Policy critic says outreach programs a fine balance

With the spring sitting of the Alberta legislature starting this week, education will quickly become a focus as cabinet minister Thomas Lukaszuk introduces his newly-drafted education act.

In crafting the act, Lukaszuk said he looked to parents across the province for advice on policies as well as the positives and negatives of the current system. Lukaszuk held community forums in addition to a teleconference last year to hear people’s input.

Parents will have another opportunity to give their opinions on Feb. 8 when the minister holds a second teleconference open to citizens across the province.

Alberta’s Minister of Education, Thomas Lukaszuk, has been working to consult parents and citizens on his new education act. One of his initiatives is the “Engage with Alberta Education” website where parents and students can submit their ideas to the government.
Screenshot by: Laura Lushington (Feb. 6, 2012)
“I think it’s been favourably welcomed by parents; certainly the participation was good on the first one,” said Leslie Newton, president of the Calgary Association of Parents and School Councils.

“And I think they appreciate having that direct line into the minister’s office.”

The first teleconference, held last year in late November, had over 1,000 parents on the phone at one time. It worked by having groups of parents dial in; Lukaszuk then answered as many questions as he could in the hour and a half time frame. Registration for the second teleconference can be done online.

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“It’s not managed by anybody, they can raise any issue they want and everybody hears everybody,” said Lukaszuk, who added that he expects a higher turnout for this teleconference.

He said the first conference dealt with issues the new education act will address, such as transportation and the availability of schools, and that he expects this conference to be more about the budget. However, parents are free to ask anything they like.

“That’s what makes it a really good discussion because as parents ask questions, other parents get to hear the question and the answer,” he said.

Newton said she hopes to ask Lukaszuk about his 10-point education plan released in January. In particular, she said she would like to address dual credits for high-school students, where they would simultaneously gain credits in post-secondary programs.

She also said she hopes people are having conversations with their school councils and coming up with different ideas to discuss.

“Hopefully [we will] get a good variety of issues addressed,” she said.

How to take part in the teleconference:
1) Register online here

2) Receive an email with the number to call and your passcode

2) On Feb. 8 at 7:30p.m., call the number given and use your passcode

Note: It is recommended parent and school councils get together and dial in on one phone. This reduces the number of lines in use but maximizes the number of people participating in the teleconference.

To hear the first teleconference click here

Lukaszuk has also created a newsletter and a website, “Engage with Alberta Education,” to create a relationship with parents so they could share information with each other.

“I also wanted to make sure that parents realize that they are a vital component in the education system, that the education of a child is not solely the school’s responsibility but it’s a communal responsibility,” he said.

On the website, there is a forum where citizens can share their ideas on education, as well as connect to Alberta Education’s Twitter and Facebook pages.

Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University, said that the outreach programs by Lukaszuk and the government could mark a new direction for the province.

She said she believes that the transparency and openness shown by Lukaszuk “could generate good will toward the government, support for the general direction it is moving and certainly support in votes in the next election.”Thomas Lukaszuk, minister of education, will be holding a teleconference on Feb. 8 to consult with parents on the province’s education system.
Photo by: Geoffrey Picketts

“Well, I think they do want it to be meaningful discussion,” she said. “They’re not just wanting to increase their temporary popularity. It’s not going to work for them if they promise something and they don’t deliver. It actually hurts more than helps.”

The danger to these public consultations, Williams said, is that they could raise people’s hopes and expectations too high.

“It will certainly be a test of his skill as a politician as to whether he can sell the compromises that everybody is going to have to make and actually delivering on the demands that are being put in front of him,” she said.

Lukaszuk has also reached out to students for their opinions. He has asked elementary students to send him pictures or letter describing to him what they would do if they were minister for a day. Lukaszuk said he has gotten thousands of responses and is just starting to read them now.

llushington@cjournal.ca