now Jeff Johnson, then, independently of the ASBA (which has no legal standing from a bargaining point of view), offered the teachers a deal which the ATA rejected.
The Minister then drafted a bill to require teachers to accept a deal and legislate a contract, thereby overriding the bargaining process and current employment contracts. Looking at this Ministerial dictatorship and leadership by fiat, the ATA’s leadership determined to fight another day with a playing field they understood and, with intelligent Ministerial leadership, could manage. They backed off, approached the Minister and struck a deal – you can read the details here.

Part of the deal seeks to resolve the workload issue through an “exceptions committee” to review teacher concerns about workload. The tentative contract determines that a teachers classroom time will be capped at 907 hours. In a variety of provisions, teachers concerned about their workload can file a concern and an exceptions committee will determine whether or not the teacher has a case. Workloads and conditions of practice, together with a need for investment in professional development aimed at making the transformation of Alberta schools as envisaged in Inspiring Education possible, were the key issues from the ATA’s point of view. To see why, look at the study by Linda Duxbury of teacher workloads published recently and available here.
The Calgary rejection seems to take offence at the idea that teachers should be professionally responsible for the management of their practice. Making extensive use of the term “visionary leaders”, by which they mean management, they suggest that visionary leaders “know best” and that teachers need to be led, both in terms of their practice and in terms of their professional development. They see substantial “hidden costs” in the operation of the exceptions process, suggesting that they assume they will have a great many of them – which in turn suggests that their visionary leaders care little about the conditions of practice. They also suggest that a great deal of professional development time will be spent by teachers seeking to work on workloads, when in fact that ATA and Calgary teachers in particular want to spend their time on pedagogy, curriculum and innovation.  The Board’s rejection suggests several disconnects between the profession and its management.

 The Edmonton rejection (the Catholic Board has said a tentative yes, it is the Public Board which has said no) is based on costs, process and the challenge to democracy. Their core argument is that the agreement erodes the power of the employer to determine how its employees work and that it undermines democracy – trustees are elected to make education “fit” with local conditions.
These two rejections open the Pandora’s box for legislated bargaining and the creation of a Provincial Super Board for education, with local matters managed by zone leaders. It happened in health care and could happen here. The key advantage of a single employer for teachers at the Provincial level is the reduction of the bargaining cycle and the standardization of the basis for employment. The key argument against it is that is destroys the idea that no two schools are the same and that the management of education is best done nearest to the student.

 Given the Stalinist instincts of the Redford Government, who believe that command and control is the “new black” of management, we should not be surprised if the rejection of the teachers contract by school boards has larger consequences. The Government is already giving them clear instructions on how to reduce their costs.
The Minister sees himself as CEO of a large, multi-billion dollar corporation (he is ex Xerox). If the “branches” of the corporation are not falling into line, the first instinct of such leaders is to reorganize the corporation. With a Premier seeking to show that she can be tough with Unions and determined to be right in both action and ideology, we should not be surprised to see the Government take on the Boards and change their mandates – the Boards owe their entire existence to the Provincial Government.
We can expect fireworks.

1 comment:

oldroyd said...

I read this blog on a big issue for Alberta teachers and their employers on the same day as a somewhat wider-ranging but not entirely unrelated blog from the UK Guardian’s George Monbiot, advocate of distributive justice and fair working conditions along with many other social principles.
The following passage gives a flavour:

I've come to believe that [...] most of the world's people live with the legacy of slavery. Even in a nominal democracy like the United Kingdom, most people were more or less in bondage until little more than a century ago: on near-starvation wages, fired at will, threatened with extreme punishment if they dissented, forbidden to vote. They lived in great and justified fear of authority, and the fear has persisted, passed down across the five or six generations that separate us and reinforced now by renewed insecurity, snowballing inequality, partisan policing.

In the current economic climate the skewed distribution of power between employees and employers is likely to shift further ‘to them that hath’. Monbiot’s reminder of the not so distant past is a broader answer the question “But how did we get here?” Actual slavery, now transformed into wage slavery, preceded even the ‘Stalinist’ or ‘Corporate CEO’ use of power. Centuries or millennia of hierarchy, domination and control of most people by a small minority of self-styled ‘visionary leaders’ is deeply rooted in the psyche of modern workers who have internalised that control and the fear that goes with it.