The provincial government introduced what it is calling the Parents’ Bill of Rights in the Legislature on Thursday. The bill is an amendment to the Education Act and outlines specific rights parents will have regarding their children’s education.
While much of the discussion, and controversy, around the bill is about the requirement for consent if a child wants to be called by a different gender-related preferred name or by a different pronoun, and the use of the notwithstanding clause to keep it from being challenged in the courts, it also includes a number of other rights for parents. This includes language that states parents are the primary decision-makers when it comes to their child’s education, that they have access to their child’s school file, that they receive information regarding the courses their child is taking, and to be informed of any attendance problems of their child.
“The majority of what seems to be included in the press release on this new legislation is already either in the Education Act or is in policy as current practice,” said Keith Keating, the Director of Education for the South East Cornerstone Public School Division when asked what the differences are between the existing legislation and the proposed amendment to the Education Act. “I think the major difference appears to be the policy regarding pronouns and name changes for trans youth. We have always had a default position in this school division that parents should be involved regardless of age in these discussions.”
Keating went on to explain the current policy used by the SECPSD on the issues concerning gender identity.
“One of the first questions that’s asked by schools is, do your parents know? And if they don’t, can we help you in having a conversation with them?” Keating clarified. “The only time we wouldn’t have shared that information in the past is when there was a safety concern for the student. I can only think of a handful of occasions in my many years of education, and most of those cases would have been for students over the age of 16.”
With strongly worded language used by the provincial government, as well as proponents of the amendment, in recent weeks, Keating expressed concern that the message being inferred is that the default position of a school is to not involve the families of students in the educational decisions.
“I think the exact opposite is true,” Keating elaborated. “We want involvement from families and parents in the child’s education. That’s why schools have things like SCCs (School Community Councils), student-led conferences, report cards and the Edsby program that allows parents to see all assignments and attendance at school.” He added they have Safe School handbooks published on all school websites, and there are many activities and events specifically designed to try and bring parents and families into schools.
“We know it takes a village to raise a child, and we know if the home, the school, and the community work together, our students have better outcomes,” he continued.
As for the policies already in place, Keating explained they haven’t really had any issues come up that aren’t already addressed in the current rules.
“We have the legislation which guides us, and then we have policies and practices designed to ensure we’re in compliance with the legislation that’s set out in the Education Act and its regulations, and then principals and school division officials monitor these pieces on a regular basis to make sure that we are.”
Bill 137, which contains the amendments to the Education Act, will be the subject of debate in the legislature for 40 hours over the course of the next two weeks, which is double the time normally allotted for the debate about a bill. The bill also has the notwithstanding clause attached, which exempts the act, if it passes, from certain Charter challenges. The decision to have this included was announced by Premier Scott Moe shortly after a decision was released last month by the Court of King’s Bench that granted an injunction on the policy the bill is based on pending a judicial review. It would also be just the second time in the province's history that the notwithstanding clause was used.
The provincial government has maintained the impetus for the initial policy, and now the bill, containing the changes was from parents who had reached out to the government formally and informally. To date, the provincial government has yet to disclose how many parents have officially asked for the bill to be introduced. In court, however, it was revealed that 18 letters were received by the provincial government prior to the introduction of the policy in August, with seven of those being from parents.
The debate in the Legislature over the new bill is expected to last for the next week.
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