Last week, Education Minister David Eggen put forward a plan to introduce a bill that would make it a crime for all schools – including private, independent, and Christian Schools – to communicate with parents if children in those schools decide to join so-called “Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs”, or if those children admit to struggling with gender identity issues.
The bill is expected to be introduced before Christmas.
On the feature interview this week, a conversation with Keith Penner. He’s the principal of the Living Waters Christian Academy in Spruce Grove, near Edmonton.
LN: The new developments in Alberta in the past week; they’ve been coming for a while. Fundamentally, what’s new in what the Minister is now saying?
KP: What is new is that he has decided that doesn’t (presently) have the legislative authority to do what he’s wanted to do, and so now he’s going to propose legislation to give him(self) the authority to do what he wants to do. And what he’s proposing is based on a lot of misinformation, and we wish that the other part of it would get out.
LN: So what is “the other part”? What’s really happening in private schools in terms of “safe and caring policies”, as he calls them?
KP: Well, he’s mentioned in the press that he’s been consulting with schools, and that we have been refusing to provide “safe and caring school policies.” This is false. We have safe and caring school policies. We submitted our policies to the government in March of 2016 – well over a year ago – and we have heard nothing from the government regarding these policies. Our policies clearly state that we will provide safe and caring support for all of our students. Our policies define bullying, and (specify) that it will be dealt with appropriately. And they also clearly state that all actions, programs, and policies will take place within the framework of the faith and community values of the school. And this is why parents choose to send their kids to our schools. Because they agree with – they value – the approach that the schools is taking. And so our policies state that we will use that as the way we support schools and work with parents.
That is what he doesn’t like. Because we’re not saying that we’ll do it the way he wants to do it; we’re saying we’ll do it to reflect the parental values and the faith community that parents have chosen. So for us, it’s a question of – really – integrity, and (of) what works.
LN: The Minister says that these schools are not supporting students. Is that even fair?
KP: No. Alberta Education’s own survey data clearly demonstrates that independent schools have higher-than-provincial averages for satisfaction from students, parents, and teachers regarding their safety, their culture, (and) the support that there is for students within these schools. Independent schools are monitored regularly by Alberta Education, and Alberta Education regularly puts in writing – in their feedback – just how great the culture is. How positive and supporting it is for students in these schools.
LN: So the Minister says he’s going to amend the School Act to make it illegal for schools to “out” students who want to join a GSA or something like that. Fundamentally – just review it for us again – why should we be concerned about this?
KP: Well this is something that I believe is deeply disturbing, and it should be for all Albertans; and actually all Canadians. The Minister is threatening to impose legislation that makes it illegal for schools to communicate with parents. Well, studies – and of course common sense – tells us that students thrive most fully, they’re the healthiest, through all of the challenges of growing up and becoming adults, when they have the support of their families. Any law that places institutions over family – that means even schools over families – any government that assumes from the starting line that families are not safe or that they’re dysfunctional or inadequate to support their own children… (that) should be deeply, deeply disturbing to society. We know that there are families that are struggling. And there’s already legislation in place to support children who may be in a threatening home environment. But for the government to assume as a default that families are dysfunctional and that schools must not – that it would become illegal for them to – communicate with these families and with parents? We should be at our heart just deeply disturbed and resisting this. It’s not a good trend.
LN: I have to ask. Is the minister ratcheting this stuff up because he thinks it’s a politically popular thing to do? I mean, is there any evidence that this notion of stripping parental rights has broader public support outside of the LGBTQ and trans community?
KP: Well, I don’t think that he has the support beyond his own little room of counselors. Albertans in general believe in family. They believe in parents raising their kids to be healthy and successful and thriving. And this idea that “the government knows best” is really not popular. What’s happening though is (that) the message is being engineered and twisted. The rhetoric is divisive. It’s meant to put people in a defensive position.
If you come to somebody and say: “So you think it’s OK to ‘out’ students?” Well, everyone is thrown back on their heels and goes “Well that’s such a negative concept.” The real issue here is “Should the government be allowed to withhold information from parents when their child is struggling?” That’s the real key question here, and the answer to that is unequivocally “No! They should not be allowed to do that.”
LN: We’ve all heard the old saying that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” What’s the response to the notion that along with government funding – and independent schools in Alberta and home schoolers as well get considerable government funding – with that funding comes a certain right by the government to impose certain restrictions.
Should Christian schools or home schoolers be prepared to walk away from that government funding in exchange for more parental freedom? Is that what this is going to come down to?
KP: Well there again, we’re talking about a complex question. The Minister just recently made this one of his points. “They get public money, therefore they must abide by the law.” Again, not a lot of clarity or recognition that the complexity of it is (that) independent schools and home schoolers are providing the safest, most caring environment for their kids. So the idea that the government would really bring out a big hammer and say, “If you don’t abide by our new laws and restrictions, we’re gonna pull the funding”, is sad and unfair.
To be put in a position where we have to say we forego any funding to provide this quality education; I think that becomes a very, very sad state for Alberta and for freedom and parental choice and all the things we value as Albertans.