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Failing grade for minister

Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson is on a mission. He believes that any organization with 35,000 professionally-certified employees — such as the public school system at 62 school boards across the province — is bound to contain a few duds.

Johnson wants to find those duds.

In the past 10 years, not one Alberta teacher has been fired for incompetence. There have been those extremely rare instances of professional misconduct that ended up in the legal system (think sexual interference). But no member of the Alberta Teachers Association has ever been found to be such a bad fit in the classroom that the employer needed to let them go.

School board members — the teachers’ direct employer — might (or might not) tell you that sometimes teachers are quietly asked to retire, resign, take long-term disability or be outright paid to leave. Once this process is completed, both sides sign legal non-disclosure agreements; that’s why they might not tell you about it.

That’s because it is far cheaper and easier to buy a resignation than undergo the convoluted and costly process of legal documentation needed to justify complaints of incompetence or poor professional conduct against an ATA member.

It’s like once a teacher gets that professional certification, you’d almost have to kill someone to have it revoked. That certification is there for life.

But you just can’t have 35,000 human beings performing vitally important and extremely complicated tasks involving children from God-knows-what family backgrounds mixed together with kids with special needs in overcrowded classrooms that have far too few supports and not have a few failures. Spectacular failures, actually.

Mathematical probability demands it.

At least, that’s how Johnson and a lot of critics of the current system see it.

Yet, by standards recognized around the world, Alberta’s public education system works. Works very well, in fact. You can’t be a global leader in public education from kindergarten to Grade 12— as is the case in Alberta — without a consistently strong staff base.

So that’s why the teachers union — along with a lot of others — don’t trust the motives behind the minister’s demand that all our school boards cough up private dossiers on all their teachers who have ever been subject of a complaint in the past 10 years.

The ATA has lodged a complaint of its own against the ministry with the government’s privacy commissioner, Jill Clayton. That ought to clog the wheels in Johnson’s plan for quite some time.

But Johnson remains adamant. Tick, tock. Johnson wants those files by July 11.

More, Johnson appointed a task force that reported last month, with recommendations that teachers submit to formal renewal of their certificates every five years.

We’re told other jurisdictions do this. Like New Zealand and several states in the U.S. Let’s see, the U.S. is ranked where, somewhere around 62nd in the world for the quality of its public education system, and Alberta — at No. 3, is going to emulate their professional practices?

How’s that working for them down in Michigan? Teachers happy, feeling the love, there?

Other recommendations from the task force suggest a program of mentorship for new teachers (with time and resources for that paid, of course), and financial rewards for high performers (likewise paid extra, not taken out of existing classroom supports, right?).

But anything that costs more money isn’t going to be part of Alberta Education’s plans. Just the get-the-teacher thing.

Bottom line: this is going nowhere. The long-governing Conservatives are having a leadership battle right now and no candidate is going to alienate 35,000 well-organized, well-educated voters.

Campaign leader Jim Prentice has already come out publicly against any plan to require teacher recertification. And that demand for private employment record dossiers? Forget about it.

Johnson claims that although school boards are tasked with hiring and firing, he’s in charge of the school boards. He says he can dissolve any board that doesn’t comply with his directives.

Go ahead and try. His ministerial power, plus five bucks, will get him a latte in a coffee shop somewhere, where he can contemplate the end of his political career.

In a short time, Alberta will have a new premier. Then we will have a new cabinet. In a short time after that, we will have a general election — the first in living memory whose outcome is uncertain.

As much as Jeff Johnson would like it, the time period going forward is no time for the Tories to create blood enemies among teachers, civil servants, doctors, nurses, health-care support workers or long-term care staff. Or among Albertans who feel these workers are important to Alberta’s future.

This is a summer squall that will soon blow over. Johnson needs to ensure the rain doesn’t all fall on him.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email

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