The province’s long-awaited Education Act promises to give schools the tools they need to deal with bullying, compel students to stay in school longer and modernize the province’s legislation, said Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk as he introduced the long-awaited bill on Tuesday.
The new bill came after months of consultation and after an earlier draft was introduced last year before being withdrawn in the fall.
Lukaszuk said the School Act, which the new bill will replace, was written for another time and needed a complete update.
“We have come a long way from the one-room prairie school house,” he said. “We have even come a long way from the 1988 School Act when Calgary hosted the Olympics, when the Soviet Union was just opening up the economic system and when, frankly, I was graduating high school.”
After pulling the act in the fall, Lukaszuk went back to the public, hosting town halls and encouraging written submissions from students.
“I firmly believe that is the most important piece of legislation that a province can ever have,” he said.
Among the changes are a requirement that students stay in school until they are 17, up from 16 under the current legislation. The bill also raises to 21 the age students can stay in school without cost.
“Completing high school is the bare minimum requirement of completing education and [these changes] will compel students to do that,” Lukaszuk said.
The bill also makes a change to the way school trustees are elected. In most of the province separate school trustees are elected by Catholics, because in most of the province separate schools are Catholic schools.
The bill will no longer force members of those separate school communities to vote only for separate trustees, instead allowing them to vote for their public school trustees if they choose.
“We are making sure in this particular piece of legislation that public school trustees can be elected by anyone,” Lukaszuk said.
It is unclear what the impact will be in St. Albert where the public board is a Catholic board, but Lukaszuk said a different piece of legislation on the Morinville school issue, which he intends to introduce soon, will likely be proclaimed at the same time as the new Education Act and should resolve any issues.
Preventing bullying is also a major focus of the new act. Lukaszuk said the bill will promote a unified approach to the issue and give schools the power to deal with the problem whether it occurs on school grounds or not.
“We will have an overarching definition of bullying,” he said.
Lukaszuk is also promising a voice for students at the provincial level with a new council he intends to establish.
He also hopes to take aim at long school bus trips to and from school, which in some parts of the province can stretch for hours.
“I find it disheartening that young students like this would be spending two hours on a bus each way – that is up to four hours in a day,” he said.
He said where geography poses an unstable challenge, he wants to see solutions that make better use of the long trips.
“We are looking at how we take the quality of time a student spends on a bus and perhaps improving it and turning it into instructional time,” he said.
The bill will now go before the legislature for debate. With an election looming and the provincial budget taking up a great deal of the legislature’s time, Lukaszuk said he remains confident the bill will be passed during this session.
“I will do anything in my power to work with all the opposition parties to give them any information that they need and work with them on any amendments that come forward so this bill can pass,” he said.
Local school board chairs Joan Trettler and Lauri-Ann Turnbull were still studying the bill as of press time. Many of the bill’s implications won’t become clear until the province brings out its regulations, said Trettler, chair for St. Albert Protestant Schools.
The effect of the change in voting rules is uncertain, with the public board being Catholic and the separate one Protestant, said Turnbull, who chairs Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools.
“If you are anything but Protestant [in St. Albert], you can [already] run for our board,” she said.
A person must be Protestant to run and vote for the separate school board, she added.
Regarding the bill’s emphasis on bullying prevention, Turnbull felt that anything that gives students more protection against bullying is a good thing.
“We take bullying very seriously in our division,” she said.
The bill features a formal definition of bullying (meant to apply to all schools), and requires all schools to create student codes of conduct that address it. Those plans will be submitted to the province, which will create common punishments for bullying.
St. Albert Protestant schools have been dealing with bullying inside and outside of school for years, Trettler said, and already have a student code of conduct.
“Trying to get a handle on it is very difficult,” she said, as many of its victims are reluctant to report it.